Castles and Roma
By Jheri St. James
Mateo Natividad, his wife Karin Radermacher, who
works at the German Embassy in Belgrade, and their Serbian friends
Nikola Vranich and his wife Ivana Andjelich, were our soil collectors
in this land of enduring warfare and change. This is their story
by Mateo Natividad:
White City, the Heart of Serbia
“When not even a week
in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, I came across the www.commonground191.com
website, I knew right then I wanted to participate in
this visionary project. Collecting the soil sample was easy but to make it
meaningful for the purpose of the artist needed something of
significance. As a Filipino-American,
retired US Army officer and dependent spouse of a German diplomat assigned
in Belgrade, my wife and I have no connection to the former
Yugoslavia other than
our being here. We needed a connection or better yet, needed to act as the
conduit between the artist, Gary Simpson, and someone truly
representative of this country,
a couple born and raised in Belgrade, the heart of Serbia-Montenegro. Karin
and I were very fortunate to have Nikola and Ivana Vranich
as our friends. Since
we arrived in August 2005 they have been very helpful, hospitable and friendly.
Considering them to be the typical modern Serbian couple, this is a very
favorable first impression of this country and its people indeed
and will surely enjoy
our four years here.
“On the way to Kalemegdan fortress where
we intended to take our soil sample Ivana was saying, ‘You
know, when we were young children in school, our teacher told
us about how this place became known as the white city.’ And
Ivana continued, ‘You know, ah, ah, Kako se kaze (how do
you say it)?’ muttering and gesturing trying to come up
with the right word, so I said, ‘A long, long time ago?’ ‘Yes,’ she
replied, ‘in the old times, one of the best ways to travel
is by boat. Those traveling along the Sava River and also the
Danube River pass by here where the two rivers meet,’ pointing
down at the confluence where the Sava merges with the Danube. ‘When
the people looked up at this place up on this hill they saw mostly
white against the background of the blue sky and the green of
the trees. So the people called it ‘Beograd’ meaning
“Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade has a very
long history, going back at least to the castrum (castle) of
Roman times. Destroyed several times by successive waves of invaders,
it was rebuilt as a castle by the Byzantines in the 12th century.
Under Serb Despot Stefan Lazarevic, Belgrade became the capital
and the fortress was strengthened, with the Despot’s palace
built within. A medieval town grew up within the walls of the
lower fort. After the conquest of Belgrade by the Turks in 1521,
the fortress decayed, but was restored as a military stronghold
by the Austrians in the 1700’s and is now a popular tourist
destination. It contains Roman ruins, a Roman well, the tomb
of a Pasha, the most ancient gates of the Despot, the clock tower,
the People’s Observatory and the monument a la France,
as well as the statue of Mestrovic and three museums. A small
well-kept and entertaining zoo is visible from the fortress and
below the ramparts one finds a park with several remains of Turkish
times such as the Amam, now transformed into a planetarium and
the hexagonal tower of Nebojsa kula, a Turkish prison with a
grim history of capital executions.
“As we continued walking to the rock face
where I intended to collect the soil sample, I realized that
however long ago this story was told, it is in some way still
true today. Predominantly from the Danube side when one looks
closely at the rock face of this promontory upon which Kalemegdan
Fortress stands, the soil constitution is mostly yellowish whit
clay loam. Depending on the time of day, this rock face which
towers above the rivers reflects the rays of the sun, still making
this hill look white even now against the background of this
brick fortress and concrete buildings beyond. Belgrade, even
after all and despite of its violent and turbulent past is still
truly a White City.”
* * *
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Out of 155 countries reviewed last year, Serbia-Montenegro
was named among the “12 most reformed places to operate
a business” by both the World Bank and the International
Finance Corporation. In the 188-page study, Serbia-Montenegro
led the way in overhauling its policies, improving in eight of
the 10 areas the report examined. That’s the good news.
The bad news was reported by the newspaper Serbianna
in this headline on Sept. 17, 2005: “Charges Against Serb
President Could End Union.” The name Serbia-Montenegro
replaced “Yugoslavia” in 2004. Its member states
have virtual independence but share a common government, parliament
and military. Relations within the country have been tense, with
Montenegro pushing for independence from the union and Belgrade,
the capital, seeking to prevent it. “We must all acknowledge
that an illusion called the state union is bound to fail,” said
Miodrag Vukovic, a member of Montenegro’s ruling Democratic
Party, also stating that the clash between Serbian Finance Minister
Mladjan Dinkic and President Svetozar Marovic (a Montenegran)
served as a proof that the union was seriously flawed.
Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija in all south Slavic languages)
is the term used for three separate but successive political
entities that existed during most of the 20th century on the
Balkan Peninsula in Europe. Translated, the name means Land
of the South Slavs (jug in the word Jugoslavija means south).
The first was a kingdom formed in 1918 as the Kingdom
of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed the Kingdom
of Yugoslavia in 1929 and existed under that name until it was
invaded in 1941 by the Axis powers.
The second was a Socialist state established immediately
after World War II in 1945 as Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (DFY),
which in 1946 became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia
(FPRY) and in April 7, 1963, the Socialist Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia (SFRY). This remained in place until 1992 by which
time four of its six constituent republics—Slovenia, Croatia,
Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina—had seceded.
The third was called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
(FRY) and was formed in 1992 on the territory of the remaining
republics of Serbia (including the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina
and of Kosovo, officially known as Metohija and Kosovo) and Montenegro.
In 2003-2004, the name Yugoslavia was officially abolished when
the state was transformed into a loose commonwealth called Serbia
The name “Yugoslavia” has had a lingering
death: The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia first officially
ceased to exist on April 28, 1992, when the Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia (FRY) was formed. Other dates that are frequently
considered the end of SFRY are June 25, 1991, when Croatia and
Slovenia declared independence; October 9, 1991, when the moratorium
on Slovenian and Croatian secession, agreed on July 9 at Brioni
by representatives of all republics, was ended; and January 15,
1992, when Slovenia and Croatia were internationally recognized.
As a result this historical transformation, the country of Serbia
and Montenegro is only two and a half years old at this writing,
one of the newest countries on earth.
Located in southeastern Europe, Serbia-Montenegro
borders the Adriatic Sea between Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina,
a land slightly smaller than Kentucky. Other bordering countries
are Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia and Romania; Croatia,
Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina having once been part of the
shrinking, nay, extinct Yugoslavia. “All the king’s
horses and all the king’s men” will never put this
Humpty Dumpty together again.
This is a land, a soil that has known much bloodshed
in the 20th century. The real philosophical foundation of our
work at Common Ground 191 is to go under the surface bloodshed
of the earth, to contemplate the tectonic plates and magma below—the
place on our “blue marble” planet where all land/soil
is united as one—“Common Ground”. Even as the
entity Yugoslavia disappears as the union of many adjacent countries,
there will always remain that place of common ground beneath
the political and geographic boundaries.
Serbia, with cold winters and hot, humid summers,
is located in the northernmost part of the country. In the central
portion, a continental, Mediterranean climate enhances the landscape;
and in the south along the Adriatic Coast in Montenegro hot,
dry summers and autumns and relatively cold winters prevail,
with heavy snowfall inland. The terrain is as varied as the weather.
The north boasts rich fertile plains; the east is constituted
of limestone ranges and basins; the southeast undulates in ancient
mountains and hills; and in the southwest, an extremely high
shoreline is found with no islands off the coast.
Serbia/Montenegro is a country of diverse people
as well as geography. Ethnic groups include Serbs, Albanians,
Montenegrins, Hungarians; and religions are adhered to by Orthodox,
Muslim, Roman Catholic, Protestant worshippers. The orthodox
monastery of Ostrog is the most frequently visited one on the
Balkans. It is visited by believers from all parts of the world,
and represents the meeting place of all three confessions: the
Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims, because it is believed that
the enshrined body of St. Vasilije Ostroski performs miracles.
Many pilgrims claim to have been cured and blessed by praying
to his body. It contains two small chapels within the cave itself.
Thirty percent of the people in Serbia/Montenegro
live below the poverty line, and unemployment is approximately
50% in Kosovo. The life expectancy at birth is 74.73 years, and
the median age is 36.79 years.
* * *
“One of the difficulties people in the U.S.
have thinking about the Balkans is a lack of historical understanding
of the players. If someone said he saw Black Southerners applauding
at a KKK rally, everyone in the U.S. would know he was making
it up. But with the Balkans, Americans don’t know the map,
which allows the media to tell stories which are largely fictional,
stories in which black becomes white.
“One of the best political ‘indicators’ in
the Balkans is the Roma, or as most people know them, the ‘Gypsies’ (the
term “Gypsy” has racist overtones; Roma is the proper
Yugoslavia had one of the largest Roma populations
in the world. The 1981 census officially recorded 168,099 Roma
in the country, but unofficial counts estimated the gypsy population
as five to six times larger. These people suffered many serious
social problems, and intolerance of these mobile, creative people
by other ethnic groups was still prevalent in the northern parts
of Yugoslavia in the 1980’s. A high percentage of Roma
were illiterate or had only a few years of primary education.
Despite government attempts to lure them into schools and paying
jobs, many have continued to live a nomadic existence as traders,
beggars, and fortune-tellers. During the 1980’s, large
conventions periodically demanded full recognition of Yugoslav
Roma as a separate nationality; the federal government reached
no decision on their proposals, although some concessions were
made. Meanwhile, the Roma have undeniably added a unique element
to Yugoslav culture: Gypsy musicians played at most weddings;
and Roma street bands played music for handouts on holiday weekends.
Some of the chilling titles in a PEN anthology
of Yugoslavian Gypsy writers edited by Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd
and Rajko Djuric foretell the Roma stories of this time, including: “The
Terror Years,” “A Wedding in Auschwitz,” “From
Prayer of an Impious Father and Gypsy Mother” all by Rajko
Djuric, and “We did Not Break our Century-Old Drums,” by
Alija Krasnici. These writings document the “cleansing” of
Roma peoples from the region. Hitler did not commit genocide
only against the Jews; the Nazis endeavored to physically eliminate
many peoples and ethnic groups. The Roma know what fascism is
all about, for the Nazis killed them in the death camps.
The effects of Roma culture remain visible. In
Balkan folk garments, for instance, Roma influences can be seen.
Traditional costumes that use pantaloons are using Roma style
garments worn by gypsy women. Perhaps some of the magical beliefs
attached to various garments are also the product of Roma influence.
Some believe that embroidered edges of skirts, dresses and socks
can protect the parts of the body accessible through clothing
openings from evil spirits. Scarves are an integral part of Balkan
dancers and musicians. While contemporary Western clothing is
the norm throughout the Balkans, elders may include one piece
of traditional garb such as a skirt or scarf as part of their
everyday wear. Scarves usually signal marital status: after puberty
and after marriage, the colors or style of scarf or cap may change.
The colors of embroidery thread used as embellishment are traditionally
representative of a certain region. These elements are seen in
The Kalemegdan Fortress, Common Ground 191’s
site of Serbia-Montenegro’s soil seems to this writer to
be a testament to human endurance—and evolution. That fortresses
become museums, castles turn into astronomical observatories
and clock towers, and war sites become tourist destinations speaks
to the healing power of time. At the time of this writing, 10/2/05,
the L.A. Times Travel Section headlined “Understudy to
the Riviera,” featuring Montenegro as a tourist destination.
The kind of memorial that Natividad, Karin, Nikola and Ivana,
and all our soil collectors within Common Ground 191 are creating
is one step to the transformation of the mind of mankind. Gary
Simpson’s project gives us pause to respect the horrors
of the past, even as we work to keep from repeating them, both
in “Humpty Dumpty” Yugoslavia, and in the world at
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