Humpty Dumpty’s 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 white town.’

“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.

                                                         -Children’s Nursery Rhyme

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 and Montenegro.

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 name). (http://emperors-clothes.com/articles/kneisel/RomaView.html)

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 Roma garb.

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 large.

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