Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
The Boiling Pot Called Skopje
Skopje is a boiling pot, its citizens often say as the they gasp the air of the hot summer heat, unaware in fact, how right, metaphorically, they really are.
And Skopje is truly a boiling pot. First and foremost, geographically. Skopje is a caldron situated in the shadows of the mountain range of Vodno, Matka, Kitka and Crna Gora, where everything moves in an unusual whirl: the air that descends from the adjoining heights and circulates the caldron valley, becoming hot and rising, only to return and somersault once again on the neighboring hills. From an urban landscape point of view, also, for this is a city of disheveled buildings stretched out along its trajectory.
Historically, this is a region of perpetual simmering – from the early times of prehistory, through the distant reigns of Dardania, Rome, Byzantium, to 518 AD when its worthy urban ancestor Skupi was vaporized by the whirl of tremors caused by a catastrophic earthquake; later too, when the imperial community of Justiniana Prima was laid out on its lap; in medieval times, when Tzar Dushan made it its imperial seat; in the historical backdrop of the Balkan Quatrocento, when instead of the dawns of western renaissance, humanism and rationalism dusk set in, bringing the scent and music of the desert winds and the impending doom of the half-crescent moon that rode on the sabers, the passions and the belligerent cries of the Turkish conquerors.
This was the definitive prelude to the all out Balkan fate of cultural dualism that Skopje has boiled in ever since; in the 18th century, when the Austrian General Picollomini “liberated” the impressive city in which equally impressive church bells were replaced by minaret spears that pierced the skies of Skopje. He burned the city literally making the Skopje caldron a “hostage” all over again. Skopje continued to simmer and once again it boiled over when the peasant leader of the Macedonian rebels Karpoš was put to cruel punishment and impaled before the eyes of the city that has a long memory and disturbing recollections. Later, toward the middle of this spend and tired century, during the times filled with new passions and йlan, it became the capital of the new Macedonian state. It has remained so up to this present day, when it is witness to celebrations and protests that make our blood boil, just as our ancestors, following not the quiet rhythm of the our hearts, but once again the disquieting beat of history.
Furthermore, Skopje is a caldron because the people of the city are placed in a middle of a never-ending, combustible commotion; ultimately, this is also due to the earth itself, that is known to rattle and shake on occasion. Skopje is a place created for whirls. Condemned to disquietude. And, to change.
This is why, it is above all, a place laden with – memories.
The reign of nostalgics
If one were to think about it, one would inevitably come up with the romantics, the dreamers, the yearners, the people that belong the Skopje nostalgia community as its “most Skopje” category. “Nothing unusual about that”, the skeptic would say, for nostalgia is the unavoidable decor of cities, the ideology of local-patriots and traditionalist, even an essential pose of old city cafe dwellers and voyeurs, who always and each time over, know to administer it in the right, delicate and animated doze… And one would be wrong! Because the nostalgia of Skopje dreamers is particular. It is of a purely spiritual and personal nature. It is completely immaterial in composition, because the urban substance (that would serve to support it) has simply vanished.
When the Stockholm, Prague or Belgrade nostalgic reminisces, the buildings and edifices of the city serve as a concrete motive and material inspiration. Their silhouettes magnify, and at the same time merge with the real contours of the city, casting upon the onlooker the nostalgic shadow of the Secessionist period. A Parisian is further supported by a profusion of literature. For the contemporary Roman citizen, the edifices and the legend of the Eternal City are still beheld by the eye, while the Athenian has practically the foundations of the western spirit and history at plain sight, supported by the Doric colonnades of the still erect Acropolis and the unreceding strength of the myth…
Unlike them, “the Old Skopjan” draws material for nostalgic yearning from personal and collective — memories. The Old Skopjan digs through memories. He does not live in an eternal, nor even a long-standing city. For the past three decades, he has been living in, what is for the most part, a vanished, or a lost city. Unlike other citizens of the world, a Skopjan fantasizes about his city. It is not out there for him to touch.
35 years ago, on 26 June, the scourge of an earthquake pulverized the extensive continuity of Skopje as a city. On that day, the history of an altogether different city began. A city of disparate urban(istic) discontinuity. When five years ago I wrote the screenplay for a multimedia piece dedicated to Skopje entitled Memento for a City, I couldn’t get out my head one sentence from a short story called The Wooden Bridge of Childhood by Dimitar Solev: “It doesn’t even cross the mind that you will live in the same, yet altogether different city”. This is the basis, the ontological truth of Skopje. As I saw in the moisture eyes of the people after performing our Skopje Memento…, approaching us to share their re-veiled melancholic nostalgia and sorrows, awakened for the audience of over 1,000 viewers, once again in a reminiscent summer, 30 years after…
The stage director Dimitrie Osmanli multiplied it through the scenic performances of the artists and the video beam for which he had re-edited passages from his numerous films (feature films, documentaries, TV films, reportages) dedicated to Skopje, and this was embraced by a whole team of diverse Skopje nostalgics: legends such as the vocal veteran Ljupka Apostolova singing the melodies of our jazz pioneer Dragan Gjakonovski-Shpato and the actress Milica Stojanova, the second generation jazz lovers Ljubomir Brandzolica and Aleksandar Dzhambazov, two rock generations – the first of the legendary bands “Magnifico” (Mexican music in the stile of the Fifties) and “Bis-Bez” (first domestic rock’n’rollers of the Sixties), together with the representatives of the new actors’ generation — all of them re-shaping the vanished city spirit and people, each of them in his own way. The Skopje way. All of them with their own memories of that city. Skopje that disappeared in 1963.
The rehearsals of this piece dedicated to the traumatic memories of the lost city supported by the documentary material were relentless confrontations with an extinct, former reality that used to be and yet still is, on video beams and projection screens. All this created a parallel “Memento” of Skopje, embodying the new way the material was experienced and numerous individual discussions. Just as the citizens of that other Skopje, a different, half-city came to life. This discrepancy between the two cities laid out over the same space was strongly felt even by the youngest of the team. This is the most important trend that we are undergoing today: a recognition, a dramatic and elementary urban anagnoresis between the young citizens and the true City. A remembrance of an unknown space, a memento of a city that has not been experienced and is yet one’s own!
This rich and individual energy emanated by the lost city, has after all, visited us before, in the most diverse forms: reminiscences, lyric tremors and quivering mementos…
A city built in imagination
Skopje after 1963 has the quality of being recreated in the most diverse ways, depending on how it was experienced. Befitting the particularity and force of the nostalgic yearning.
In his book The Taste of Peaches Vlada Urosevic experiences the city as a wondrous, light and prosaic painting, created by mellow rays of light, the euphoria of bemused youth, the play of sun light, the transparent images of vibrating summer air and the odd aftertaste of dramatic surprise caused by the earthquake. In his Stories of Skopje, Skopje is a surrealistic city — before, during and immediately after the earthquake. In the same way that it retains a realistic and intimate structure in the modernistic narration of Dimitar Solev. Yet, it is also a place of peculiarity, human destines, miracles and secrets, as in Slavko Janevski and his extensive, early and perhaps most deeply experienced cycle of prose dedicated to Skopje, for Gogo Ivanovski and his melancholic A Street That Meant Life, for Ivan Tochko and his intristic lyric and modernist prose collection The Premiere…
This city is the cause for post-earthquake moral and psychological confrontations in the The Paradox of Diogenes, and traumatic catharses and lyric reminiscences of the House of Four Winds by Tome Arsovski. Skopje is the shattered dream of Mateja Matevski’s poetry, the place of accumulated layers of historical recollection in the poetry of Blaže Koneski, yet also an unusual and singular center of society in the prose adventures in his Diary of Years Long Gone. This is a city with a unrelenting force to acquire Skopjans, as in the book of poems with the same name by Gane Todorovski, a metaphysical monument to the strata of centuries in the poetry of Mihail Rendzhov.
In his drama of nostalgia Long Play Goran Stefanovski sees the city being torn between the prospects it offers as a scanty society that is just beginning to open up, and the wishes and the fantasies of the young generation of the era of the Beetles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Dillan and Tom Jones. Recently, in one of those “personal views on Skopje” Goran’s uncle, the veteran of theater Riste Stefanovski, let out his tears of pain in the lost river of his youth: “Even to this day, the river Vardar draws me – he writes – Sometimes, to this very day, I plunge in to feel the coolness of the water…” Yet, one does not plunge in the same river twice. This is a different river that is but a reminder of the one that is no longer there. As Heraclitus' fate of time. And Heraclitus' essence of this City.
Skopje is the keeper of stirring adventures depicted in the refined prose of the lonely rambler of its past, writer and chronicle Danilo Kocevski. Beloved home and the setting for the modernistic, individual plots in the prose of Blagoja Ivanov, a singular setting for all kinds of post modern erotic recollections in the prose of Aleksandar Prokopiev; for unlived memories, a Skopje that the young ethno-rock writer Sasho Gigov-Gish yearns for; and the place setting of living, painful, social dramas and metaphorical associations by emigrants from the abandoned Aegean as in the work of the writers from Aegean Macedonia, such as Tashko Georgievski’s We Beyond The Damn, or Ivan Čapovski’s The Wooden Bridges of Skopje…
Not to mention the pastel depiction of the melancholic Skopje of yesteryear, as created by the brushwork of the veterans of Macedonian art – Pandilov and Belogaski; the hues of the environment, the temperament of the people and landscapes on the left side of the river Vardar that are born from the expressionist pallets of Nikola Martinoski and Tomo Vladimirski; the post-earthquake painters of the landscapes of the old Skopje as is the case of the canvases of Branko Kostovski and Mitrev, that continued to depict the lost city even after it vanished, resorting to motives from old photographs and memory.
In short, the one and only Skopje that vanished is the core recreated in various works; thus, Skopje becomes the setting that assumes authentically human, at times historical, at others extra-temporal, sometimes local, frequently cosmopolitan, on occasion sentimental, even national characteristics and meaning.
Skopje is a myth, it transcends time, it is an imaginary creation that resembles the one imagining it.
Finally, it is the setting of dreams. Of my dreams too, that appear invariably, as an unusual, alterable, amalgamated collective prose recollection as in my collection of short stories The Butterfly of Childhood, even in the screenplay of the film The Mirages of Skopje, or a transcendental setting for the sentiments in which sparks from the past ignite, as was the case this summer in my theater piece Light-bugs in the Night in which my city vanished.
The citizen called (the old) Skopjan
On the day of the earthquake, Skopje experienced two catastrophes: one brought cataclysmic agony by taking 1070 human lives and many of its characteristic buildings, edifices and entities; the other, with the effect of a social bomb with delayed ignition, embodied in the first post-earthquake immigration influx, that brought two new “provincial towns” in the one and authentic one that numbered around 250,000 people.
The first catastrophe forfeited entire urban institutions of Skopje: the Officers Hall, National Theater, National Bank, Natural Science Museum, the two post office buildings, the Macura and Krango palaces, the Passageway, the pompous modernistic buildings like the administrative facility across the Assembly building, the Government building, the Rectorate, the Railway station, the Freedom square, many private houses in the center and in surrounding neighborhood, new high-rises, whole districts… and it forfeited the material urban foundations of the traditional city.
On the other hand, the immigration wave swept away the authentic spirit of Skopje. Having come from various parts, the new inhabitants of Skopje brought with them the specific characteristic of their place of origin — mainly the folklore spirit and rural mentality. En masse. Slowly but surely, the city lost its identity. The old boiling pot melted with the new, twice as strong social and spiritual essence. Skopje became a multi– folklore mosaic made up of its new inhabitants that were citizens of Skopje in name only, remaining prisoners of their homelands where they left their modest possessions, memories, their loved ones, and their hearts.
Yet, even with such high costs, Skopje was never inhospitable. This city has always been among the most open: actor Todor Nikolovski, an accepted honorary citizen of Skopje and a contemporary of this century that is coming to a close, recounted to me very vividly a whole range of acclaimed names and personalities that came to Skopje in the period between the two World Wars and later; some of them left, yet most of them fell in love with the city and stayed. Skopje was one of the most characteristic cities on the Balkans. A city of communication and junctions. Its historical openness made Skopje a urban, cultural and ethnic alloy of all expected and unexpected, exotic conglomerations: Macedonians, Turks, Serbs, Vlachs, Romas, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Albanians… being its smelting and well blended components. At that time, one came to Skopje in need, out of need, but out of want too. On an even keel. Gradually…
Following the Earthquake Skopje became the smelt of a new, impoverished social alloy; now of less, yet more numerous components. The Jews were deported during the Second World War, leaving the toponym of the Jewish Neighborhood as a ominous monument of their extinction from the multi-ethnic map of the city. Toward the middle of the fifties, many indigenous Turkish families were pressurized into moving to Istanbul, and many Muslim families from Sandzak came to Skopje for the same purpose. They arrived to Skopje in order to move on, yet they remained as new migrants. In the second way of migration, many repatriated Macedonian families from Aegean Macedonia came to Skopje from the countries of Eastern Europe. Slowly, yet surely, the Armenians, Russians, even Vlachs from Skopje melted away. An unceasing flow of thousands of members of the Albanian nationality from Kosovo came to Skopje. The boil of migrations created an altogether new picture of the city: Skopje ranks number one in terms of the number of Macedonians who live there, but also of Albanians and Romas. The city of international solidarity became an Open City. A kind of post-earthquake rupture, like post war Rome in Rosselini’s surrealist film. The former (city of international solidarity), by choosing of the cosmopolitan support for the distraught Macedonian and (third in size) Yugoslav center; the latter (City Open to Migrations), they say, by the will of the formerly very influential politician Edvard Kardelj from Slovenia. A situation much contrary to that of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where the closed concept of a Central European city with authentic values and merits still prevails.
The problem is that in choosing the city they did not choose the way of life of the city. Just the opposite. They brought to the city their rural views, demeanor, values and habits. Thus, the city was inhabited by the village. A civic dwelling inhabited by the proletariat. The Center by the Provincial. The authentic “third” and later “quarter” of the traditional (and true) Skopje withdrew within itself, and later in the memories of decaying characteristics, buildings, merits and distinctions; it began nurturing and suffering from the various forms of the affliction of the myth of the “Old Skopjans”.
I personally like this myth. I contribute to it. I believe that Skopje must find its own authentic loyalties and renew its traditions. I even believe that this renewal should include the rebuilding of some of its lost capital structures. Although I was born in another city, I grew up in Skopje. Although this is now a different City, albeit all, I am deeply convinced that the problem of the urban identity of Skopje can be resolved by all of its inhabitants together. Under one condition: that we all see Skopje as our city, while our places of birth remain merely our place of origin; for the purpose of accepting its traditions, characteristic, authentic spirit, in order to adopt its identity. In short, in order to feel, to experience and to create Skopje as our city.
This kind of attitude that can holster hypocrisy. Unless we start belonging more and more to the city, every individual act and conduct will be but futile and unfortunate scraps of villages left behind; nor will the village take root in the urban space, nor will it live in that urban center.
A caldron all over again
The high price paid is already visible on every step. This is a disproportionate, non– individualized city that still functions according to the collective principles of social, status, professional, political and ethnic forms of socialization founded on the mentality or logic of “village meetings”. Of the rural and collective spirit. While the city, contrary to the village, is a complex and harmonized complex of individuals. At least in the European sense of the word.
Much unlike this, Skopje remains and is once again a boiling pot on the Balkans. Full of vivacity, different people, a duality of cultures, national palettes, but also of national imbalance, of movements crosswise and lengthwise, dynamic and open, full of problems and contradictions, at times on the rim of bursting open, at others wonderful and diverse. At times uncertain to the verge of exploding, while at others still transparent and full of ordinary, noble, human dreams.
Skopje is a nostalgic perplexity, diachronic fiction, an authors’ inspiration, a flowing idea, a city of missing presence that simmers with us in the real caldron of the times.