TE21 Serbian Moments
an online quarterly journal with some of the best new literature from Europe
is a publication of
Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138
Contents Editors’Welcome .................................................6
From Elsewhere in Europe Kristin Dimitrova “The Smile” (short story)........................100 Nikola Tutek “The Widower” (short story)...................118 Andrea Scrima Like Lips, Like Skins (novel excerpt)......168 Nana Ekvtimishvili The Pear Field (novel excerpt)................192 M. Caterina Mortillaro “Virtual Truth” (short story)...................212 BackMatter .......................................................230 About the Artist......................................232 About the Authors..................................234 Acknowledgements................................238
Serbian Focus Dejan Tiago Stanković
Zamalek (novel excerpt).............................8
Breathing Technique (poetry)..................24
Darko Tuševljaković “Where are you from?” (short story).......52 Ana Ristović Directions for Use (poetry)......................64 Nikola Lekić Society of Free-World Receptionist (novel excerpt)..........................................80
Trafika Europe 21 —Serbian Moment Editors’ Welcome Take a moment to indulge in this issue with some real treats from Serbian literature accompanied by a sampling from elsewhere in Europe. We begin with Dejan Tiago Stanković whose novel Zamalek won the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature. The work transports us to Egypt, sharing stories and experiences that he gathered during a long stay in the capital city. Marija Kneževic ’s poetry collection, Breathing Technique , centers around how to sustain life both physically and emotionally. She addresses current issues that affect the globe while remaining ever so human and individual. EUPL-awardedauthor DarkoTuševljaković ’sshortstorytakes place over an eighteen-hour plane ride as two men meet by chance of being placed next to one another. Similarly exploring divides of public and private, poems from Ana Ristović ’s collection, Directions for Use , explore the eroticism, feminism, and solitude hidden beneath the surface. Kicking off the works from elsewhere in Europe, Bulgarian author KristinDimitrova ’s short story, “The Smile,” askswhat it means to smile and bury a smile as the protagonist processes the loss of a mother.
Croation author Nikola Tutek ’s short story, “The Widower”, narrates the intimacy of a family struggling through losing the matriarch of the family and trying to move forward with life. Then, there’s a novel excerpt from Andrea Scrima ’s Like Lips, Like Skins . An expat from New York City living in Berlin, she explores ideas of return, foreignness, and identity between both of her worlds. Georgian author Nana Ekvtimishvili ’s International Booker longlisted novel, The Pear Field , tells an endearing story of hope seen through the eyes of two children. Ending off the issue, Italian author M. Caterina Mortillaro ’s short story, “Virtual Truth,” supplies an action-packed, surreal look at a man whowants to leave his planet and just get his feet off the ground. So take a moment and enjoy this wonderful selection of literature.
Andrew Singer and Clayton McKee, Editors
We’ve got some great related audio episodes you’ll want to check out on our Trafika Europe Radio! Here is some more info on that!
Dejan Tiago Stanković
Zamalek (novel excerpt) Dejan Tiago Stanković
Dust Whichever side it blows from, Cairo’s is a desert wind and it brings so much dust that it gives life a dusty taste; even when you get used to it, it is not pleasant. That is why the Bedouins wear scarves both summer and winter. It is not the first thing a newcomer notices, but Cairo does not have rainwaterdrainage, there is not asinglegutter in its streets, not a drainage pipe on its roofs, because it isn’t necessary. The rain, if there is any, falls no more there than it does in that part of the desert. Sometimes, in the winter, there is a sprinkle of rain but the drops evaporate as soon as they hit the dry ground, they don’t even have time to forma little puddle. There is never a real downpour in Cairo, unlike Alexandria, where the heavy rainclears thedust fromtheairand theearth. Maybeonceevery several years there will be a bit more than a drizzle, enough to wet the asphalt and create such havoc in the traffic that the city comes to a stop until the roads are dry, which happens quickly. Quickly, because the air in Cairo is so dry that when you step out of the shower or swimming pool, you don’t have to towel yourself or change out of your swimming suit. When you wash the laundry, you hang it on the line and before you turn around
Dejan Tiago Stanković 10
Dejan Tiago Stanković
it’s already dry. If you leave fresh fruit in a bowl on the table, by the next day its skin is all wrinkly. If you leave the window open, even high up, half an hour later you will be able to write your name on the dusty table. Powder-fine particles of dust slowly accumulate, drawing a pale film over the city which homogenizes everything visible into one, giving Cairo a pale hue. The dust creates a film on the windowpanes, and the treetops become white as if sprinkled with flour or cultivated next to a stone quarry or cement works. It is only twice a year, when the young shoots and flower buds start toblossomon the trees, that fora fewweeks thegreen loses its ashen hue and shines in the sun, but soon a homogenizing filter of pale desert dust covers the new leaves until, inshallah, the next vegetative season. Taher maintained that Cairo would be buried under the dust that falls on the city night and day were it not for all the people who walk in the streets and constantly move the dust, carry it on the soles of their shoes, the horses on their hooves, and the cars on their tires, thereby clearing it off the roads and streets. Without the people and animals of Cairo, the desert would slowly, particle by particle, engulf the city.
Nabila is a pretty name. It means Noble.
I have to admit, the promise that I would have a maid was a strong motivation for me to agree to moving to Africa. It was not until I arrived in Cairo that I realized that I would have never been capable of coping and running the house on my own, even if I had given it my all. Going to the market, bargaining, ordering things on the phone, haggling with the deliverers and shoving baksheesh into their hands were things I was simply unable to do, especially at the beginning, when I had little understanding of the language and could barely speak it at all. Anyway, the flat was too big for me to maintain on my own; somebody had to wipe off all that dust. It turned out that it was not so easy to find that somebody. Although working for foreigners was one of the few jobs where women earned more than men, we couldn’t find anyone trustworthy, because, as we were told, honest Egyptian women did not like going into service in other peoples’ homes. As a result, in many Egyptian homes, the servants were men. A specialized agency advised us to take a Philippine girl, but as they were chronically in short supply we were placed on a waiting list until someone from the Philippine network of
Dejan Tiago Stanković
maids in Cairo was left jobless or until, inshallah, more were imported. We offered to pay good money and they promised that they would try tofind us an impoverishedwidowordivorcedwoman and soon they brought us a mature woman, Eba was her name, a refugee from Sudan, who was ready to work for us provided she was not left alone in the house with my husband. We paid her more than other people paid their servants, but at first I was embarrassed by how little it was; later I got used to it, as I did to everything else. Eba stayed with us for a long time, she schooled her children, saw them married off, eventually retired and went to live with her son and daughter-in-law. At first, one housekeeper wasn’t enough, so we proceeded to look for a nanny, without any luck, until, as on so many other occasions, Taher came to the rescue. He asked around and a few days later brought us a young girl who was ready to work for us and live in the flat. Nabila had never worked outside of her own house before and she had no references except that she was a distant cousin of the man who collected the rubbish from our building. Taher explained that the family was dirt poor, that they didn’t know what to do with yet another daughter, and so they sent her to the city to work as a maid. Nabila was fifteen when she came to us. Scrawny, dark, curly- haired, she was very frightened, spoke only in a whisper, didn’t
know a word of English but was a fast learner. The one thing that took her time to learn was to start looking me in the eye; it took years. At first, she cried at night, but we didn’t know that it was because she was already on her own, she had nobody but us. Nabila was a Copt and had a cross tattooed on the back of her hand. She was born on the other side of the Nile, on the edge of Cairo, at the foot of the Mukattam Hills, in an area where the Zabbaleen or garbage collectors live, where trash is sorted in the high-rises and pigs are raised on the roofs, fed with scraps of food found in the rubbish. The place stinks to high heaven and is disgusting, I’ve been there a few times, and that was in the winter when the smell isn’t too bad. I never understood how the people there could stand that putrid stench and didn’t die from all that horrible filth. All the stories about servants in Egypt are more or less the same, they sound like tales from bygone times: the servant is brought into the house while still a child and serves the family for the rest of its life, forgets who it is, where it’s from and what its true role is in the household. So it was with our Nabila. My daughters in the meantime finished school and got married, we changed jobs, moved overseas, while she, knowing the ways of every member of the household, catered to them, she knewour likes anddislikes and took care of us as if she were our eldest unmarried daughter. Each of us looked to her for help or advice and she helped
Dejan Tiago Stanković
everyone, never asking anything for herself, saying nothing, just smiling, as if her reward was being able to take care of others, wanting nothing in return. I often had a guilty conscience. In honesty, my Nabila had given up a life of her own for us – I don’t like thinking about it, but it’s the truth. Taher did not sharemy thoughts. Hewould say that the day she met us was the happiest day in Nabila’s life, that it was as if she had won the lottery when she came to us and that because of our good deed she was our ticket to heaven - her family hadn’t wanted her, they had written her off when they sent her to us, she had had no future and nobody had ever loved and taken care of her the way we had. But how could it be that she was all alone and had nobody? Was it possible that they had forgotten her? Taher assumed that she simply shared the fate of many young girls: when they are little they playwith a boy, usually a relative, and when word gets out, regardless of whether she has been dishonoured or not, it is she, of course, who is blamed, she is cast out into the world and forgotten about. I didn’t believe him, but I never asked Nabila about it. In any event, it became clear over time that she had no one but us and we accepted the fact, we had no choice but to take her with us. It was a natural thing to do but it also proved to bewise – we are old, admittedly we could still cope on our own, but she
takes care of us in our old age better than our own daughters would. We are family, not even blood ties are as strong as those created between people living under the same roof, people who share salt together. My daughters are her sisters, and my grandchildren are her grandchildren. In a way, Nabila loves me more than my own children do, and she certainly understands and respects me more, especially now that I am old and can sometimes be irrational. She is still young enough to outlive both me and Alex, which means we won’t finish up in an old people’s home. What will happen toherafterwards is notmyconcern. Shehas hersavings, and we have made sure that she is taken care of in our will, at least financially. Another important element of this story is that Nabila was terrified of djinns, those supernatural creatures; she believed in the power of amulets, and also in Allah, the one and only God, both Muslim and Christian, but above all she believed in fate, and more than once I was on the verge of believing in it myself.
It is alsoworth noting that Nabila never liked to relay bad news.
Dejan Tiago Stanković
For some reason, Nubians are not afraid of djinns. That is why when Bedouins find a tomb in the desert, they remember where it is but do not enter it; rather, they find a black man, blindfold him, take him to the tomb and, in return for a share of whatever he finds there, make him go inside in their stead. At least that is what we were told by people who would come to the shop offering to sell prohibited goods.
Djinns are evil spirits, little demons, Shaitan’s apprentices who usually lurk there where a person should never step foot, let alone spend time. Djinns are to be found in rubbish heaps, in toilets, around rubble, execution sites and especially in morgues and tombs – themore terrifying and filthier the place, the more malevolent the djinns. And as we shall see, djinns are also to be found at the police station in Cairo. Once a djinn grabs hold of an unwary person, it does not let go and gives vent to its fury. Just as angels come to inhabit birds, so djinns enter the body of dirty animals and sneak up on people. That is why Egyptians do not like dogs, snakes or pigs because they are dirty creatures and can bring djinns with them. You are never safe from a djinn because they can suddenly leap out at you from the dark or be carried by the wind from the desert. That is why anyone with an ounce of intelligence should wear or carry an amulet, as protection against a djinn, just as you wear a wristwatch or carry a wallet, it can even by a little cross worn around the neck.
Harammeans forbidden, and in Islam it refers to anything that the religion forbids. Spiritually speaking, the heresies of godlessness, polytheism and idolatry are all haram. The Quran is more of a conservative law than a spiritual text. The book deals with all aspects of the life of a sixth century inhabitant of Arabia and prescribes strict measures that were
Dejan Tiago Stanković
essential if there was to be a more or less organized society in what at the time was such a brutal place as the Arabian desert where Muhammed lived and spoke with God. Anything that poses a danger to the individual is haram. The law of God forbids eating pork, the meat of animals that crawl and mollusks, because in hot climates such food quickly spoils and can poison and kill the person who eats it. In order to eat meat, every animal, for instance a sheep or camel, has to be slaughtered and bled because blood quickly goes bad in the strong sun. The Quran stipulates that the deceased must be buried within 24 hours of death, otherwise the body will start to smell in the heat. Anything other than this is considered haram. Anything that can endanger the survival of the tribe is also haram. It is haram to swear and engage in intrigue, it is haram to desecrate sacred objects and not to maintain one’s personal hygiene. It is also haram to drink alcohol, and so is carnal love before or outside of marriage, but I have the impression that these harams happen very often, it is just important to be discreet and if nobody learns of them, it is as if the haram doesn’t exist. There were always cultural misunderstandings when it came to haram. For instance, bread is one of the most sacred items in Egypt. In Egypt they use the same word for bread as they do for life: aish. Egyptians never throw bread away, that is a huge haram; instead, they nibble at it even when it is stale
and dry. There was an urban legend making the rounds among foreigners in Cairo about an instance when bread was desecrated. One day a certain foreigner, an Italian I think, didn’t find toilet paper in the public toilet and since he wasn’t accustomed to washing himself with water and then drying himself with the dirty towel found in the bath, he managed by using bread. The cleaner found the desecrated bread in the toilet, the people easily recognized a haram and a mob attacked the Italian. The outcome was fatal, all because of a small cultural misunderstanding. Wealth amassed in an immoral or dishonest way is also haram. Any money collected by means of another’s misfortune, theft, corruption or murder is haram, and for a good Muslim even eating bread coming from haram-money is haram. One the other hand, if a vender rips you off and charges you ten times more because you are a foreigner, that is not haram, because you are rich and didn’t know how to bargain. Haram is a very useful word for a woman in Cairo. If a man attacks a woman, or touches her in a crowd or looks at her lustfully, it often helps if she simply cries out:
Ayoung Dutchwomandidn’t know thiswhen shewalked into a hugecrowd in the streetwearing short sleeves and thousandsof men started pinching and poking her; all that male excitement
Dejan Tiago Stanković
left her with bruises all over her body and tears in her clothes. She would have fared better had she just remembered to yell haram! This way shewas traumatized for the rest of her life and the police could not help her. They just told her that there were cases where the woman did not survive and that she should be more careful how she dressed when she stepped out into the street.
day, and this consists of turning to Allah, reciting vows of faithfulness, praise and prayer, and a relatively elaborate choreography of positions, ranging from sitting, standing and bowing to prostrating oneself. At least twice during the prayer, the worshipper touches the sijada, the prayer mat, with his forehead. In some cases, it leaves amark on the brow. In others, the mark becomes a bump, a callus, like on a knee. Some Muslims consider the zebiba on the forehead to be an incontrovertible sign of devotion to the faith and piety. Those who are especially proud of their zebiba believe that on Judgment Day this bump will fluoresce with divine light. Many people think that with just a little bit of care one can avoid injuring the skin, and hence that zebibas are usually deliberately grown. Taher, for instance, who knew little about Islambut a lot about the importanceof status symbols, claimed that most zebibas in Cairo were false and made with kana.
The opposite of haram is halal.
A zebiba is a raisin, but it is also a mark on the forehead that some Muslims get from repeatedly pressing their the brow on the prayer mat during daily prayers.
Islam requires its followers to bow in prayer five times a
Breathing Technique (poetry excerpt) Marija Kneževic Translated from Serbian by Sibelan Forrester
The Beginning of Cartography
To be a thing without use value To be a thing that gains value over time though no one knows why. To let yourself be called a decorative item. To hear that you’re superfluous. To hear they can’t make it without you. To breathe inside yourself.
To change owners. To be unpossessed. To be an object of admiration.
To change locations, to avoid migration. To be satisfied.
To be a ship. Face turned to the sea floor to be on both sides of the deep. To leave a trace not for eternity to sail in. To sail out the same way. To be loved in harbors. To be a ship. To love the better part of life in open sea to dream of harbors.
To be kin. To anyone. To men, women, algae, tigers leaping at a deer, lotuses settled in their own tears, islands, caves who have at least one chamber unexplored to be related. To love you
and never to learn it. To be always suddenly new joy and unexpected pain.
To avoid existence. A drop on your skin
To avoid waiting. To move always by the same path
that’s already a memory of touch. The drop’s already another drop.
from harbor back towards it. Entranced by the nets on deck. To transform cargo into stories. To be a ship. To bear yourself without effort.
To be actually never. To be now. Singularity in passage.
The River’s Name (excerpt from a long poem)
They unloaded us onto this land And commanded: You’re free!
We paused at the word unload . Although sooner or later we would, As they say in the world of baggage, Have been rerouted farther. For only a heretic preaches closeness. Just as a root serves. For the practice of uprooting.
Always dissimilar the river by her nature resembles no other.
She is herself her own name, although she understands a lot, our reasons for geography too: the anguish of cartography, all those perfect lines,
Since then everything’s wonderful on our plot! Everyone has a personal niche, an ID number.
the passion of enacting borders, walls already cracked the next day, wires, barrels, pennants, stones resettled from some other landscape, and evergreen in array and the watchman who’s fallen asleep — that whole ritual of appropriation.
And what’s most important, the possibility Of opening and closing as they wish, Beginning with windows, screens, formerly Intimate locks now public, right up to the one That the rival tribe has named the soul.
Her course is full of consideration and therefore meandering. She has learned how to last in between. Ever since she arose she isn’t like herself for she is constantly departing. So she manages to stay in place. At least apparently. At least as far as we can tell.
They marvel at her so that they imagine she is flooding. Here, at this moment too a painter is studying her color, a believer is washing his feet, a deer is drinking, a drowned person succesfully hides, a peasant woman with her skirt hiked up complains about her new pregnancy, a willow admires itself the whole day, while a tourist inquires is she safe? Depends on when. Everything that’s hers is in her. She is her own border. Besides flowing, she has no other dimensions.
The river must be here. Everyone sails in the river except for her. It’s always been like that: some move around, others move things. The river doesn’t podner fate and justice. She has seen too many things to compare them.
Dynamic and static she dodges diagnoses. Never ill, since never well. In existence.
She redeems it by spreading. From the air you can see
all her tributaries: all her crucifixions.
People, who always want to go back, have often written about her.
She’s represented in almost every myth. They have entrusted so much ash to her that she hardly manages to scatter all that honor.
She doesn’t match description for she has no pose. She knows how to exist without commentary. In the place to lie down she has created for her own dimensions
she has room to put off an excess of significance.
She has already arrived everywhere.
She’s not a metaphor. The river is a river. Words will never hurt her.
A diver when it’s necessary and an example of inflowing. A wellspring rightly placed.
She looks to her own business — straight into the sky. Hasn’t wasted time since she arose she’s been doing the hardest of all jobs: she moves herself.
Always deeper than the dilemma: are we observing her or is she observing us.
(. . .)
And tends toward the sea.
The river knows that her longings is in herself. She yearns for the sea. The sea has no idea about it.
Attractive to the poor and sad because she’s simple. Her pageantry is in the experience that isn’t visible. Close as a touch and simultaneously who knows where. 34
We solve crossed words. We have split up
Into horizontal and vertical. Since then we’ve been lonely. Hence at times we make war Aging like everyone, in an infantile manner. We’re touchy. They excite us Vagabonds with the promise Of growing up in the right connection.
We’re a litter of childhood diseases. And everything we touch starts whimpering.
We brought up our parets, Feeble kids older than we were. Begat a land so it would remain Uncompleted. Openly unmasked the sense of acquisitions. We witnessed a failing and falling Birth rate, it gave way to yearning And a total freedom of diffusion. We preserved the custom of giving names It’s not clear to anyone why. One of them is love. We live in an eternal school. We study Myths. One of them is Belonging. Every step of ours is emigration From the strange to the alien. We’re constantly here So that we can be nowhere.
And when we’re tired, we buy it. While less tired we see through it. From the perspective of incurable Childhood It’s all the same.
We’ve thought up a language of our own. One group plays at misunderstandings, A second is addicted to correspondence,
A third one advocates telepathy. Our books are personal message. The message is surplus in itself.
The Last Station of Translation
We’re given all of time for contemplation. Therefore each of us knows what they want And in several versions at that, Convinced the main thing is to have a Dream. When we mention the empty island, It doesn’t mean we’re panicking, no! Our life’s a perfect meditation. But that cliché attacks us regularly During long cold snaps, Confrontations with our natal nakedness.
The owner of a restaurant in Lion Street Where I stop in since it’s close to Leaf Street where I’m staying, Although too close to stories of camps, Of dead parents and convoys of refugees Some of whom still live right here in Vienna, She asks me have I noticed that today is a distinctly Difficult day. Why how could it be that you haven’t?! Why two of our guests fainted, they were carried out! While one had fallen down dead before the doors Of the restaurant, as I later learn. I haven’t. Here for me it’s unusually Quiet. I come from the land of Urania, as Milankova said, I explain, where people quite regularly totter Every day and for years on end As they walk they hold on to buildings, lined-up cars, For vehicles in motion crush them or just knock them We help each other cross the street and — On we go from there.
We, a terribly easy Target of frigid crazes Due to the wrested illusion Of native soil.
But haven’t you heard so many sirens, So many ambulances wailing the whole day through the city?
My love, how did you wake up this morning? As a woman? Seashell? A boy? A dog? You’re beautiful. I’d love for you to feel that way. Do you? Want to tell me what you dreamed? Does it bother you that you’re a Black man or are you agonizing that your white skin is 102 years old? Brazil? Today? Does the first morning wave feel good to you, little pebble? Don’t pay attention to the red tails, my adorable coral. Every part makes use of the right to be a body. Even so, say. I want to know everything about you, and always. Did you catch a chill? (a quote from Almodóvar) Does the political situation hurt you more than yesterday? How’s your spine? Do we want to lament today? For what? The whales or the children of Afghanistan? What you’re postponing about your mother? Barefoot again? Banana, apple, pineapple? No? Because of you I believe in everything. Say. Even when you keep quiet it’s a word.
I hear quiet all the time And I can hardly get used to it Just like everything I’ve always loved.
The only unfamiliar thing is the singing birds: There are so many of them, they sing so wonderfully, Especially come evening, But I don’t know ho to recognize A single kind.
Only you can be and do anything at all. Just as you drink this coffee too without speaking. I brewed it in time — whole nights. It foamed up at the right moment — at dawn. Coffee from the sea or from love. However. Only the titles are unimportant now when you have woken up
Healers have multiplied since the dawn of time Through epidemics and diseases on the rise Actual or still unimagined For which we learn from them the soonest.
This is the start of a favorable time Of a land that’s sold by promises To presenters of outrageous methods Of the speediest possible healing.
in the shape of love, have returned time.
Love has a shape, like any brainchld of low tide and high tide. Love has an hour in the sand’s relaxed breathing. It knows so much, has known for so long that every so often it’s sleepy.
Mainly they explain the plant Without any idea how it breathes
Nor do they care what the folk say: That cure and poison only reside together.
They briskly demonstrate the effect With a hypothesis of coexistence Of leaves of grass and human arrogance That desolates at random.
They preach the psyche in the spirit Of the organism’s sovereign ruler While, as for the meek, let them help In this difficult task that has us.
We shared a room: She lay there day and night On her back and with views Either of the television, or of a forgotten Tall brick chimney whose smoke Was long ago sold at auction.
Breathing technique — the soothsayer emphasizes — Can cure every illness! In my book You’ll learn how to catch your breath With a special discount for the market.
How can she stand 10 years looking at that chimney? How it hurt when my friend let those words out, Forgetting to keep them quiet. I would go into our room To change her diapers, feed her, giver her a drink Of coffee and water and help her have a smoke. To lie down a bit and fly off with the flocks When in the evening they return in a group like children from a field trip To the botanical garden to sleep, in the morning they fly up together.
First and foremost wild oregano, for sure! But careful! Only in easy-to-spot Jars from our company, Salve Commerce ! The anti-itch cream comes for free.
Follow self-care. Solutions are as near As your hand on the keyboard. One click opens An unknown world. Everyone will easily Understand the informative film — no need to read.
Writing advertisements has never been So simple as in the era
Of Fantastically complex visual Animations of worsened health.
And where does this lead to?! The doctor crashed down on my exhaustion When she saw the ashtray, the unfiltered cigarettes, The pack of cigarette holders after which her voice Would reach its maximum volume.
“. . . the plot is gone as soon as the sea appears” Danijel Dragojević, “The Hawser”
Where to? I let the words out quite easily Without having, in fact, Any single interlocutor in mind.
Little by little we grow fond of our neighborhood The way dogs and others, favorites, get attached To people, not knowing nor desiring to know About the degree of belonging. So in our circle too there are newsstands, potholes, Half-empty hairdressers, gracious drugstores where We leave the most money, battered dumpsters, Exhibition parking lots and gypsy teams, counters Fitted out with all a person really needs, Grocers who’ll supply us with homesickness if we dare Travel away anywhere, in a circle of colors, voices, the pride We old natives feel, for only we know the hour of the fall Of a ramshackle fa ade, a balcony’s final refusal at a time When they’re mostly hanging spontaneously. We don’t make it up, no we’re really not alive if we don’t Reciprocally ask every day in front of the “Synthesis” shop How we’re doing, did the child finally get a job, how is mama Tolerating these crazy changes in the weather, how is it they
Aren’t ashamed to blab that way in parliament, have you heard That detergent’s cheaper in the other market, yes, But who can be bothered walking there, here it’s closer, and anyway We four spend less and less, more often we two, mixed or same gender, It’s just me and my cat and I don’t feel it any more If the dinar goes up or down. It comes out the same. There’s no hope for us — we laugh stretched long As if seen through a glass of water with our plastic bags Our arms reach the ground, they look just like legs like couples Married a long time when the two become inseparable sisters. The easily woven intimacy of neighborly fibers seduces An equivalence of everydayness and unusual stories. For instance yesterday we heard, I know on just which corner, About China, its silk road toward ruling power in the world Founded on the terra cotta warriors of Chin the emperor-uniter, 6000 of them with the order that each have his own face, Thus, under the condition of distinctness, I learned about knowing How to rule, having gone to get the daily paper, milk, 48
Cherries three times pricier than the Chinese ones I didn’t taste nor is it possible Anything more beautiful than the generals with individual faces Passing on a gift on the street, the recollected corner With a closeness that goes so far away Where not even thought penetrates as a gesture Of selecting In a souvenir shop.
Walkers who head toward each other meet at some point, cross glances. Then a new being of love separates into two.
Where are you from? Darko Tuševljaković
Where are you from? (short story) Darko Tuševljaković Translated from Serbian by John Cox
“It’s all about the lines,” he said. “And the circles, concentric ones.” We were sitting next to one another in a cramped space, with him by the window and me in the least desirable seat, the one in the middle. A few minutes earlier the flight attendant had stood there at row F and asked us what kind of sandwiches we’d like. I took chicken; he took the one with beef. The first thing he said, after he undid the plastic wrap, was about the food. “Everybody complains about airplane meals,” he said, smiling, as if to apologize for addressing me when I had not asked himanything. “But I think they’re delicious. I don’t know what people expect on a two-hour flight. Beef stroganoff with sides?” I nodded my head, although my sandwich was actually dry and bland. Maybe I should’ve chosen the beef. “Are you a frequent flier?” I returned the question, since it seemed like he felt bad about breaking in on me and my food. He nodded. He seemed like a decent type. He used a napkin to wipe some butter from his mustache, and then, with the index finger of that same hand, he adjusted theway his glasses sat on his nose. It was a motion he wasn’t even aware of. And then, out of nowhere, he mentioned that thing about lines and circles. “We all have a point, a center point,” he said, looking pensive, as though he were choosing his words with great care. “It doesn’t have to be the place we were born in, but it is the center of our
Where are you from?
lives, and then around it, with a compass, we draw circles.” He smiled once more and took a gulp of juice. He struggled with the remnants of a bite he had taken, so that I had my doubts about the quality of his sandwich. “The problem is that some people have more than one point of departure. The first ones I remember were in Croatia. At the time, Croatia was still a part of a bigger country, a constituent republic. My mother and father had lines that coincided. They wanted to live anywhere and everywhere along the Adriatic Coast. They made it two- thirds of the way down before the bombs blocked their way. The part of the circle they had already traced changed its center point all of a sudden, and the two of them, along with my sister and me, found themselves in Bosnia.” He extended his arms as faras the tight spaceallowed, inorder toshowwhat a big change thatwas forayoung boy. “Everythingwas thesame, and nothing was the same,” he told me. “But then things got unbearable there, too, and another line was traced. This one was special; it represented an epic in its own right, a journey across a whole microcosm.” The look on his face was like he was trying to see if he was boring me. “You’re Belgian?” I was taken aback by the question. I was prepared to listen, not to talk about myself. About themixedmarriage that producedme, andwhichmeant I always returned to two homes, not one. Two Belgian waters, from different watersheds. Some people’s divisions are famous becauseeverybodytalksaboutthem,andsomepeople’sbecause they are successfully swept under the rug for years. I nodded, and motioned with my hand for him to continue with his confession. “In 1992, I had to get to Belgrade somehow, from this cut-off little city in central Bosnia. That was the next
involuntary destination. But we had to go somewhere. It was a couple of hundred kilometers but it might as well have been thousands. The trip lasted for days, and if there hadn’t been smuggling routes and dirt paths dug through the ravines, there would be nobody here now to tell you this story. The International Red Cross helped. They transported us by plane to Croatia, and from there to Hungary, and only then to Serbia. In the airplane, similar to this one, we traveled with a representative of the Red Cross who was on his way home after completing his assignment. I remember—hewas fromGeneva. Amanwithareallynicehaircut.Hewatcheduswithcompassion as my sister and I vomited into paper bags. That was my first flight.” “You’re not nauseous anymore. You’ve trained well for this,” I joked, pointing to his sandwich wrapper and cup of juice, both now empty. At this he gave a vague shake of his head and adjusted the glasses on his nose once more. I could imagine him doing that as he bent over an encyclopedia or dictionary. “That was the first wider circle, even though it covered already familiar territory. And at every stop, regardless of my age, people would ask me: ‘Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want here?” Something in my eyes made him stop, although I didn’t know exactly what he’d noticed. Maybe my resistance to serious conversation. And to divisions. But it was too late. “It might sound banal to you,” he went on in a mellower tone, as if he were about to give up, “but Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia—thoseare three names foronepoint. Of course, though, the issue is with the larger and smaller circles around that point.” I agreed with him and asked the flight attendant for a whiskey. My eyes met his: if he had definitely opted for
Where are you from?
demanding topics, they would need to be accompanied by a strong drink. He squeezed his lips and squinted, Clint Eastwood-style, and ordered the same. We toasted by saying “Ching!”, since plastic cups can’t make a real clinking sound. “Sometimes a point shifts, but the circle remains the same,” he continued. “At the end of the ‘90s, I fled the NATO bombing. I went from Serbia back to Bosnia by illegal means, across the river. Deserter, traitor—these are the answers to the question ‘Whoare you?’ In away, those two journeys, theone to Belgrade and the one from Belgrade, cancel each other out. I don’t know if you know what I mean by that. All of it passes and if you survive, you grasp the fact that you’ve been treading water. The smallest circle is, to be sure, a point.” After this it seemed like there was nothing else to be said, and he leaned back against the headrest and stared at the clouds we were passing over. The plane stumbled over something invisible, faltered and shook, and then calmed back down. It went through a couple of dance moves like this, and my fellow traveler kept his eyes closed during that time. When he opened them again, the clouds were the same as before and we were closer only in theory to our goal. He turned towards me. “It all passes,” he said, as if he expected me to recall exactly where we had left off with our conversation. “Things change. Everything seems the same, but none of it is. Today they try to persuade us that the bad stuff is behind us, that we’re pressing forward with giant strides, that there’ll be no new journey towipe out the previous one. And although they stay put, in the same places, countries move closer to each other, and farther apart. Frequently at the same time. Croatia has never been closer to Serbia, nobody’s
rattling their sabers anymore, and everyone’s talking about dialogue and reconciliation—but Croatia is also more distant, because it’s a part of something that persistently eludes its eastern neighbor. At any rate, I go there a lot. I love the Adriatic coast, except when people ask me where I’m from.” I then inquired: “Do you know how to answer that question at all?” And he just shrugged his shoulders and buckled his seat belt when the warning signs above our heads flashed. We began our descent. The plane circled slowly above the city, in a broad arc that let us enjoy the panoramic view—everything was in sight, the parks, the arterial roads, the Atomium, the Grand- Place, the Palace of Justice, the EU Quarter—but he kept on looking at me. “Without a doubt one could say that I’m not worthy of my ancestors.” I expected that comment to have something to do with his chronic running away fromwars, but when he continued, I felt a pinchof shame atmy bad judgment. “Both of my grandfathers traced wider circles. One of them worked in metallurgy. He shoveled coal and tempered steel in Bosnia, and by the 1950s he was traveling to the West on business, to countries that were putting together the industrial alliance that was the basis for everything we flew over today; and the other one was a pilot. Imagine—a pilot! And I can’t even look down from here.” He smiled and hit the armrest with his palm, oddly entertained by what he had revealed about himself. He shook his head dismissively. It was like he found it hard to believe this truth, and he was clenching his jaw when we touched down. While the plane taxied towards its spot by the jet bridge, he silently studied the runway and the airport buildings. The day was gloomy; the sun had remained above
Where are you from?
us, on the other side of the clouds. When we docked at the gate, the passengers swarmed into the aisle between the seats, as if it were of vital importance that they be the first to exit the plane. I asked him if he was in a rush—I didn’t know what he was doing in Brussels, in the same way that he didn’t know what had taken me to Belgrade—and he said it was fine if we just stayed seated. Now that we weren’t flying anymore, it seemed like we were just two strangers again: the accidental touching of elbows and careful leg maneuvering in front of our seats. I turnedmyattention fromhimto stareat thepassengers. The flight attendant was trying to keep things orderly. For several minutes it was comical, and I heard him chuckle. I think it was precisely this laugh of his, which was at once both full of understanding and boyishly gleeful, that got me. I admitted this to him a few months later, and he told me that I must remind him constantly to laugh. I do it, as often as I can. But back then, in the airplane, he wasn’t laughing at the attendant or his fellow travelers, but rather at something that only he saw. “The largest circle I’ve ever made,” he said, taking off his glasses so he could clean the lenses with a handkerchief, “made it all theway to China.” That left me sincerely impressed. I didn’t know anyone who had gone that far. “Fortunately I didn’t flee there,” he added after noting my reaction. “A friend of mine got a job in a city near Beijing, in the eastern part of the country. I saved up for months and bought a ticket when it was on sale. How else could I have gone?” I understood the problem. A ticket to China was expensive in both Brussels and Belgrade. “After we landed I very quickly realized that I now possessed a new starting point, from that moment on. The city
was so large that the cab drivers got lost in it. And the smog? I’d never before seen such. It resembled a smart fog that had come to life. Itpopsup in frontof you, and ityawnsand swallows you. Therewas a lot of stuff I’d never seen before. In the middle of the city, amid the skyscrapers, I saw a guy tilt a slaughtered sheep into a manhole, so its blood would go into the city drainage system. I saw a plaza as large as a whole district, a palace with no end to it. I ate locusts, but that was nothing compared to the dishes that I didn’t recognize and the tastes I had no way of placing. I was at a market where I didn’t know the name of a single kind of fruit. I saw a city center at night that was more brightly illuminated than a sports stadium. I saw a temple where the light, saturated with smoke from the shrine, was as thick as milk. And the people, who were as surprised by my appearance as I was by everything around them, which they didn’t even think twice about, asked me where I was from. “From Belgrade,” I said, but that meant nothing to them. I tried “Serbia.” They looked at me blankly. None of it meant anything to them, even when I widened the picture. Theydidn’t knowwhat theBalkanswere,whereGreece, the cradle of culture, was, nor where the Adriatic or Mediterraneanwas. Theydidn’t know the locations of Brussels. Or Amsterdam. Spain. Vienna. My friend laughed, having already experienced this dilemma. He had a ready answer and his hosts would smile, too, when they heard it. Satisfied with being able to place us into their system of coordinates…They knew about Europe,” he said. Then he pointed, to show me the plane had emptied out. One of the flight attendants was beckoning us: the cleaning staff is waiting to come in with its
Where are you from?
equipment. “What do you mean?” I asked, letting himout first. “So for them nothing smaller was….” But he slipped down the aisle ahead of me and vanished into the gangway before I’d pulled my bag down from the luggage bin above my head. Later, at passport control, I saw himwaiting for me. He smiled and stuck out his hand so we could finally make each other’s acquaintance. With his other hand, he adjusted the glasses on his face. “Eighteen hours,” he saidwhenwe had started towards the baggage claim. “That’s how long that trip lasted. Eighteen hours of dread…but the meals they served us really were good.”
Directions for Use
Directions for Use (poetry excerpt) Ana Ristović Translated from Serbian by Steven and Maja Teref
The more I read the more books resemble little zebras their spines bend under the thumb anticipating the riders they won’t buck off. The reader worthy of the black row is worthy of words, the one worthy of words is worthy of the white space, the one worthy of white space is worthy of experience tamed for the ages the thin gaps between lines; without books,
no padded lining for a winter coat.
Directions for Use
Beautiful Reflection ( fear of routine)
The more I read, the less I know about poetry . . .
The more inept hunter of little zebras I become along the soft slopes of knees and table legs.
An empty square. Encloses no one, not even itself, a poet claims;
only our shoes, two eager boats, and beside them, two shoehorns to slip out of with ease: Salty water drips into yours and sweet water into mine from the same cloud given us long ago for safekeeping
In the realm of the well-read, the wise and adept examine the zebra’s teeth, measure the width of her thighs and assess her stock, I seek the sweep of her tail, the play of her black and white stripes . . .
The dripping endures without end
Yet everywhere it’s bone dry not a single drop.
No one around not even us
Only metal shoehorns and someone’s beautiful inverted reflection fixed against the heavily trafficked sky.
Directions for Use
Grain of Salt (ballad of adultery)
Twenty years ago, I imagined passersby on the street naked stripping their clothes like a breeze and chuckled at them walking unaware of what I saw: plenty of sparkling bodies in their imperfections and glory. Today, as I walk the streets, I no longer see naked bodies, but their internal organs: the trembling heart, shrunk to a baby’s fist, of the man staring at small ads for an apartment; bowels, like sailor ropes in a heavy bag, of the one tired on a bench; a woman’s bones shuffling across the street like fragile musical instruments; veins of the young saleswoman at the empty store with overpriced clothes; lightning in the spring sky; lungs; kidneys; liver; spleen; blood and lymph; an inner ear no longer ringing; the womb’s walls shadowed by the slumber of unborn babies;
On a spring afternoon you rush from your apartment to seek out a lover.
Instead of heading to a coffee shop, enter a department store to pick up olives, Camembert cheese, shampoo and a packet of washers for a leaky faucet.
All morning your skirt a cresset heralding others’ saints and a whirlwind of holidays.
All afternoon and evening your skirt, a lid for boiling water, toward distilling a grain of salt.
So much water for a single grain. So many washers for just a few drops.
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