The Painfully Present Past


The Painfully Present Past

“In the tight grip and embrace of power”; that is how our professor described the position of history education and writing during my first term at university. History, he said, is the mirror where modern time is desperately searching to find its own image. It would have been appropriate to add that there are different kinds of mirrors in the world.

There are mirrors that are more realistic, the ones that reveal every nasty detail and flaw in your skin. Then there are those that you can find at amusement parks, mirrors that show the viewer in a distorted shape as extremely skinny or with an inflamed head.

My internship at the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE) has involved me in the Joint History Project (JHP), an initiative to improve history education in the Western Balkans. In other words, I work with the twisted mirrors. Preceded by many, the newly independent republics of the former Yugoslavia rushed to rewrite their histories in the 1990s with the purpose of setting themselves apart from their neighbours.

Legitimacy became the keyword in the region. Legitimacy of language, territorial claims and political parties were amongst the largest issues that determined what kind of research would be funded and how history should be taught in schools. History was enslaved to serve nationalist and group interests.

This period of oppressive anti-intellectualism is slowly unwinding and critical voices are finding some space in Western Balkan societies. It is a slow and tender process but a requirement in order for people to reconcile with the past that is still painfully present.

Recognising the mutual suffering is a goal not easily reached but one that is worth fighting for. Collective memory is terrible at forgetting and it does not forgive easily, but given the opportunity, it can become more understanding over time. It is the purpose of the Joint History Project to support this process by allowing the younger generation to see history as something more than a singular narrative and to acknowledge its complexity.

The evening of Vivovdan, or St. Vitus Day, was a reminder of the enduring complexity of the Balkans. Sava Janjic, an Orthodox monk from the Dečani monastery, was the first of many to tweet about a violent incident that happened near Miloševo. Serbs returning from an annual celebration of the medieval Battle of Kosovo had been pelted with rocks and glass and the injured were taken to a medical centre in Gračanica.

I had been in Gračanica precisely three weeks prior to Vivovdan in very different circumstances. The CDRSEE was there to host the spring’s final JHP teacher-training workshop, where 20 Serb history teachers from nearby municipalities were invited to learn about participatory teaching methodology and source pluralism.

Besides the uninterrupted pass-through traffic heading towards Pristina, Gračanica is a sleepy town. It is a Serb enclave surrounded by green fields and hills. On the narrow side streets, children are playing football whilst grandmothers weed their flourishing garden plots. The centre of the town is overlooked by a 14th century monastic complex constructed by King Milutin Nemanjić. The monastery is surrounded by an old stonewall covered with barbed wire.

According to our local translator Milan, the wire serves no real purpose anymore. “It is safe here”, he told two trainers from Belgrade who wished to take a walk to the nearby hills. Although he belongs to the Serb minority, safety is not the most serious concern for him in Kosovo. He regularly visits Pristina for coffee and he has travelled to Prizren and Peć several times with his two young children. For Milan, the infrastructure, or more accurately the lack of it, is a more pressing issue than ethnicity.

“They are there and we are here, that’s it”, was how a young Serb girl recounted the ethnic status quo whilst working in her parents’ convenience store. The municipality’s ethnic groups can tolerate each other’s existence, but interaction between them continues to be limited. For the girl, her only interaction with ethnic Albanians is a short chat with the shop’s supplier who stocks the shelves with fruits and vegetables a couple of times a week.

Sectarian violence is hardly an everyday phenomenon in the enclaves, but violent incidents do occur from time to time. Religious and national celebrations, such as Vivovdan, are a cause for heightened security measures and the underlying ethnic tensions occasionally result in sporadic violence. An ethnic clash was seen also in Gračanica a year ago in April, when a brawl broke out between residents and a busload of football fanatics who were passing through the town on their way home from a match.

Whilst returning from Gračanica, we once more witnessed the outlandish monuments and memorials alongside the road to Skopje, similar to those emerging all around the Balkans. I could not help but think that the Joint History Project is perhaps needed now more than ever. When traumatic events from history grow into a civil religion, the discourse about the past becomes increasingly facile. By victimising themselves, nations and ethnicities choose to ignore the sufferings of others, when in reality recognising the shared hardship should be the first step on the path to lasting peace.

In Thessaloniki, the CDRSEE office is located in Ano Poli, the Upper Town. Walking its cobblestone streets every day, I find it difficult to avoid the old trap of travel writing. It is easy to forget the modern city around you and start thinking about the past, a time before the 20th  century demographic changes ravaged Thessaloniki. However, I do find comfort in the fact that this city is not merely a testament to its past, but one that is very much alive and continues to exist as a home for the descendants of the few Jews and Muslims who returned here.

Bey Hamam and the lonely minaret of Rotunda may be the most visible sign of Thessaloniki’s Ottoman past, but the signs of Islam can also be found from places less historic and majestic than those. It was the third time I sat in what is now my regular cafe on Makrigiani street, when I noticed a painting on the wall featuring a group of men wearing recognizable sikkes and tennures, the traditional attire of the Whirling Dervishes. As I later discovered, the cafe’s owners are Sufi, a minority within a minority whose roots in Thessaloniki go all the way back to the early years of the 15th century Ottoman conquest.

Yehuda Poliker’s voice is sore yet reminiscent when he sings “Wait for me, Saloniki”, a ballade dedicated to the city where for centuries the Sephardic diaspora made up the majority of the population. His father was amongst the over 50,000 Jews who were taken from their homes and deported to the Nazi extermination camps in Poland. Of more than 50 synagogues, all but one were burned to the ground and the few people who returned rebuilt their communities from rubble.

Mark Mazover has called Thessaloniki the City of Ghosts. The ghost of Mousa Baba, who is said to haunt Ano Poli, is likely to remain a legend. I have, however, seen what sociologists could call the contemporary ghosts; the undocumented immigrants who crossed the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life but now avoid the bright lights of Egnatia hiding in the shadows of the quiet side streets.

The past is present here in Thessaloniki and cannot be avoided, but it is the 100,000 students who make the city such a stimulating place today. People here say that the bars were more crowded before the crisis escalated, but finding an empty seat in Valaoritou on the weekend is still an accomplishment itself, even during the examination period.

Thessalonikians are endowed with a pleasant sense of curiosity. I can’t remember the number of times I have been asked about my origin whilst sitting in cafes and restaurants or when shopping for fruit at the street-corner stalls. Life in Greece is far from easy at the moment. It is full of uncertainty about the future, but the warm-heartedness of the people has not disappeared. I questioned my friend about this and for him the issue was a no-brainer: “We are Greeks.”

When the wind is warm, Mediterranean window shutters are left open and balconies become extensions to living rooms. By now I know how my neighbours across the street like to iron their clothes, and they know my appetite for American political dramas. It is this casual display of private life that is almost entirely missing in the northern parts of Europe.

Text & Photos by Mitjo Vaulasvirta

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