An Underworld Journey
Serbia: March 31, 2006
Heading southeast, to inner Serbia, close to the Bulgarian border. An area famous for women who are mysteries, said my friend, the film director Zivojin Pavlovic, whose mother was born there.
A euphemism really. In that magical region, men are rare. It's said that girl births far outnumber those of boys. Men marry into female families and are called "the brides."
A local wedding is a long caravan, exposed furniture paraded on wheels, like dollhouse rooms, rolling one after another in display all around the city, the village, the hills.
Mother's names are always officially recorded while the father often is simply called the shepherd, the clerk... Presumably he is never sure the he is the father at all ... Struggling for patriarchy , men here as almost everywhere in the world have all the legal power, and they take their revenge on their female husbands by beating them and often killing them. The region has a high rate of male domestic violence.
We are a caravan of women for peace Thirty of us have a performance in the market place: we want to celebrate our dead feminist friend, who wrote the first history of women's movements in Serbia, describing the past centuries of struggle. We intend to dance and sing, and eat enormous amounts of garlic, and dine on the local dish of stinging nettles, and drink the prohibited local black wine which is tainted with methyl alcohol.
[image: "Grandma Lena," Serbia, by Aleksandra Radonić]
Gaga is beautiful in her red shoes, long raven hair: her husband just tried to kill her. She took him to the court and denied him the fatherhood to her 20 year old affectionate son who follows her like a big shadow. She is our hostess in Zajecar. She prepared our dinner with violently mashed and pureed foodstuffs, in a wooden place called the Mill. Only one man is there, other than her son. This man is attending us: he looks proud and scared.
My official duty at these events, besides being the official scribe, is to belly dance and persuade other women to dance on the tables. Other women are pouring into the dark mill... more wine... more garlic... they are coming from the backwoods to the capital.
Next to me is a big white-haired blonde. She is gorgeous, and has an incredible accent. I am looking for a man via Internet, she informs me. I nearly got a man, too, but then, the Canadian ambassador himself denied me a visa. He said I was too dangerous. My ex husband was an alcoholic. I battered him out of my house with a stick. I have a son, married to a great woman who gives him proper orders. My wonderful granddaughter plays four musical instruments and speaks five languages at age seven. My granddaughter has white curls like me. It is not meant for me to leave this place; this is my fate. I know you are a Pisces. I know you are traveling all the time. You are my eyes now, she says.
I kissed her cheek and she kissed my hand. Opposite to me is a dwarf girl with huge black eyes and short auburn hair sticking out in all directions.
I am a nurse, she declares. I take care of autistic people. They live inside their heads only. I am small enough to enter there and keep them company. I always wanted to be a needle inside other people's heads and read their minds.
She jumps to her feet off the wooden bench. She seems even smaller, she barely reaches my waist. I pick her up like a child, put her on a table, we belly dance.
She says: my mother was even smaller than me, but we are not handicapped, we are just different... She is beautiful really, her head is enormous and her feet so tiny, every detail is perfect on her; it is only the sizes and proportions that are different from my own.
Gusts of wind open the door to our mill. This door is mere wooden board will no attachment to the wall, so it tumbles right onto the floor. It's a sign, says Gaga. Let's go out and dance.
Outside it is raining. We are about fifty now. We move into a wine cellar in a hotel called The Horse. A huge saddled Centaur, half man half beast, is hanging from the ceiling. The cellar man leads us down and we pile in with the bottles of black wine until dawn... Not a word is to be said of what happened that night... A curse will fall on the one who leaks... I won't say a thing.
Morning, the day after. A car is waiting for us with a cameraman and a journalist: we are going to Gamzigrad. Yes, one the most famous archaeological sites in Europe. From the Roman Empire of Diocletian, the third and fourth century AD.
Constantine The Great brought the famous decree legalizing the Christians and their Christianity. The last Roman emperor's daughter was married here, to a local guy whom the Emperor left the eastern half of the Roman Empire. For centuries, nobody knew what was buried there at Gamzigrad. Once they found it was an imperial palace for an emperor's mother, nobody dared think it was IT.
Now even though they do know this, nobody gives a damn... Hey, this is eastern Serbia, the Balkans, we dig mass graves all the time... Who cares if it belongs to emperors or beggars, barbarians or Romans, Christians or pagans... they are bones and dust. But very soon, says the director of the museum in dismay, this iwill become UNESCO-protected archeological treasure.
Lord, we just had the British ambassador incognito the other day, and he even spoke in Serbian... Once they all come over here, we are done, we will have to live in a different way, eat in a different way, behave in a different way...
I am picking up from the ruins a tiny piece of something that might be a precious object. Next time, come alone, he says...he unlocks the labyrinth room. The royal princess Ariadne is depicted on the wall... She tricked the Minotaur with a thread to disentangle her lover Theseus from the deadly maze.
On the top of the hills facing us are two big piles of earth: two tombs. The last emperor built this palace for his mother, whom he buried with all the regal rituals, a flaming pyre, and an eagle that flew away with her soul as sunset touched the hilltop.
The emperor's father is unknown to this regal history , being referred to as a shepherd. The other tomb is his, presumably. This palace was fancy: it had central heating coming from the walls, famous Roman water-pipes, because thermal hot waters boil all over the land. Many cities have died not because of wars but because of ecological neglect. They consumed their own rivers, fouled the waters, buried themselves in their own garbage. Miletus and this palace city for example... My head is spinning with excitement: come back again in summer, they say. The ruins will be full of snakes, they are beautiful, this city is called Gamzigrad, the city of snakes... I am not afraid, for a snake cannot kill a viper-tongued writer....
Noon: in the city square we are dancing and spreading our banners. It is a big city square for such a small city. Nobody can tell us who made it and why. It wasn't the Romans: why here in the middle of nowhere? This was another border-town between the East and West empires, like Belgrade, towards the west; this was a no man's land of witches and warriors, mass graves and palaces...
Many years ago, I collected the tales of the women of this region; their recipes, prayers, medicines... How to win a lover, how to abort a child, how to defeat a rival, how to bury a live parent, how to give or get pleasure, how to survive a violent death... This lore is still sitting there in my drawer because a wise woman told me: don’t meddle with that kind of stuff, you must use it properly, otherwise it will use you...
In the city hall, which the local mayor gave us for our workshop on women : they know we are there, but nobody shows up. While we are feasting on words and cakes, a strong hammering is coming from the walls of the glamorous hall. An invisible incessant pressure; is it political, is it personal? Nobody from outside wants to take the responsibility and stop it.
Ahead of our schedule we are leaving: I have an ancient stone in my pocket, a new CD in my bag, and nothing to lose. In California, this would be called a spiritual journey, in the Far East a zen journey , in the Middle Wast a trance-journey, in the Balkans an underworld journey. You do come back different, if you come back from the underworld.
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Previous posts on BoingBoing:
- Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
- The Long Goodbye
- Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
- Slobodan Milosevic Died
- Milosevic Funeral
- Link to previous posts about Jasmina's work.
Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.