/ Jasmina Tesanovic / 5 am Mon, Jan 20 2020
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  • Passport and Nobels

    Passport and Nobels

    My life-long work of performance art is to somehow maintain my original passport: notwithstanding the life and opportunities of a techno-nomad.

    I used to have a proper passport from the “Socialist Federation Republic of Yugoslavia,” and a fine, diplomatic one, too. At the time that was the most-desired passport in the black market, requiring the fewest travel-visas from any other country. It was a diplomatic passport from a buffer-state, a Cold War cushion-country between the East and West, between the imperial walls of USSR and USA .

    Today my travel document is a Serbian passport, one of the worst passports in the whole world, from a small post-war country in transition to nowhere, hoping to make its way among the power-players of the Russian Federation, the European Union, and expansive China, the militant Turks, and other small, rival Balkan states that used to be our fellow-citizens. Marshal Tito had a tradition for living that way, but Tito was a shrewd and talented victor of war, and maybe our world was simpler then.

    Serbia is an ancient place but a rather new country, so people often don’t know what to make of my passport. Recently a guy who holds a Serbian passport won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course Peter Handke isn’t “really Serbian,” but I was born in Yugoslavia, so I’m not all that Serbian either.

    People admire this “Nobel Prize,” they think it must be a noble prize fit for noblemen, even though Alfred Nobel was an arms trafficker and an emigre. So who is the noblest Nobel-winning writer of Serbia — is it Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav writer and diplomat who won the prize for Yugoslavia in 1963, or is it Peter Handke?

    To be fair, Ivo Andric never wanted to be “Serbian,” while Peter Handke deliberately took Serbian citizenship during the Serbian darkest hours of the Milosevic regime. Handke’s mother was from Slovenia, so Handke had a lot of polemical ideas about the situation, although, whenever Handke wrote about subjects other than Serbia, Handke was a good novelist of genuine Nobel caliber.

    Handke’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was simply unearthly about his Slavic mom and his childhood days, stuffed with songs and fables: very poetic.

    It shouldn’t hurt my feelings if Serbia is seen as a nation of literary excellence. Once I was in the USA on a fancy USA writer’s grant, and with my sanctioned Serbian passport, I couldn’t even enter an American library.

    Peter Handke’s Austria was no paradise for us Serbs, either. In the nineties of last century I was the token Serb in Vienna during annual general meeting of the PEN International Congress. No litterati wanted to sit with me at my morally diseased Serbian table, although, like a lot of people who show up at PEN, I was a literary dissident risking my life against a violent government.

    I still remember one elderly couple from Vienna who approached my table and dared to talk to a Serbian woman about the weather. At the end of that evening they quietly told me: If ever you need a shelter, you have a home with us here, because we know what it is like to live within a Nazi country. We were children of Austrian Nazis who cheered for Hitler before they were killed in Allied bombings.

    These wise people were the Ebners, and Peter Ebner was a career engineer who became a writer on religion.

    I knew people who fled Serbia and became Austrian. They went through the necessary ritual: passing exams, swearing in front of a judge, renouncing other loyalties, their victory condition being a different ticket in the lottery of history, a roulette where people like me don't even count anyway: mere women, nomad chattel, without a mother language or a fatherland.

    So why bother to change countries and passports? On the contrary, I prefer to stay in my original state of semi-legality and semi-visibility, and watch countries wash over me. My legal address, on my passport, is on street in Belgrade close to the national parliament. The same street-address: five different national passports.

    It’s been a process of my-life-without-me taking place on some national level. As for the street, and the building, what if it falls to fire, flood, bombing or earthquake, or they change the street-names? Or maybe I’ll be subjected to travel restrictions, have my passport confiscated, and have to live there all the time.

    How can I outsmart the chaos: well, I don’t even try. I have been a refugee several times in my life, legally, or invisibly, or even impossibly, but I am still alive and kicking, and still travelling... just like bastard children used to be considered non-people, now it’s stateless people who are shunned and clandestine.

    In Estonia I once held in my hands their “e-residency” card: a political fiction of being commercially Estonian without being Estonian. How many flags does a modern woman really need for a safe and fulfilling life? Probably five flags, at least, and maybe even more, if tomorrow’s unnatural climate disasters burn and drown one favorite city after another.

    Serbs rather imagine that the nation might join the European Union some day, especially now that the United Kingdom has left it, and looks ready to split up as an ethnic island Yugoslavia. Unlike the British, we don’t fuss about what color the passports are, since we’ve had so many.

    People with passports come to visit us in Serbia, too. Somehow Peter Ebner, Peter Handke and I have all shared the same space-time, despite nazis, ethnic cleansing, bombs, dissidents, publishers… Years ago. I met Handke in Belgrade during his controversial public stay as a Milosevic regime apologist. He struck me as erudite, knowledgeable and kindly, drinking in Serbian quantities while endlessly quoting obscure poets.

    Peter Ebner came to Belgrade too, to pursue his religious researches about Prince Eugene of Savoy, a Christian military crusader against the Ottoman menace, in the pay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Peter Ebner toured a few old battlefields, but preferred to sample the fine wine of the monks in the Orthodox monasteries.

    These two Austrian writers had one great commonalty: a respect amounting to holy awe for the long-suffering Serbs in their endless historic defeats and lamentations. Poetry came pretty easily to my forefathers in Herzegovina, a pre-literate region of rocks and shepherds where everybody quoted proverbs, metaphors, and poetic hyperbole just to get through the day. Why should I sit bolt upright at midnight, drinking beer and wondering about Handke’s Nobel Prize? He’s only 77, still a mere youngster who might overcome his political radicalism! Is this prize too political or too apolitical? What about nomads without national literary background, mother land, or homeland, or even a mantelpiece on which to put the noble award. Is that too political or not enough political?

    I’m not the first woman writer who wonders and all I have to do is look across the English Channel to see that I won’t be the last, either. As Virginia Wolf said long time ago:

    “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

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