f r a g m e n t s  o f  w i t n e s s 

‘ h e c u b a ’  

 

The cast meets

The cast met at the end of May in a theater in the East Village. A group of about 35 people, of all ages, from almost every part of former Yugoslavia, gathered around the long table in a small foyer. There were Muslims, Serbs and Croats from Bosnia, Serbians, Croatians, Montenegrins, and Albanians. I was among the oldest participants. Most of the Bosnians were from Sarajevo. Few faces were familiar. Before my arrival, I decided: I would not form any kind of relationship with the other participants. The Yugoslavia I loved, and my native Bosnia, microcosm of that Yugoslav society, were destroyed. In agony I buried painful illusions about my homeland; any association with the Yugoslav people would bring only more disappointment. The only reason I had come was because of my interest in the theater and my attraction to Greek tragedy.

The encounter was chilly; people looked at each other with suspicion. Before the official beginning of the meeting with the director, some exchanged courteous but hesitant words. Many of us stayed silent and remote. E., our director, and her assistants, J., a man from the foundation financing our project, and S.L., a psychotherapist, introduced us to each other. We shook hands, smiled, and pronounced our names.

The Trojan Women had also been produced the year before. For the second time, this director and her group of American enthusiasts had assembled Yugoslav amateurs as the cast. Some of the actresses and actors knew each other from the earlier performance. Some of them were warm to each other; but most of them, I believed, overemphasized their closeness. I perceived the situation as grotesque, and I could hardly wait for rehearsal to start.

At some moment a tall, blond woman, A, approached me. She recognized me. She was a TV-director from Sarajevo, and was my brother’s high-school classmate; I had been at the same school with them. Another woman a few years younger than I, J., also addressed me: she was a judge and had worked in the courts with my cousin and his wife. She and my relatives were close friends, and, as she recalled, they had traveled together for various holidays. I was confused and surprised by these conversations I didn’t expect or desire. I wanted to avoid further talk – I wished that so much. But the references to my family, whom I hadn’t seen for five years – my brother and my closest cousin, whose mother was my mother’s twin – intrigued me. I engaged in the talk. My first fight to remain a recluse among these Yugoslavs failed. I learned that J. and A., both Muslims, one married to a Croat, the other to a Serb, had spent several years with their children and husbands living under the shelling. Terrified, in order to save the children’s lives, they had escaped to the United States. Once prominent Sarajevans, J. and A. now worked as chambermaids in New York. J.’s husband, a college professor in Sarajevo, worked in a restaurant kitchen. Suddenly, unasked, I tried to explain that I hadn’t betrayed my origins and people. I heard myself murmuring some nonsense about loyalty toward Bosnians regardless of my nationality and religion. To prove it, I said childishly that my husband was a Muslim and that my brother had fought in the Bosnian army throughout the war.

J. and A. were astounded, almost hurt, by my words, and one of them said: “We know. You do not have to apologize.” I felt stupid, as always in this war, talking to the people from the Yugoslav ground. All those contacts would bring me an incurable feeling of loss and shame, guilt and endless unease. Every word is an exaggeration, and insufficient, as I was forgetting my native language, or the language itself changed meaning. This is one reason that my heart doesn’t want to write anymore in Serbo-Croatian. For years, I didn’t write to my brother and my friends; whatever I wrote was in English.

The classical theater is a small and dusky place. Its narrow hall is unfurnished; there is only a cabinet in the corner and a few tables, which we have lined up to make a conference table. We sit around it to rehearse. One of the walls is covered with photos from earlier productions. The stage, a square platform, is set in the middle of a dark, echo-filled, high-ceilinged room. Seats are placed around the three sides of it. The black curtain, hanging from the ceiling and hiding the fourth side of the stage, is the only decoration in this space. Unpretentious and dark, the place is ideal for letting the ancient world speak for itself, in its sublime, authentic words. Dragged from time and space into this ambience, feverishly excited by the prospect of the play about to be conceived, I focus all my thoughts on the work that will me bring into the universe of Greek gods and heroes. However, the first rehearsal is difficult. I have never acted before. I cannot help the questions that echo in my mind: “Can I do it? Can I endure all the temptation of the play until the end?” I can hardly wait to test myself.

People responsible for the production make their suggestions delicately and kindly. We have thirteen days to rehearse, and two days to accomplish, three performances. They assure us, exquisitely, that we have enough time and strength to achieve this. To let us newcomers feel relaxed, they have asked the returning performers to guide and set collegial examples for us. They explain that the project is imagined as therapeutic and reconciliatory for us who come from different parts of the former Yugoslavia. The goal is to revive communication among us, an attribute that may have been lost in the war and because of our different origins. The hope is that we would scatter the seeds of our newly-achieved reunion around us, to other members of our former homeland.

At once I grew unhappy, agitated, defensive. All my fears and ambivalence toward the play and its cast surfaced. The limited time we had to prepare threatened me; I wasn’t sure I could learn anything. The director offered a solution that I regarded as degrading: if we couldn’t learn the text by heart, she suggested, we could use our scripts in the performances. I took this play very seriously and would not accept this compromise. Promotion of the performers from the earlier production into ‘higher-ranking’ members who would be in charge of us ‘upstarts’ was degrading to me, also. I didn’t want these ‘seniors’ to show us the pattern of conduct and sincerity through mutual contact. I expected to deal with the Greek gods and heroes, to learn about the theater, under the guidance of the director, who could teach me, yell at me, greet me: but not to be led by players who had performed here before me.

Finally, the notion of collective therapy shocked me. From the start of the war, I, descendant of Serbs and Croats, with Slovenian ties, married to a Muslim, had been miserable in my self-imposed fight with the system of values cultivated in me by those centuries of tradition that had flowed into my personality. I did not recognize or approve of a hatred originating in national, religious, or geographic attachments, even as I witnessed it. I felt, It is too difficult to solve anything here. It had been a hard decision to come and meet with people from different sides of that unfortunate ground. Everybody present dealt with difficult emotions, suspicions, and prejudices born in this war that divided and disoriented us, devastated our souls, packed us with ambiguity and feelings of loss and anger. Anyone of us was coping with sorrow in his or her own way. We were not capable of living without the ancestors who connected us; even less were we able to live disintegrated by the quarrel of their offspring. There were mornings of unexplained guilt, when I didn’t know which side of my face I should slap.

However, even we were gravely divided in our own personalities, and regardless of the cracked copulas among us, I expected no incidents to occur in the theatre. We were dignified people who wouldn’t make a scandal of their private suffering in front of those who surrounded us with the magnificence of the play. Whatever happened here, hatred – I hoped not that – or affection would come by itself, spontaneously and naturally. I was not ready to be ‘cured’ here and be expected to communicate with my own people. Two men, one from Belgrade, one from Mostar, and I, each of us, reacted with resentment.

Wounds inflicted on us are deeper and more complicated that we are aware; memories are too fresh. The question implied here was so delicate. It was impossible to explain and discuss it, or even remain silent, without indignation. Frustration and fear filled our straying hearts with suspicion of further disappointment. It was too early to explore, comprehend, and accept feelings that might be conflicting. Why should we challenge our hearts? I didn’t want to be reminded of what happened. It was best to put it all to rest for while. Deeply wounded, my beliefs disintegrated, unable to accept my new self, I regarded all ideas coming from the heads of this project as abrupt and hurtful. Then I didn’t know how wrong I was. The suspicion coming from my ripped soul looking for its own, lost identity didn’t let me enjoy and indulge myself in the delicate welcome of the theatre hosts. I learned about that later, after we performed. There in the very same theater I grew and overcame my indignation, and changed irretrievably.

At last the rehearsal started. Everybody read some of the script. We new players interpreted our lines in shy, low voices. The experienced ones were louder and confident. Some of them looked at us ironically, and sneered. I saw that the privileged status granted to them had encouraged them. I was crushed by humiliation and wanted to give up, but I didn’t have the strength to get out of the chair and leave. I decided to go after one rehearsal, and not to come back.

At home, I spent a restless night. The feeling of embarrassment didn’t leave me. All the magic of the theater melted, and the bitter ambiguity of two domineering feelings kept ripping me apart: the appeal of the play as the path lying open before me, and my desire to stand up for my dignity without compromise. But I couldn’t resist the Greek drama, and I was at the rehearsal the next day, trying to justify the bitterness and its motive.

The subsequent rehearsals linked us in pleasure and anxiety. For a few intense hours each day we practiced building our characters and weaving them into the tapestry of the play. E. led our hard, exhausting work enthusiastically. Now I can imagine her painful embarrassment at the complex situation in which she handled the gravesites of our ashen souls. If I couldn’t understand myself, how could she? But she did. Zeal to perform was the common sentiment all of us shared. The magic of the play brought so much pleasure to everybody. It helped to overcome the ordinary aggravations of immigrant life and our special grief. At the same time, all of us underwent our own particular pain, which was unintelligible to others and a cause of the tensions that lingered between us. Afraid of each other, of our limited English, of our ability to grasp the play and perform; anxious to achieve a brilliance that would distinguish us from everybody else in the cast; striving to satisfy our own vanities and conquer feelings of inferiority, we sometimes grew offensive. Ironic smiles, mocking faces, nasty comments, and malicious remarks occurred. We exchanged poignant words and gossip, and some, including me, threatened again to leave.

Whatever happened, there were no visible hostilities related to the war. All our disagreements stayed on the level of ordinary human vanity, the envious nature deeply rooted in humankind. No one uttered a single hint of national or religious disagreement. If there was any reference to bloodshed, it started in shy whispering. There was nothing secret in these undertones; we just didn’t want to hurt each other or provoke the rage of vengeful emotions. It seemed as though we had a secret, sacred, unuttered pact that we would not degrade ourselves more deeply than we had already done in the fratricidal carnage.

Slowly, we loomed our characters around each other’s creations, weaving them into the epic: at first, amorphous, sluggish; then, more clearly outlined, consistent, dynamic. In the theater, voices tolled alternately in three languages: English, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian. Three performers worked together on the creation of each character. Although the director, delicately, never said so, I perceived that this concept symbolically represented three sides of the Balkan combat. Our overlapping lines are, at the beginning, clumsy and confusing; but later they come to sound as canonic music.

And then someone brought music from somewhere in South Serbia or Macedonia. Somebody else brought Yugoslav Gypsies’ songs. A fellow from Belgrade played Bosnian tunes. I accepted the melody; I couldn’t resist, nobody could. First it was a shy and silent song; then it became louder and louder, a chorus of harmonious voices singing all known tunes from all the parts of our former Yugoslavia. And, in exaltation, following the chords of the guitar, hand in hand, feeling a current run through our fists, we danced a folk dance surprisingly common to all of us.

In these moments, each of us, no matter where we came from, recognized a rhythm, a common pace, the notes themselves, and we became one soul formed of something that politically, geographically, legally, did not exist. Here in New York, willing or not, we were only Yugoslavs, striving to revive an old, lost life. I felt the radiation of longing and mutual sympathy for that lost country, and I surrendered to these emotions.

Hecuba

Hecuba is a pivotal figure. She stands in the middle of the stage and is present from the beginning to the end of any rehearsal. Three of us, J., N., and I, act the Trojan queen. N. performed last year; she is already familiar with the text and self-assured. J. and I, debutantes, are intimidated, and we make many mistakes. I can hardly pronounce English words which have been so long familiar to me. My lines in Serbo-Croatian aren’t clear. Panic and lack of confidence have melted all sensations that I had wakened with on the beach, meditating on the brilliance of the script and the dazzling beauty around me. The Hecuba whom I had created at home, reading and rereading the script, visualizing it, imagining myself as this queen, recalling memories to help me, has disappeared. Stage fright has overpowered all other feelings. My voice, fragile and scratchy, is stuck in my throat: I can barely hear myself onstage. If I manage to speak out my words more loudly, they sound expressionless and metallic. My acting is dull, my poise inadequate. I can’t focus, or memorize text, or find the places where I should interrupt or be interrupted, or remember when to get up or move or sit. Insecurity overcomes me, and I am only a helpless amateur who can’t envision a proud queen.

Several times a small group of youngsters has followed my interpretation with low-voiced laughter. They do not hide their scorn, and are not noisier only because they don’t want to upset our director. I’ve seen their laughing faces directed toward me. I know I am not their only victim: they don’t hesitate to ridicule anybody who looks embarrassed onstage. Some of the actors affected by their contempt, and some who have not experienced it but have a sense of decency, have protested, sternly. Two teenagers who play Talthybius’s role have stood in my defense; but I feel no satisfaction. Mocking hurts desperately and requires additional strength from me.

E., our director, has her own beautiful conception of how to make this production. If her idea materializes, I am sure that it is going to attract an audience. Unfortunately, it is so different from what had I imagined and desired. All that I had done before our first rehearsal looks so wrong now; it would have been better if I hadn’t worked on my own at all. Disappointment overcomes me.

I knew that we would have three performers for every character, and that three actresses would create Hecuba. This should be interesting for the public; but the existence of three of us, J., N., and I, confuses and distracts me. Besides, the image of classical tragedy I had borne my entire life is opposed to the idea of three performers at the same time playing one heroine.

It seems that we are parading senselessly around the stage, murmuring lines awkwardly and without passion. E. requires that we repeat them, as I see it, an endless number of times. There is so much anguish over this play’s birth. Tiredness, nervousness, quarrels, ironic remarks, crying, envy are common. As an oversensitive pessimist, I desperately want to escape. There are tensions among the three Hecubas. All of us are Sarajevans, and mature women. All three of us feel we strongly belong to Bosnia. We share a common agony over its destruction. Our culture and background are alike. We belonged to the same social circles. All three of us live in mixed marriages, and nationality and religion do not matter to us. We have some Sarajaven friends in common. There is no apparent reason for unease among us; but it exists.

The director, with great energy and patience, certain of her result, persists in her work with us. She teaches, advises, or corrects us individually, and connects us into groups, and makes these groups into a whole cast. Slowly, calmly, she weaves a net of characters around the Trojan queen.

As the days go forward, our voices sound sounder, more confident; our movements are more relaxed and suggestive; our individual expressions are more in agreement. The set is increasingly becoming a memorial to the loss of homeland, freedom, dignity, fathers, lovers, husbands, and children. The symphony of emotion is coming to accord. We start to believe, at least for the time we are together, that we are what we perform. The magic becomes reality, and reality is magic: the sparkling dream that I conceived on the beach has come closer to me.

Cassandra

Cassandra rises on the stage interpreted by three young girls, each of them distinctively beautiful and sensitive. S., El., and G., little by little, take on the features of this unfortunate daughter of Hecuba. Cassandra, soul-mate of my youth and my secret pain, miraculously grows here on the platform before me, so close that I can touch her with my fingers and my heart. The strong threads of my fantasy and the glimpses of my inner life, experienced so long ago and apparently forgotten, entangle the magic of the theater with that real world. I am fascinated by this.

A legend says Apollo was madly in love with Cassandra, his priestess, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, and gave her the gift of clairvoyance. She rejected Apollo’s love. The god punished her: she could foretell everything, but no one would ever believe her. Cassandra had predicted the Trojan catastrophe, but she was distrusted and dismissed. Everybody held her for a lunatic. Isolated, scorned, mocked, deserted by people around her, even her own parents, she awaited in horror the tragedy to come, all of its strokes in a precisely predicted order. She recognized the evil, deceitful character of the wooden gigantic horse, gift of the Greeks, and the subsequent destruction of Troy, the death of all of her brothers and sisters, her father’s murder, the slavery of the women and children, and her own coming death.

The text of the play makes only brief reference to Cassandra’s life in the Trojan court preceding the war. S., El., and G., with an electrifying passion, create the image of this virgin sacrificed to the bed of Agamemnon as the war prize. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the Greek commander-in-chief, an older man described in myth as being of treacherous character, will bring Cassandra home to his wife Clytemnestra, who will kill them both in revenge. While acting, S.’s face holds the ambiguous expression of a prophetess mistaken for a fool. Her voice cries in ironic desperation as she foresees her own death. In the sarcastic design of her fate, she will die in the embrace of her master and killer of her brothers. Her smile is helplessly cynical and bitter in response.

El., gentle, fair-haired, a serious-looking beauty, creates a noble and credibly grave character. Her painful but stoic words are said in a compelling, velvet-like voice. Her wide-open chestnut eyes convulsively prophesy terror. G., with her teenage face and slender, not yet fully developed body, invokes disgust toward the licentious Agamemnon. The girl is the age of Agamemnon’s own daughter Iphegenia, whom he sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis, when his fleet was becalmed in Aulis. His ambition was stronger than love for his own child: He is not respected by the other Greek chieftains: his glory was his motive and justification for the girl’s murder in Artemis’s shrine.

The actresses blend their three-sided princess into one mighty and moving character in delirium. Warmly, I love this misjudged and insulted girl on her way to death. I can’t help her and my heart earnestly curses Apollo for his vengeful vanity and the anger of the primitive male which is not fitting for the god. I had expected a god more dignified in the agitation of rejected lover. However, I like the Greek gods so much for their human-like complexity, which can explain everything in us. I can scold them in my own helpless anger of the humble. They would punish, of course, but the penalty is so humanly predictable, and I am not scared of the known. The misery of the men is more devastating in its deaf, monster-like, unpredictable self-degradation. From the bottom of my heart I loathe the idea of Agamemnon’s presence in the play.

My relations with Cassandra are not simple. My heart refuses to accept her madness as an option. Instead of curses I can only say words of compassion. My heart cries in remorse for failing to accept my prophetic girl in time. In the ambiguity of my position, floating between the queen whom I interpret, and my own self, the child inside me suddenly, irresistibly, emerges. First unconscious, then fully awakened, I mirror my adolescence in this Cassandra. It is impossible to disregard comparison with the past. As I grew up, my parents were busy, as were their generation at that time, after the Second World War, rebuilding their demolished and impoverished Yugoslavia. They were young, my mother twenty years old when she bore me, my father three years her senior. They struggled to earn our daily bread and reorganize their lives traumatized by the war. By the time she was fourteen, my mother had already fought fascists in Serbia. My father, a young Croat member of Sarajevo’s underground resistance, was captured and sentenced to death by Ustashe, the Croatian collaborators with the Nazis. He escaped to the mountains and spent the rest of the war as a partisan. He was seventeen years old.

Overworked now, having lived then in dread of the war, deprived of their own youthful dreams, my father and mother had ashen hearts. They did not understand the life of their daughter. As all growing children in the world do, I needed nurturing of the heart. I don’t remember that my parents had time to talk to me, play with me, dream with me, laugh with me, bring me to the zoo or the movies, discuss life with me. Once or twice we visited the puppet show. My father wanted to be left alone to arrange our Christmas tree; at the same time I desperately needed to take part in this event, but was not allowed to do it. All our communication somehow was brusque, even rude, and emotions had no place in it. And, my mother, whose toes had frozen on the battlefield, was already physically ruined. I do not recall their warm words, kisses, or touches of their hands on my hair. Both of them looked after my safety and dutifully provided me with clothes and the best education they could afford; and they passed their sense of justice and honesty on to me; but the tender loving ties between us never fully developed. My urges to express my childish creativity were ill-fated. Once as a six-year-old, I played teacher and talked to my imagined students. At that time I dreamed of becoming a teacher. To draw my mother’s attention, so much needed, I was lecturing loudly, and who knows what nonsense I was talking? Wasn’t I entitled to speak irrationally at this age? Isn’t fantasy any child’s way of acknowledging a world? My mother’s stern voice awoke me. I won’t forget her angry words, keen as knives: “Stop speaking stupidity.” I shrank back. Always, I was afraid to play, except when I was sure I was alone.

No one noticed my loneliness. In the peace of solitary life I longed for the love of my family. There, freely, without fearing of their judgment, I built my own imaginary world. They sometimes scorned and punished me. Often I didn’t know, and didn’t have a chance to ask why, and in time learned not to question even myself for an explanation. I desperately longed for warm connections with people – there was so much spirit in me to offer – but I lived in self-exile. I had no honest friendships in my youth. Distrustful and reserved, I never opened myself to other children. I grew from an alienated and sad child into an oversensitive, sometimes rebellious teenager, then into a timid young woman. The only real affair of my heart at that time was for my brother, four years younger than I, whom I thought of as my baby. A fear of all other humans – fear is a bad adviser – taught me that nobody needed whatever I had to give.

Pushed away unjustly from the human world, I plunged passionately into literature. Unknowingly, I cultivated a tragic sense in my heart, and I found inspiration in the tragic Greek heroines. They gave me comfort and greatness: identifying my life with theirs, I grew into a self-indulgent, uncontrolled sufferer.

Cassandra is an unconscious symbol of me being ostracized by others and myself. Antigone, a caring daughter and loving sister who sacrificed her own life to bury it in death with a disgraced brother, brought me the satisfaction of my own sisterly love. Andromache, Electra, Iphigenia, were the subjects of my endless mental analyses, self-comparisons, and self-compassion.

My life, however melancholic it had been in youth, turned toward an ordinary end: my marriage and my profession – a law practice, occasional writing for newspapers and technical journals, the business my husband and I started – brought me stability. Motherhood matured me completely. I came to America those years ago on a business trip, as a happy, well-suited mother, and co-owner of a prosperous, growing computer firm. The poetic, futile experiences of adolescence were replaced by the fulfillment of a grown woman.

However, there are lives existing under our skin that we unknowingly conceive, bear, and nourish with our own blood. Suddenly, uninvited, they spring from our interior, out of unexpected events of our being. The child inside me emerged in the face of this Cassandra growing on the stage. In her image, all the indignation of my estranged infancy and youth spilled out, and I couldn’t stop it. All that I could do was to help my own girl, suppressed long ago, to grow and leave me, for the sake of her, and my own, independence, in the interaction that all good mothers and good children have.

For the first time in my life I understand the depth and complexity of the figure of Cassandra, and my attachment to it. She is my own reflection in the lake. I need other components of my torment, too, to recognize my ripe inner self; but Antigone and her peers are not invited to the stage this time. It is not my play; it is the drama of the Trojan War. And Andromache is still to come. In the poem of overlapping cadences, three Yugoslav Cassandras create an elegiac polyphony that disarms me. Drawn by this enchanting picture, willing to give into myself more and more inside, a newborn and maturing Hecuba shivers and weeps helplessly for her unfortunate daughter.

During those days, as the Kosovo drama was unfolding before our eyes, I could not stop thinking about El., one of the three Cassandras. This young woman, an Albanian from Kosovo, was very special to me in many ways. At the initial meeting of the cast, in April, I was immediately caught by her presence. She was sitting behind the table: straight, smiling, and freshly beautiful as a flower: her deep brown eyes sparkled with warmth, her pale blond, shiny hair demurely covered half of her back, her soft bosom and round shoulders were gracefully poised. She had played the role the previous year, and invited to do so, she made a few remarks about this event. She spoke only in English, and her words were balanced and modest. Her happiness at participating again, and her hearty welcome to the newcomers, were frank and encouraging. Her features are seen so rarely in an individual; I could not stop looking at her.

At the rehearsals, El. is a serious worker, respectful and gentle in her behavior toward others. She speaks little but listens attentively. Acting, she is passionate, vigorous, and intuitive. In her fervent eyes, her convulsive movement, the dramatic tone of her voice, you can read the profound pain of the doomed prophetess. Often, without warning, my mind recalls the moment of Cassandra’s moving introduction into the performance. The stage is in deep darkness and silence; the audience is breathless in expectation. From the scaffold overhead a sudden light, flame-like, appears and the heavy beat of the Albanian drum, like a deep sob, is sounded. My skin turns to goose-flesh. The short dramatic moment ends; all is calm again. El.’s voice tears the silence. Angel-like, enfolded in a white dress, she furiously runs to the stage and cries out.

“Burn high! Burn strong!
Burn bright! Burn long!”

Always, when I hear the Albanian drum I feel without reason that something true and intimately tragic is about to happen. Now, there is reason. I remember the last time I saw El. We were ordinary people talking in the street. At that time, something terrible was about to happen in Kosovo; we knew it already. Soon afterward, Serbian militias started killing Albanian people. I can’t forget her worry-darkened face and her beautiful eyes, that had lost their sparkle. Without her customary smile, this always-kind woman could barely hide her anger. Compassionate, but overwhelmed by emotions of my own, I didn’t know what to say: at that moment, words were without meaning.

Now, seeing the seeress Cassandra on stage, her appearance frenzied, her voice piercing, I recognize that El. on the street, and I can’t untangle those two images. War will come to Kosovo, men will disappear and be killed, rivers of refugees will flee their homes. I will feel profound shame knowing that El. must witness those occurrences in bottomless terror.

In 1978, my brother was a soldier in the Yugoslav People’s Army in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Full of prejudice that spread from Belgrade across all republics in the federation, we believed Kosovo was a gloomy province full of wild and dangerous inhabitants, especially unfriendly toward Yugoslav soldiers and the state itself. Attacks and accidents that Albanians caused were reported, but we – as I acknowledged later – didn’t know the truth about them: who and what provoked them, and how they were provoked.

My family cried over my brother’s fate: we were sure that his physical existence would be jeopardized while he was in the service. Leaving our home, my brother wailed painfully in fear. I was panicked. Soon afterward, his letters arrived from Pristina – the phone was not in use at that time so much – and he talked cheerfully about Albanian friends. In time the number of people that he befriended grew, and he visited them in their homes, and they came to see him in his barracks. They spent much time together, and my brother talked about them warmly. I traveled to Pristina to see my brother. Out walking, I would ask bystanders about addresses and experience the deepest kindness. I asked one person for directions, and from all sides around me, people rushed to explain in my own language. And songs and music were coming from every restaurant, people were smiling, waiters were kind. My brother’s new friends, after his curfew, took care of my safe return to the hotel and made sure I had everything I needed. Impressed by the unreserved and welcoming attention of my hosts, in which the safety and comfort of the guest was the primary rule, I was never again tricked by the propaganda about the people. And, my brother who cried while leaving home, came back in tears, this time sorry to leave behind his friends in Pristina. Yet, in that street, early in 1998, I couldn’t help El. while she talked about Kosovo’s difficult situation. I was unable even to help my own memory.

Andromache

S., a radiant young actress from Belgrade, playing one of the Andromaches, genuflects at my knees. She portrays, gracefully and credibly, the noble widow of the Trojan hero, Hector. Mourning her husband, she clasps her young son to herself the more tightly. I hear her claim: to her late husband she gave all her love and care, the soothing power of a loyal wife. She supported and counseled him in days spent on the battlefield, offered him her wisdom, compliance, and the comfort of her soft warm hands. Now the great Greek hero Achilles has killed Hector and humiliated his dead body. Unprotected and disgraced, Andromache is given as a war prize to Achilles’ son. I understand that the happiness and glory of the old days are gone. But so are mine. I hear her woe, and realize: the idea that life is over haunts her. I do not feel anger for this broken, but young and beautiful, woman who turns her tender, weeping eyes on me and begs me to prize her love for and loyalty to Hector, my son. Her appeal for permission to resume her life, for the right to love again, even the enemy and the killer of her husband, does not upset me: but I am supposed to react in furious denial.

S. is a gentle, blond beauty with a delicate profile and slender body. Her talent is genuine. She impersonates Andromache’s pain with the soft, clear emotion of afflicted women. Simple in her ordinary life, in her appearance on stage she grows into unexpected greatness. There is the suggestive spell, the flexible movement, the credibility of her personal transformation into the character of Andromache. Her begging for life before the queen who loses everything, most importantly, power over her, doesn’t upset me. I am indifferent, stiffened, unshaken.

S. is a true performer who transfixes her audience. But on stage, her professionalism intimidates me, and I can’t dominate. I cannot become the strong, selfish, commanding queen; I am too small to demand from my daughter-in-law that she live in the memory of my son. My voice isn’t stern. Weakly, I forbid her to find love in her heart for any other man. So many obstacles stop me from transforming myself into Hecuba.

At home I try to build a psychological foundation for my anger toward this Andromache. I visualize the terror of Hecuba’s incomprehensible havoc. Her disgraced royalty, patriotism, womanhood, motherhood, do not invoke compassion for the younger woman seeking the future. Andromache is a symbol of the queen’s lost golden life and her motherly tragedy. Finally I understand the depth of her struggle to maintain the last shred of power in the inherently antagonistic relationship between mother and daughter-in-law.

With the dignity of the true professional, S. is patient and supportive onstage. Off-, she is generous. She warmly prizes my acting, suggests a way of solving difficulties, and shares my fear. Her advice is offered seriously, and with respect. I am grateful and feel encouraged. The complex emotions of Hecuba toward Andromache are entering the language of my body. My ambivalence toward S. as a woman from Belgrade is melting, too. Belgrade is the capital of Yugoslavia, whose government is the symbol of Bosnia’s destruction and my personal devastation. But once Belgrade was the dream city of my youth, when, drawn by its glory and glow, I wanted to live there. I was a high-school student; it was the mid-‘60s; but in Sarajevo, we were still recovering from the Second World War. On school trips we went to the capital. There I would visit members of my family in their noble houses with marble entrances. These relatives were perfumed and well dressed and their houses were filled with beautiful furniture. They lavished on me food that I had never seen before. They filled my pockets with so much money, more than I had ever possessed. They dazzled me, and I didn’t pay attention to how they pitied me for living in ‘backward’ Sarajevo. Now I recall how they used words like ‘primitive,’ ‘backward,’ ‘isolated,’ ‘Ottoman.’ They treated us ‘like Turks,’ as they said. They meant that we who were Bosnian lived in a land still occupied by the Ottomans, whom they still wanted to expel. This they could never say directly – it was illegal – but they conveyed it with irony and pity. I didn’t want to see this; I wanted to admire them, and be like them, and live among them. Outdoors, walking through the city, I saw fine architecture and monuments, the store windows crowded with designer clothes and the merchandise that I couldn’t purchase in Sarajevo. Streets, museums, restaurants, operas, and theaters were crowded with laughing, well-dressed people, happier than those in my native city. It looked as if everyone had rushed outdoors to celebrate life. Drunk on all this glamour, childishly na´ve, I didn’t ask where the wealth of Belgrade came from; I only wanted, desperately, to share the joy of the city. It was the war which brought me the unasked-for answer: Serbs desired to keep the riches that they collected from the rest of us unjustly, and they couldn’t let them go without killing.

When I grew up and went to visit Belgrade, I found refuge in the deep, stony coolness of St. Marko’s, a Serbian Orthodox church near the Yugoslav Assembly; I spent hours there in meditation. In those years, too, I sang in a chorus; when we performed in Belgrade, we liked afterward to greet the dawn in the ‘singing’ restaurants and nightclubs. Besotted by good wine and song, we imagined ourselves embraced by the city, like provincials in literature seduced by the charms of the capital. In those days I didn’t suspect that we were second-class people in that Yugoslavia. We paid with our blood and flesh to acknowledge that Serbs were the ‘upper race’ of society.

And for so long, I was intoxicated by my youthful dream. In 1985, when my then-boyfriend, now my husband, served in the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, I would visit him every month in Belgrade. In summer we strolled through the heavy fragrance of the linden and acacia avenues and spent hours on the shady terraces of the downtown restaurants eating excellent food, drinking cold white Serbian wine, listening to the spirited melancholy of gypsy music. On my own, I spent hours in museums that glorified Serbian tradition. Serbian glorification didn’t threaten me; I am part-Serb, and felt pride.

The words of my mother’s aunt awoke me. Once I stayed with her for seven days. This Serb woman, daughter of a priest, who once had lived in Sarajevo, dared to say to me, “How can you take for your life’s partner a Muslim man?” Then, in a prominent bookshop in the center, right in front of me, a man expressed the hope of revenge “for the Chetniks’ loss in the Second World War.” In the feverish eyes of this man, I dimly recognized a thirst for the killing of someone who might be close to me. Terrified and sobered, I lost the will to return to Belgrade. I was so happy when my boyfriend was dismissed from the Army sooner than we expected. While the war in Bosnia raged, and afterward, none of those Belgrade relatives I had met in ‘happier’ times phoned me, nor did I contact them. It seemed that we had parted long ago without knowing it.

In the beginning I was reserved toward S., trying to avoid any communication. She is friendly to everybody and very immediate. She shares her disgust at the bloodshed in Bosnia with the cast. However, she charms me with her persistent warmth, respect and supportiveness. I feel the most comfortable when I act in her proximity. And, as she has given me permission, I yell at her in delirious fury.

Creation of the play goes on. It requires more effort from me: Gradually I become more compassionate and give up my prohibition of love and life to Andromache. I now only ask her to raise her son in the memory of Troy and of Hector, his father. I hope my grandson, as he grows, will rebuild the city and restore its fame. It is hard to comprehend all the turns and variation in the relationship between Andromache and me, amid the shades, moods, and qualities of the character that I represent. However, it goes on quicker and easier that I initially imagined.

 

 

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