Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dirt and Dust? or a Sea of Green?



I wrote this piece for The National (Abu Dhabi newspaper), it came out in yesterday's paper

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090619/REVIEW/706189942/-1/OPINION

Ahmadinejad referred to them as "dirt and dust" but they took the insult and re-appropriated it. Yes, we are dirt and dust, they say. Watch this storm we breed.

You can not dangle the word "democracy" in front of people, and expect that they don't demand it.

During the day they take to the streets in "silent" rally. "Turn off your TVs", turn off the lies. "Silence will win against bullets" their banners say, what they cannot utter. In the night, they cry their anger and passion from the satellite strewn rooftops and window sills, where dust still collects.  And the ants continue their march to my pale blue bathroom sink.

Last night, until dawn, the mass call to prayer "Allah Akbar" was louder and more powerful than all preceding. It is a call to prayer, but also a call saying Listen! Listen to the injustice.

Today there is to be yet another sea of green in the broken streets of Iran's cities - despite the leader's recent callous, and threatening statement.

We are all praying for our brothers and sisters in Iran, that they may keep their strength throughout this battle for justice, and for their voices to be heard.





"We are Dirt and Dust?!"


"Silence"


Peace

Friday, June 12, 2009

Death to Potatoes

Potatoes for Votes? or Angels?Was this a true act in populism, or a complete sham?

So I guess those "rumors" that we were supposed to ignore are that the elections have been rigged. Now many Rumors are indeed running around.........

Mobile phone txt messaging service was cut off last night, many websites and newspapers blocked...the reformists are disputing the outcome. Now we wait to see how far they take the dispute, and how the people will stand behind them - unfortunately it is much more difficult to take a stand in defiance, than in peace. I've heard that Moussavi is supposed to speak in a few hours, but so far we can't get much info from National TV here.

Everyone is shocked, so far eerily quietly and grave. A sort of sad humor lingers around.  I've heard some mumblings displaying the sudden change in mood:

"People were tricked into coming out and voting. It was all planned. The ballot boxess were ready from the beginning."

"Democracy is a lie."

"Everyone voted for Moussavi!! ...but the 'angels' came and voted too (for A.N.)!"

and so on...

So it seems, the people came out, for their country, in an attempt to make a change, peacefully and within the law. They voted in record numbers, people who had never voted in their lives or at least in the life of this regime, in Iran and around the world. Only for this to happen.

Some good updates here at Guardian's live blog

Election Day

Yesterday a woman who works as a nanny told us that if she voted, she would vote for Ahmadinejad. When asked why, the best answer she could give was that he was President for 4 years, and well that is how it works here. He's been there, and now he knows. Everyone in the room sighed, noooo, that's not true, etc. She said Ahmadinejad is for downtowners (payin shahr) and Moussavi is for uptowners (bala shahr). Again everyone denied this, reminding her that Moussavi also comes from humble background, and has promised not to take back any of the help AN has given recently, but only to make it better.

Anyone who says they won't vote is chided by young and old. The elderly say they want to vote for the future of their kids, and the younger kids wish they were old enough to take part in the voting - although they have been quite active in the campaigning.

Meanwhile, sitting around the satellite TV, munching on fruit and nuts, people around me recount the most recent jokes over and over, as well as the chants that were circulating, and they sing "Ahmadi bye bye, Ahmadi bye byeee."

"bye byee"

One example is interesting, but it wont really translate interestingly, but it basically relates Ahmadinejad to street kids or lower class people, and Moussavi to spoiled rich kids.

AN fans chant:
"Moussavi, kam miyareh
Bacheh soosool avardeh."

Moussavi fans chant:
"Ahmadi, kam miyareh
Bache gedah avardeh."

Although all campaigning was officially forbidden as of yesterday, there were still youth out late into the night, sneaking peace signs with green laced wrists, and whispering "Moussaviii." In one of my relative's streets, kids parked their cars and danced in the streets, having a full on party.

In the past days, some people wondered - "Turn on the TV, is there a revolution?" And they get angry when the satellite channels from USA tell them not to vote. Many believe that something will really change, or at least it will be the start of something...

VOTE
Today, we went to the polls early. It was already full - there were queues forming even at the earliest possible time, 8am, which is impressive considering the fact that Iranians are usually late for everything.

Waiting in line everyone whispered about recent news or things they had overheard, and studied everyone who exited the polling station commenting on who they might have voted for. One man told his wife, as they walked out, "Did you write down AN??" Whispers hissed down the line like a telephone, repeating what they just heard. Everyone brought their own pen - it had even been announced on national TV the night before, to bring along a pen just to be safe.

In one of the news reports earlier today, an election commisioner announced that the "enemies of Iran were not so happy with the impressive turnout, and they are spreading rumors..." He urged people not to believe those rumors, and to continue their support. Who those "enemies" were or what the "rumors" were he did not specify.

Otherwise, the mood has been exxageratedly jovial and friendly, with interviewers and interviewees praising their mighty, dear, wonderful. proud country....

Millions have already voted, and there is a chance we will beat the record of 1998's 70% turnout.......We just can't wait for the outcome!








Thursday, June 11, 2009

Liar, Liar Pants on fire




I recently cut my hair very short. When I first got to Shiraz a few days ago, an auntie of mine told me my face has gotten a bit chubby - now that I am pregnant. My granny said, no it's probably because I cut my hair that my face seems bigger, because I haven't really gained weight yet. My auntie proceeded to tell my how much long hair suits me. Hmm, should I that a compliment? Yes, I should.

Beauty is a very important concept in Iran, like the entire Middle East really. Long hair definitely represents beauty for women (you should have seen the looks on the faces when I insisted that the stylist chop it all off). "Why did you cut it?" people ask, as if I had some kind of disease, or was struck briefly mad.

Even in the presidential race, beauty has been one issue, for some people at least. Everyone complimented Michelle Obama's most recent outfit, discussing her great but minimalist style. One woman here commented, while watching Moussavi speak, "now that would be a good looking president!" And everyone knows of a certain President whose looks, according to many, has tainted the image of generally good-looking Iranians. From the beginning of his presidency jokes about his ugly looks have been prolific.


This is nothing new, and it's not just in Iran of course. Something new however, has been the presence of women - specifically Mir Hossein Moussavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard - in the campaign spotlights. For the first time in Iran, a candidates wife has campaigned along side him. In one interview, when asked if she did this because of the popularity of Michelle Obama (many parallels have been drawn between the Iranian campaigns and Obama's), she said no she did it because it is a normal thing around the world and that a woman should not be hiding in the house. She should stand next to her partner and her role can be very useful.


One of Ahmadinejad's staunch supporters, journalist Fatemeh Rajabi, sees this, however, as exploitation of woman. According to Rajabi, that a woman is being used as a pawn in her husband's campaign, as she sits beside him, silently, it is against Islam and women's rights. But Rahnavard did not seem at all to be a silent or passive bystander.



Rajabi



Rahnavard

Last night AN came on national TV one last time - he had asked if he can defend himself and actually more so "the dear nation of Iran" against unfair accusations. He once again repeated, without mentioning specific names, all the wonderful things his government has done in the past four years, and that if he was a liar - as everyone claims - then how come he is so proud? One who lies and one who is afraid just doesn't go together, according to him. He also mentioned once again, a certain person (referring to Rahnavard) who has unfairly gotten her PHD and even teaches at university - which is a disrespect to all the professors who studied for 10 years, etc.

Lies and liars have been a central theme in the campaigns.



"Lies Forbidden" - in a rhyming word play with "Entrance Forbidden"
"Doroogh Mamnoo" ("Vorood Mamnoo")

It has now come out that Rahnavard plans to sue AN, who very openly defamed her on national TV a few days ago during the debate with her husband.

Yesterday there was a huge rally for AN in the streets of Shiraz, following a speech in support of him at the Hafez shrine's hall. The crowds of AN fans were followed by the green branch wielding Mousavi fans. Rumors are circulating that some of the AN supporters got a bit violent, throwing stones and getting in fights. This morning the streets have been quite thoroughly cleaned.

According to some sources, Moussavi is up at 54%, and taking the lead in 10 major cities, while AN is at 39%. Anything could happen though...although everyone is quite certain that a record will be set tomorrow with participation in the elections.

Another first has been the extensive use on online campaigning - especially on Facebook and especially with Moussavi reporters.

The aging Karroubi (who has also promised to put a woman in his cabinet, and to advocate for women's rights) has said he won't sleep after his prayers on Friday - promising not to let any election shenanigans slip in his wake. Rafsanjani has called for a clean election.


Karroubi

Today it is quiet, after, and before the storm......

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Green Wave


Painting the Town Green
Yesterday I was wandering around the streets, and all the kids were complimenting my green sunglasses - "oooh green, nice". Green is the color of Moussavi, and wearing it in any form has become a statement. My eyes are green too, I was thinking. Lucky me.

At the fruit juice stand, in a comradely exchange, a young passerby was tying green ribbons on each of the juice boy's wrists. I ordered an orange juice, but I really should have gotten the fresh green melon - it tastes better too.

In the streets of Shiraz, people gathered, covered head to toe in green. Anything green is dressed, tied, draped, pasted, or painted onto bodies. Some people tore off tree branches, with green leaves of course, waving them around at the passing cars. Poor trees, my uncle bemoaned, although a Moussavi leaflet sat on the table in front of him. The youth danced in the streets to Bandari music(a beat infused music from the Gulf). Police are around, but they dare say nothing.

A fiery green wave - "mowj-e sabz" - is crashing the cities of Iran. In Tehran people formed a green tinged human-chain - "zangir-e ensaani" - along the entire 25 kilometers of tree-lined Vali Asr Street, from Tajreesh market in the north, all the way to the train station in the south.



Moussavi Supporters
Debates
The debates are over now, and our nights are free again. They have made quite an impact. Here are a few highlights from those, as far as I understood, and can remember:

Ahmadinejad's strategy against Moussavi was to criticize the "20 year" era of rule in Iran before his time. During that time, he said, Iran was only bowing down to the West and meanwhile they only wanted to "destroy" Iran. It is only in the last 4 years, thanks to him of course, that America no longer threatens to attack Iran. He proceeded his blame game, citing various names including Khatami, Rafsanjani and others; at one point he said something to the effect of Rafsanjani and his son being at the "bottom of it all". Ooohs and aahs followed. "terroresh mikonan!?" (they will assassinate him), one viewer wondered....

Some saw Ahmadinejad's defensive stance as a sign that he is in a corner. Also, he was appealing to the same target group that won him the last election (highlighting the corrupt aspects of Iran's power base), and trying nothing new. Many agreed that he went too far. Others feared that some people would only think how proud he is standing and revealing the truth. And in fact some did appreciate it. The following day many people, with rancor in their bellies, listened to him being praised. "I am voting for Ahmadinejad now, he really unveiled everything." There was an excited rumor that Rafsanjani asked to speak on national TV, to defend himself, and that it was going to happen. But this was untrue. (just heard that Rafsanjani has issued an official letter to the Supreme Leader - read here)

Although some complain that Moussavi is not very eloquent (he uses the word "chiz" a lot, which means "thing"), he did however get the final words in, and he was pretty heated up - especially following the comments about his wife. All Ahmadinejad could do at that point was smile - I am not sure what the smile means, sometimes it looks like he is mocking and sometimes as if he's a fearful child.

Moussavi

When Karroubi was debating with Ahmadinejad he got so angry he was practically frothing at the mouth, which he kept wiping with a hanky. K brought up the episode at the UN in New York when AN claimed he had a yellow halo around his head, and when he said that he was going to be stolen from the USA. He also said that the worst sin in Islam is to lie, and he kept pointing out to AN's lies. AN showed a bunch of graphs which he claimed showed that Iran is economically in a better position than it ever was.

During K and M's debate, they both used the opportunity to defend themselves against AN's accusations, and of course to talk shit about AN.

AN and Rezai's debate, the final debate, was by far the best. Rezai, calmly and clearly, logically explained how Iran is not doing well economically and where the previous government, especially the president has erred. He clearly had a lot of information and knew what he was talking about, and many people who watched gathered this. Ahmadinejad only denied each of the claims, saying that everyone is exaggerating and is against the government, all the time twisting words and playing his games. R did not fall for any of the games though. And he kept his cool. At one point, when AN's lies were just verging on the ridiculous, R concluded that his main issue with AN is that he thinks so highly of himself, that he knows about everything, and is not wrong about anything. This is very dangerous, he warned his "dear brother Ahmadinejad". He said AN is not a "liar" (as the others bemoaned), but a "spinner of the truth". AN kept trying to get the last words in, unsuccessfuly trying to blame Rezai of having no experience managing government. The debate was scheduled to conclude with R. and it did, and Rezai ended it quite strongly and effortlessly, again facing those elusive tight-eyed grimacing smiles.

Rezai, with former Economy and Finance Minister

The debates seem to have had a profound effect. The same skeptics who thought nothing would change a few days ago, now believe there may be a good chance that reformists can win.

Campaigning
On those first nights, supporters would hit the streets right after the debate finished cheering and honking. By the last days of the debates, however, there didn't really seem to be a link, and the celebration, under the guise of campaigning, thickens into the night. Imagine the dedication, campaigning until 3 in the morning. The streets, however are not littered with leaflets. The are pasted on cars and store fronts. The majority of stores, in the center of Shiraz have Moussavi's face on them. Meanwhile Ahmadinejad supporters caravan around in motorcycles, looking sort of like a ghetto Hell's Angels.

SMS-baazi
Mobile phone SMSs about the elections are spreading like wild fire. There are at least a few new jokes about Ahmadinejad each day. The only translatable one I can think of had to do with a yellow halo, but this time around his pants (after the Rezai debate). Other SMS's announce meeting points and times - for Moussavi supporters. One SMS warned not to wear green on election day, as your vote may not be counted. Another advised voters to bring their own pens, - rumor had it that the pens at the ballots might contain disappearing ink!

shirazi girl

I am back in iran after a year. It took a couple days, but I did find one of those moments, amidst all the chaos, where I realized what I like about it here. They are brief flickers, especially in the heat and pollution of the summer, but they are still there.

For this post, you will have to bear with me, or I'll have to bear with myself, as I am working with quite a crappy key board, at this internet cafe...

I arrived not only in the heat of the summer, but also right in the middle of a heated presidential campaign. four candidates are running, including incumbent president ahmadinejad. also in the mix are 2 reformists - Mousavi and Karroubi. and one pragmatic conservative, Rezai.

i was happy to discover that everyone is quite into the elections, watching the debates everynight, then immediately switing to bbc persian or voa persian to see what everyone is saying (although for many, the satellite signals have been scrambled - we still cant get bbc persian for example)...and to my initial surprise, many from my family are going to vote. for the past 6 nights there have been live debates between pairs of candidates broadcast on state television - a first in iranian politics. many of the 'debates'have been an excuse to defame eachother, but there have been moments of decent discussion.

the first night i got here debate was between ahmadinejad and moussavi. moussavi has the most support out of all those running against the president, therefore the most chance, so of course everyone was excited. ahmadinejad was acting below the belt, when he started threatening to talk about someone moussavi knows - he taunted moussavi, "should i say it? should i, should i??"-with that bush-like smirk on his face. moussavi calmly replied yes go ahead, but im sure he was surprised later when it turned out to be moussavi's own wife that ahmadinejad was defaming - accusing her of having unlawfully attained her phd. he even pulled out a picture of her as he spoke - for all to see. the whole room watching gasped, and echoed the disapproving "sts sts sts" with stiff wagging tongues. later when moussavi spoke, he sternly defended himself and his wife and when he told ahmadinejed not to interrupt him - in a tone that basically said "shut the - up" everyone loudly cheered.

moussavi

in the streets of shiraz crowds of supporters campaign in the streets - but many of them are using the occasion to be out, gathered until the wee hours of the night, honking their horns, yelling slogans, and dancing around. each night there seem to more and more, and they come out earlier, staying out later and later..

interestingly some candidate suppprters have taken up some inspriatin frm obama's campaign. some karroubi supporters bear the logo "change" not even translating to persian, in giant letters on bright t shirts. ahmadinejad often repeats the slogan - "yes, we can, our country can" - in persian, but quite reminiscent of obama's famous slogan!
one ahmadinejead supporter yelled from the side of the street "ahmadinejad, for the health of our country's future!" while everyone in my taxi snickered.

a rumor was going around that some suspicious looking people were taking photos of those with moussavi posters on their car- supposedly photographing the license plate number.

but each day just seems to get more and more vibrant, with traffic intensified, gossip abound, people rallying and letting loose out on the streets. and i've heard tehran quite exciting right now.

mean while shirazi home life hasnt changed much: small talk is still an art form; and eating is the central activity of daily life, aside from sleeping - i literally felt like i was back in day care yesterday, when i was almost forcefully put to sleep, promptly after lunch, for the obligatory 2 hr afternooon nap. you wake up to tea and more eating...

well, this is about all i can take from this keyboard for now. will try to update more soon.......

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lost in Dubai

In Tehran I lived with the dust of history. Lost memories, demolished buildings and drifting nostalgia, among a host of other things, filled the air with thousands of tiny particles.


Every morning I would wake up to find a transparent skin of dust precariously clinging to every flat surface of the house. I spent hours wiping, scrubbing and dusting. But the dust was persistent. Just like the ants, who always managed to find their way back, after I’d zapped them away, drawing a long queue from the bathroom sink, marching out to some well planned destination. I could never figure out the logic of where they were going, as if it was just some old, well-maintained habit they were carrying out. One morning, the bathroom sink was black with the tiny ones; they had staged a coup. It failed of course, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be back.


In Dubai we live with the dust of the future. Today, outside our apartment window, on the 31st floor, we counted 60 cranes within our view. The first time we turned on the air conditioner, a cloud of dust formed over our heads. Under the bed, the dust gathers into hundreds of little fuzz balls, and if the wind is a bit strong the sand from the surrounding construction blows right up into us. The spectacular view, however, makes up for it. As I was sweeping today, acting out that never ending drama versus the microscopic tumbleweed of desert landscapes, known in this case as my floor, I was reminded of my dust adventures just one year ago, not so far away in Iran. I realized that these disruptive little speckles were all somehow connected, at least in the smooth surfaces of my brain’s memory, and I wondered if we would ever really win the battle against dust. Become one with the dust. Hmmm. That didn't work with the clock's thunderous tick-tocking in the bedroom, and I don’t think it will work here.


We arrived in Dubai a month ago, hunting for a place to live and getting to know this jungle of concrete and glass, which we are to call ‘home’ for the next few years.



Aside from the sun, one of the first things I noticed was the friendliness of people - but it was a different kind of friendly. Unlike the rest of the Middle East this is a true service society, at least that’s what it feels like. Once you dig a bit deeper, you are met with cases inefficient bureaucracy, late arrivals, canceled appointments and confusing traffic. And it’s all a bit more frustrating here, because you aren’t expecting it – with polished surfaces, looks so modern and functional right?


We quickly learned that you can’t buy alcohol in the city until you get licensed, so everyone stocks up in the airport’s duty free, where each person can purchase up to 2 units, which varies depending on the drink (1 case of beer, 2 bottles of wine and 1 bottle of liquor each equals to 1 unit). We already have quite a hefty collection in the ‘liquor cabinet’.


Bars can be found only in hotels, so it’s pretty difficult to find a hole in the wall type place - unless it’s a ‘bring your own’ establishment or a brothel. We asked one guy to recommend us a bar, and he described one that he liked as “Lost in Translation-y.” We liked that description, and he was right - but this whole place has that sort of mood.


'Lost in Translationesque' bar in the top floor one of the "Emirates Towers"


So we finally moved in a week ago, into our new home, right smack in the middle of a giant construction site known as ‘Business Bay’ – a huge development intending to skyrocket (literally) Dubai into the ranks of Manhattan and Ginza in Tokyo. The center piece of Business Bay is the notorious 'Burj Dubai', set to be the highest building in the world with 160 stories, and to be surrounded by an idyllic pool of water once it’s completed – a real castle of the future complete with moat and bridge.


Burj Dubai - view from our balcony (click on images to see larger)


We were told that a few years ago the area around us was nothing but desert, with just one small road trailing through the sand. People who’ve witnessed the transformation can’t find enough words to express their awe at the extent and pace of the development.


"Sheikh Zayed Road" Before (around 1992)


After (2006)


Meanwhile the entire city of Dubai is actually under construction, with huge projects sprouting at every corner of the city. These developments, along with various malls, buildings and free zones, often have an Orwellian chime to their name: ‘Knowledge City’, ‘Media City’, ‘Healthcare City’, ‘Discovery Gardens’, ‘The Greens’, ‘The World’, ‘Dubai Land’, ‘Global Village’, ‘Silicon Oasis’, ‘Nutrition World’, and so on. All services perfectly situated in their propagandized islands, with a designated neighborhood for just about everything. As Mike Davis aptly describes, it’s the concentrate, the ultimate exaggeration, of consumerist culture. Others refer to it as the ‘Las Vegas of the East’. For me it’s the ultimate Post-Modern fantasy, with whimsical lost castles rediscovered, unfathomable sky scrapers, air-conditioned bus stations, snow skiing when it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside….


"Ski Dubai" inside The Mall of the Emirates


"The lost city of Atlantis"


The view of the apartment building across from us is a cross between the film-scapes of Jacques Tati and moody Lost in Translation - vertical rows of big glass windows, each with an identical glowing flat-screen TV and minimal d├ęcor. 30 stories down is our idyllic pool, shaded by umbrellas and palm trees. 30 meters to my left is a giant crane inching towards our living room windows.


A walk in the clouds


Cloudy view from our window - Burj Al Arab in the distance


A famous photo of Dubai taken from the Burj Dubai


One of the favorite pastimes here is reciting random statistics and superlatives about Dubai:


-25% of the world’s cranes are located in Dubai (a big percentage of those just outside our window), with a population of about 2 million and area of just 1,500 square miles

-the biggest mall in the world, biggest man-made islands, the longest man-made shoreline, the biggest aquarium, etc.

Aquarium at The Atlantis Hotel


-Dubai hosts the only 7 star hotel in the world


'Burj Al Arab' - with 'The Atlantis' in the distance, on the right


-80% of Dubai’s population is made up of expats, only 20% are ‘locals’. Of that 80%, 60% are low-wage workers from South East Asia - most of who provide the city with its hard labor and service sector, and many of who live in what are called ‘labor camps’.


A 'labor camp' - and the city they are building


The list goes on…


But what has ceased to amaze me here so far has been the construction, day and night, which seems to never end. Not only is it rampant, but every building has a very unique design, whether it twists up into the sky, is decked out with sparkling glass, or topped off with a cherry of intricate imaginative lines and shapes and dramatic lighting. On New Year’s Eve we took a stroll around the ‘Marina’ area, another eye-candy of sky-scraping development, where our midnight toll was the sound of cranes sweeping across the shiny black sky above us, lit up by twinkling lights which are pinned to the metal monsters dangling from tops of buildings.


Dubai Marina


The malls - where you do anything and everything, from grocery shopping and getting your nails done, to attending court - are getting a bit boring, but I’m sure once summer hits I will be thanking the gods for the air conditioned mammoths.


Neenee at 'The Dubai Mall' - with Olympic size ice skating rink and giant Christmas Tree


I still haven’t had a chance to deal with the dust on my upper lip since we arrived though, the locals must be horrified! Time to hit the mall...



More Photos Here - click on this:


Welcome to Dubai - First Month

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Diary of a Snaika in Serbia

Over the past year I have written, as many do, of my accounts (of stereotypes) from the Middle East, more specifically Iran. Now that I've spent a substantial amount of time in Serbia, I feel I should summarize a few of the generalizations I've come up with about this area. As most of my writings, this is also about me - Neenee - and my perspective, standing on a point among a whirlwind of complicated issues and cross-hatching facets of life’s space and time. Ultimately, I think we should all come to our own perspectives (however confusing and multitudinous they may be), try to be comfortable with them, while acknowledging that that is all they are, hairy little things.

The first time I came to Serbia, a few years ago, someone asked me if it looks more like Europe or the Middle East. I said Middle East. I had just spent an excruciating train journey from Western Europe, across to Eastern Europe, getting slower and slower as we trickled down into Serbia. I had also been living in the Middle East for a time before this, and somehow a similar feeling struck me. My father often refers to Iran as "the old country." This was also an "old country."

Serbia, and probably the Balkan region in general, lies on a point between north, south, east and west - physically, historically and culturally. Maybe that's why no one here uses those directing points. You never hear someone say "it's north of so and so", or "the south-west corner of..." They are just way too confused direction-wise, being right in the thick of it, in the eye of the storm.

bananas 4 Serbia

From the north-west, a European facade, still in the making, glosses over the rampant corruption and bureaucracy. From the south-east (the 'Near-East' or 'Middle-East' as some like to call it), deeper cultural traits and habits have merged into local culture and identity. From the east Russia, who most people see as Serbia’s only 'friend', fights against those who desire swift transition into Europe. And straight from the blood of the soil, building further into the identity-under-construction, a rural, tradition-infused Serb dances the Kolo. Depending on which part of the country or in which room you find yourself in, these influences factor in more or less.

In the 'heart' of Serbia

on the way to EU!

Other apparent contradictions contribute to this stormy feeling.

A gypsy shanty town reflects off the polished glass walls of a developing high rise. The biggest Roma camp lies just across the river, minutes from the heart of Belgrade. Supermarket Vero's giant red white and blue banner beams just across the road from the sprawling trash heaps of the black market beneath the decrepit train station which has no time-tables, just a grumpy old woman who tells you from behind the sharp hairs in her protruding mole that the train comes once every hour, and it's your lucky guess to find out which part of the hour that might be. Okay, I think it's safe to just ignore the trains.


As for the tramway, I won't even go there, it would take pages of frustration. But I will say I was pleasantly surprised when I found a used ticket for the tram sitting quietly in the ticket-punching slot, for the next lucky passenger to reuse.

Belgrade Trolley

The smells of Turkish cuisine billow up the commanding corridors of Socialist building blocks. Turkish coffee (or Serbian coffee as some like to call it), stuffed cabbage leaves, baked pies stuffed with meat and cheese, and 'Vegeta' (THE all-purpose seasoning of vegetable stock powder used in every recipe). Other olfactory delicacies include the burning rubbery fume of the city's central heating plant - which is turned on to automatic in the winters – blasting from early morning to late night. Residents like their heating extra hot and there is one round of complaining to the city to turn up the heat - some people's homes feel like a sauna. The burning rubbery mixes with the smell of burning red bell-peppers, which are being roasted in bulk for winter supply. The air is cooling and the leaves are yellowing. And giant buckets of souring cabbage marinate on utilitarian balconies.

Old men with weathered faces sit on park benches in soft hats, fondling their fists behind their backs or a tall beer. Young girls with chiseled faces pace around the city's catwalks with towering legs tucked into short outfits. Men wear purses under their arms, a remnant from the chaotic 90s, and its rampant inflation, when everyone carried around wads of cash.

The sky is grim as winter nears, but beautiful, above the crossing of two of the world’s epic rivers, Sava and Danube.


Women color their hair white-blond, jet-black or red - they could be German, Greek, Iranian, or Russian.

Hospitality is reminiscent of the tradition infused eastern neighbors, combined with a frankness more similar to the west, and a brutally sarcastic sense of humor like the Russians.

Superstitions - of the east, along with the more local ones - amount to more than I have ever witnessed.

They eat their soup tepid.

Kebabs are made with pork. Yogurt is consumed by the liter.

Old fountain

Belgrade is famous for its vibrant party scene, although I always went home too early and the party always got good soon after I left. Rakia, the national, often home-made spirit, helps get you dancing all night. Days spent snoozing in cafes or browsing one of the various winter film festivals...

At various glances the city looks very European with flourishes and even entire neighborhoods of Central European architecture especially toward the north (where Serbians escaped Turkish rule, towards Austria-Hungary), a variety of Ottoman relics (the region was under Turkish rule for nearly 500 years) present an Oriental flavor, elephantine Serbian Orthodox churches link to the Christian east, while the modernist Socialist monuments and blocks of a ‘better’ time dominate the urban cityscapes. They all remind you of the mixed history of this place.

Fighting the Ottomans

Hungarian tower in Zemun, Belgrade

What did the Turks do for us!? They built bridges.

St. Sava Temple, Serbian Orthodox

Monument

In the language you will also find a mixed heritage of words - I find particularly interesting those from the Turkish, which often trace back to Persian or Arabic, and I am always chuffed when we (my partner is Serbian) find shared words in Serbian and Persian. A favorite is “maymoon” which means monkey in Serbian, Turkish and Persian. It's a common insult in Serbia and it always makes me giggle.

The issue of Kosovo is quite mixed up, with divided opinions across and between generations and styles of people. A few young people adamantly defend the right of Kosovo's independence, recognizing the unfairness of the declaration but emphasizing the brutality of treatment by Serbians towards Albanian-Kosovars in the 90s. These people also generally desire a speedy transition into the EU, and see the independence of Kosovo as practical and inevitable. Others are more skeptical about Kosovars, and emphasize the present unfairness in the deal, and backwardness of Albanians in Kosovo. At different levels of fervency, these people regard Kosovo as the heartland of Serbia, the site of the most historical moments in the narrative of Serbian identity, and physically - many important monasteries. The more liberal youth tend to, sometimes rather harshly, write off this religious nationalism, resulting in a widening gap between the ideologies, and a lack of constructive negotiation - a phenomenon I found in Iran also, something which probably happens, to some extent, everywhere.

Northern 'Serbian' Kosovo

Moms are truly "moms" here. They are care-takers, they worry and fuss about. They cry when their kids leave, and wonder if they should have protected them from the education that sent them off abroad exploring the opportunities that their education made them realize. That way they would be ignorant, but still here with them. Most of them just fuss about this, but know deep inside that they made the right decision. There is always something to complain or worry about, perhaps to bring some meaning to their life. This reminds me of a middle-eastern trait. They cook wonderful meals and, no matter what time of day, always ask you if you're hungry. Families often live together, or in the same building. I am known as a “snaika” – name for the wife of a fellow Serb, and they actually call you that. When my mom came to visit, she was called “priya” which is the mother of the snaika.

Mama with snaika-Neenee-in-training

Priya in Belgrade

Serbians adore nicknames, and everyone has at least 3. The first time I visited I was actually confused at what to call my partner, whose name was already weird to me. His name is Slobodan and his nicknames – all of them actively in use – include the following: Slobo, Sloba, Slobs, Bslo (Slob backwards), Boko, Boban, Chicha (which means grandpa). I also gained my present nickname here in Serbia – Neenee, which is how you say my name in one of the grammatical declinations (different endings for or formations of nouns, in different parts of speech).

My last weekend in Belgrade was that of the famous Slava ('Saint Day') of Saint Nikolas. In Orthodox tradition, which is on the rise since the 90s, each family has a Slava. This particular Slava is the biggest because, for some reason, half of Serbian families have St. Nik as their family saint. The Slava families host their friends and relatives for a feast with various traditions taking place. Everyone likes to tell you that on this weekend half of Serbia has Slava and the other half is visiting a Slava. It has therefore become a sort of unofficial holiday.

On this evening I was sitting in the dingy tram with my bottle of wine in its tall gift bag. Everyone on the train, like me, was headed for a Slava feast prepared bearing gifts of wine or flowers, and silently bearing the ride. The windshield wipers were tick-tocking back and forth, even though the rain had slowed down and was barely noticeable, making a sound as irritable as scratching on a chalk board, over and over.

I started going over all the petty little things, adding up that day, that annoyed me, trying to convince myself that my irritated mood was not vain: My toes immediately get wet in the rain in my brand new boots; The zipper of my coat never works the first time and the cloth always gets stuck in it; My umbrella, if I remember to bring it, catches on to my sleeve when I'm opening it; It's too cold outside and too hot inside, and I'm sweating half the time; I ran for the tram, looking like an idiot, once again; My cheeks are starting to sag and I have one tiny wrinkle growing along the right side of my lips; I banged my head on the low ceiling in the kitchen again; I bleed from the uterus every 3 weeks...

Sitting in the bus now, feeling sick to my stomach because I decided to sit facing the back of the feverish bus and too lazy to move, we are headed for the outskirts of Belgrade, but I’m going backwards as if rewinding reality. The windows steamed up and X-mas lights twinkled outside under the rain, swept about like strings of chewed up gum. Turns out it really was raining, and I was just being unfairly grumpy earlier after all. The doors squeaked, the windshield wipers squeaked, brakes squeaked, and bus jerked, over and over.

And the rain outside accelerated in the exhaust in front of a car's headlights, which looked like shining eyes of a frog finding its way through wet blankets of fog... and I was reminded of beauty once again, whatever it is, existing even in this dark dreary rain, and I snapped out of my false misery.

And I remember more blissful moments.

At the rakia factory - in my element

"Slatko" - "sweet" plum preserves

Surrounded by pork

In a quiet place in the country, with my Serb