Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)

Skoplje's Black Mountain

ON our way from Matka we stopped at the ruined mosque which is a landmark on the eastward road out of Skoplje. It is a small and lovely thing, with a tomb almost as large as itself beside it, and it suffers gracefully the growth of long grass and yellow flowers on its crumbling cupola. Within, a score of ravens sat immobile on the iron grilles of the glassless window, dark against the outer sunshine. I clapped my hands and they flew out, and a score more dropped from the vault of the cupola, and hovered a second, croaking a complaint, before they too went out into the light. We heard music, and when we went out we found a concert was taking place on the grass between the mosque and the road, for a gipsy band, trudging its way to a village for the Easter Monday celebrations, had stopped for a moment to play to some holiday-makers in a cart. A man in the cart leaned forward as we approached, and threw a coin on to the tilted forehead of the gipsy who was playing the horn, and a roar of laughter went up. The gipsy was careful not to shift his head as he went on playing, so that the coin continued to stick where it was. This seemed to me most exciting, because I had read that it was a favourite diversion at the feasts of the Byzantines to throw coins on the faces and bodies of courtesans who were singing and dancing, and see how long the women could go on with the performance without letting them drop; and as the gipsy played he was smirking and waving his eyelashes in a classic imitation of a courtesan. Actually it seems, apart from its historical interest, an unamusing habit, with an alarming implication that the Byzantines liked a pork-like richness of physique in their women. I even prefer the allied habit that Christians cultivate all over the Near East of throwing coins at certain icons and attaching great importance to the length of time they remain without falling. This is of course irreverent, though not more so than, say, Pascal's wager.

We took a road across the wide valley, through fields of young corn that were edged by the first poppies, and bumped up to the range of hills that is known as the Skopska Tserna Gora, the Black Mountain of Skoplje. There are a group of eight villages on it, of which only a couple are Bulgarian in feeling; all the rest are strongly Serb. They are famous for the dour and fierce character of the inhabitants and the beautiful embroideries worked by the women: the thick, dark, tragic embroickries we had seen some passers-by wearing when we were breakfasting the previous day. They are very large villages. It is an odd circumstance that the disadvantageous political conditions of the Balkans produced an indubitable social benefit in keeping the villages large and compact. As the farmers feared raids from the Turkish troops and all the numerous armed forces begotten by the maladministration, they built houses side by side in some convenient spot and went out to their fields in the morning with their livestock, and brought it back at night; so the most discouraging features of agricultural life, as we know them in England and America, the loneliness of the women and the development of eccentricities due to isolation, are not present in the Balkans.

We came to the first village, a huddle of white houses with dark-brown roofs wedged in a valley rich with poplars, and found a great square choked with peasants watching their young men and women dance the kolo. They were certainly enjoying themselves, yet the effect was not joyful. The young people were wearing clothes covered with the most beautiful designs being invented in any part of the world today, masterpieces of abstract art, yet the effect was not of beauty. They were dancing, and yet the effect was not ecstatic. There was a profoundly depressing element in the scene, which was, quite simply, the women. The men were handsome, but nobody could have got a moment's pleasure from looking at any of the women. I have never seen a plainer-looking lot. This was partly because they were wearing head-dresses and clothes heavy enough to wear down the strength of a bullock. Where a good tradition has not kept the women's head-dresses to simple embroidered scarfs and kerchiefs, as in Debar and some other-districts, they become shapeless piles of assorted haberdashery, mixed up with coins and cords and false hair and flowers; and I have never seen any more cumbersome than those of the Skopska Tserna Gora. Their bodies were padded with gowns of the coarse Macedonian linen which is said to be so thick that worms cannot gnaw through a shroud of it; over these they wore sleeveless coats made of rough serge, and many oddments in the way of aprons and belts, and sometimes sheepskin jackets over these. From the strained expressions on these women's faces it was quite plain that they were suffering the same nervous and muscular inconvenience that we would if we were obliged to go about all day wearing our bed-clothes applied to our persons.

But such head-dresses, such clothes, do not come into existence by chance. They are usually imposed by a society that has formed neurotic ideas about women's bodies and wants to insult them and drive them into hiding, and it is impossible for women to be happy in such a society. The pattern traced by the kolo confirmed that these women were the victims of such social persecution. One's first impression was that the kolo was very lively, and so it was, but only so far as the first half of it was concerned. That half was composed of men, who leaped and twirled high in the air, in the happiest abandonment to the rhythm of the gipsy band; the second half, which was composed of women, shuffled along with their heels never leaving the ground and not a muscle of face or body answering to the music. It is true that Slav women never dance in the same way as men, since the feminine ideal is the stiff and stylized Virgin of the icons, and they therefore prefer to posture rather than to trip, but this was a stockishness surprising to find anywhere but among the inorganic. or the dead. It was exhibited still more grossly in the second village we visited, where they danced the kolo on a patch of sloping grassland beside a willow-hung stream. There it was as if the first part of the kolo were a broken-backed snake, the first half rearing and twisting in liveliness, the second half a limp length dragging on the ground.

It was strange, for the women who sewed these embroideries were plainly not lacking in the capacity for excitement. It must be that these women are not allowed to dance, and it could be read in their sullen, colourless faces that there was not much they were allowed to do. I remembered then that I had heard it said in Skoplje that on the Skopska Tserna Gora wives are so harshly treated by their husbands that if they are left widows nothing will induce them to remarry. No degree of privation could approach in horror that masculine tyranny. I also remembered a curious conversation I once had with a young woman who had washed and waved my hair in a shop at Skoplje. She was in her early twenties, she was pregnant with her second child, she rose at five and did the housework and got her elder child ready for the day, and then she worked at the coiffeur's from half-past eight in the morning till half-past seven at night, with a midday interval which she spent in cooking and serving her husband's dinner. On her Sundays she did the family laundry and made clothes. When I told her that this seemed to me a hard life she laughed heartily and said that it was nothing to what she would have had to, do if she had stayed at the village where she was born, in the Skopska Tserna Gora. The men, she said with great bitterness, left all the work they could to the women, even if it were far beyond their physical strength.

At the third village we saw more than the dancing. The car we were in was flying the Government flag, because Constantine had borrowed it from the Ban of the province; and it happened that the people here were not only fanatically pro-Serb but wanted something from the authorities. So they broke into cheers as we got out of the car, an action I always dislike, as it never fails to mean that I have been mistaken for someone else. But still Constantine was a Government official, and this was enough for them, so after the young people had danced a kolo for us we were taken to the house of three handsome elderly brothers, who were the chief men of the village. It was the usual Balkan house, with a stable for the livestock on the ground floor and an outside staircase leading up to a balcony off which open the living-rooms. The men put out on the balcony a long table and two benches, covered with rugs. Several other important men of the village came in and were introduced to us, and we all sat down and drank musty red wine, and ate sheep's cheese and hard-boiled eggs, which the brothers shelled for us with their own hands. We were joined by the wife of the eldest brother, a woman of about forty, wearing a dress on which the Persian design of the moon tree was adapted to a Christian purpose, with her healthy and well-mannered youngest child in her arms; and I think other women were listening and whispering behind a half-open door.

When we had eaten and drunk, the men, who were all of dignified bearing and decisive manner, began to instruct Constantine in the message he was to take back to the authorities. It was cool and logical. Yes, it was true that they were having great trouble with another village, grave trouble. It was true that three men had been killed and one wounded. But it was no use sending gendarmes with instructions to keep order, for the trouble was about something, and it would not cease until that something was settled. It was not merely that the other village was Bulgarian: there was a real conflict of interest concerning the water rights; and, as they all realized by now, the dispute had gone on for so many generations and there had been so much ill-feeling engendered that it would go on for ever if some independent person did not intervene and arbitrate. So would the Government please send a commission to look into the matter at once? They had already sent a request for it, but they knew theirs would only be one among innumerable petitions from villages, and would probably not be dealt with for years, or at least months, and this matter was urgent . It ought to take precedence of requests for better roads or lighting, because as long as it was not settled there would be clashes, and there was certain to be more loss of life. So would Constantine please inform the proper people?

He said that he would; and indeed the next day he did. Then these men of the Skopska Tserna Gora went on to talk of other matters. "And you?" they said. "We can put our house in order if you put your house in order up in Belgrade. Are you doing that? Sometimes we doubt it." They said that they saw the economic necessity of the pact with Italy, but they did not believe that it could mean much. "Those people have worked against us here in our own country, they have spent money like water raising up Macedonians against their brothers, they put bombs in the hands of those who killed our King. Why should they suddenly be our friends? They will steal all they can from us. It is a pity that anything should be done which will make our young men forget that they are enemies and that we must be ready to defend our country against them." But they were still more perturbed by the pact with Bulgaria. "It is impossible," they said, "to make peace with the Bulgarians. They are our non-brothers." Then the woman with the child in her arms spoke, and all the men fell silent. "I have seen with my own eyes my brother and my brother's son killed by Bulgarians," she said, and the statement was even stronger that it sounds to Western ears, because of the special tie that exists between Serb brothers and sisters. "They killed them without mercy, as if they were not Christians but Turks." The words came down like a hammer. She closed her lips in a Straight line, and the men began to speak again, urging the implacability of their enemies and its everlasting quality.

It was horrible to hear these primitive people speak with such savagery, and to realize that they were savage not because they were primitive but because they had been deliberately corrupted by the Great Powers. The prime cause of Macedonian violence is, of course, five hundred years of misgovernment by the Ottoman Empire. But it would never have assumed its recent extreme and internecine character had it not been for England's support of the Ottoman Empire when it would have fallen apart if it had been left to itself; had it not been for the artificial Bulgarization of the Macedonian Serbs which was carried on, generation after generation, on money supplied by the Tsardom; had it not been for the Austrian Empire, which was so ambitious in its Drang nach Osten that it cited by reaction a Serbian chauvinism which made Serbs not the most ideal administrators of a province far from unanimous in its desire to be administered; had it not been that Italy had perverted the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization by finance and villainous tutelage. What I saw was not the darkness of these dark men's hearts, as a hostile traveller might have imagined, but the announcement of their legitimate determination to defend the tables and benches we sat on, the musty wine and the hard-boiled eggs and the sheep's cheese, the woman and her child, the breath in their bodies, from the criminal intentions of the silly-clever in great cities, who fancied that the rape of these might secure them some advantage.

As we drove away, my husband said to Constantine, "Those were magnificent people. They had form, they had style. They were not at all overawed because you came from a big town, and they need not have been, because they knew what was necessary in town or country, to think clearly and put clear thoughts into clear words." "Certainly they were magnificent people," said Constantine, "they are what the Serbs were before the battle of Kossovo, they have maintained themselves in these hills for five hundred years without giving up what they have. Never were the Turks able to settle here, which they would have liked to do, for nature is everything to them, and it is very beautiful here. But when they came it was well with them only for a few days, and then they died. These men of the Skopska Tserna Gora, they could not be conquered."

Later I said, "It was strange how they all fell silent when that woman spoke; they behaved as if they had a great respect for her. Yet the women outside had the air of downtrodden drudges...." But it was easy to see what happened. This was a situation common enough among individuals and among races. There is an attitude of contempt for women in general, a pretence that women are worthless, even though the fullest advantage is taken of their worth. At times that advantage is taken in circumstances so spectacular that it cannot afterwards be repudiated. The woman in the house of the three brothers had plainly proved her quality by some act of courage or cunning in the face of the enemy which could not be forgotten. Yet the general attitude of men to women was still maintained. All the women in the village were treated as if courage or cunning on their part was inconceivable, as if they were lucky to be used as beasts of burden. This cannot have been agreeable, even to the woman who had established herself as an exception. If all Englishmen were compelled by a taboo to be treated as inferiors by all female beings over the age of fourteen, forbidden to move or speak freely in their presence, and obliged to perform all menial duties without thanks, an Englishman who happened to have won the V.C. would still not find life enjoyable.

Yet it has to be recognized that these men of the Skopska Tserna Gora could not be conquered. We must admit here a process that at one and the same time makes life possible and intolerable for women. If there is one certain difference between the sexes it is that men lack alt sense of objective reality and have a purely pragmatic attitude to knowledge. A fact does not begin to be for a man until he has calculated its probable usefulness to him. If he thinks it will serve his purposes, then he will recognize it; but if it is unwelcome to him, then he will deny it. This means that he is not sure of the existence of his own soul, for nothing is more debatable for any of us than whether it is a good or a bad thing that our souls should have come to be. That life is preferable to death is a conviction firmly held by our bowels and muscles, but the mind has never convincingly proved it to the mind. Women, however, do not greatly trouble about this, since we have been born and we shall die, and even if the essence of our existence should be evil there is at least a term set to it. Therefore, women feel they can allow themselves to enjoy the material framework of existence for what it is worth. With men it cannot be so. Full of uncertainty, they sweat with fear lest all be for the worst. Hence the dichotomy that has been often observed in homes for the aged: the old women, even those who in their time have known prosperity, do not greatly distress themselves because in their last days they must eat the bread of charity, and they accept what pleasure can be drawn from sunny weather, a warm fire, a bag of sweets; but the old men are perpetually enraged.

Therefore men must be reassured, hour by hour, day by day. They must snatch every aid they can in their lifelong fight against seen and unseen adversaries. It would comfort them enormously if they knew that they were stronger than others. But what others? It would seem obvious to answer, their enemies. But little comfort can be derived from them, for sooner or later comes the battle, to settle the value, never satisfactorily: for an enemy that defeats is plainly superior, in some sense, and an enemy that is defeated appears so contemptible that it is no comfort to be above him. There are, however, exquisitely convenient, all women. It need only be pretended that men's physical superiority is the outward sign of a universal superiority, and at a stroke they can say of half the world's population, "I am better than that." The declaration is the more exalting because that half includes the people on whom the man who makes it had been the most dependent, even the person through whom he received his life.

If the community is threatened by any real danger, and only a few fortunate communities are not, women will be fools if they do not accept that declaration without dispute. For the physical superiority of men and their freedoms from maternity make them the natural defenders of the community, and if they can derive strength from belief in the inferiority of women, it is better to let them have it. The trouble is that too often the strength so derived proves inadequate for the task in hand. The women in the Skopska Tserna Gora were repaid for their subordination by a certain mitigation of their lot, which is proved real enough when it is compared with the darker misery of the women on the plains below, who suffered far worse at the hands of the Turks, but which was far from giving them security in any ordinary sense of the word. Intense and lifelong discomfort seems an excessive price to pay for this; and they might easily have gone on working out this inequitable contract till doomsday, since their menfolk were never able to liberate their community from the Turks until they were aided by the Serbians, who were outside their sexual transaction. In far worse case were the Turkish women in Macedonia, who received nothing in return for their subordination except the destruction of their community.

Even when the men of the community derive an adequate amount of strength from the suppression of their women, the situation is ultimately unsatisfactory; for it undoes itself, to the confusion of both parties. When men are successful in defending their community they engender a condition of general peace, in which people attempt to live by reason. Then women use their full capacities of mind and body, not because they want to prove their equality with men, for that is a point in which it is difficult to feel interest for more than a minute or two unless one has an unusually competitive mind, but because in such use lies pleasure. In such a world the young woman and the young man dash together out of adolescence into adult life like a couple of colts. But presently the woman looks round and sees that the man is not with her. He is some considerable distance behind her, not feeling very well. There has been drained from him the strength which his forefathers derived from the subjection of women; and the woman is amazed, because tradition has taught her that to be a man is to be strong. There is no known remedy for this disharmony. As yet it seems that no present she can make him out of her liberty can compensate him for his loss of what he gained from her slavery. The disagreeable consequences of this are without end, and perhaps it may be counted the worst that there never can be a society where men are men and women are women, that humanity never reveals the whole of itself at one time. Until there is achieved a settled condition of world peace hard to foresee anywhere nearer than the distant future it will always be more necessary that that revelation should be male. Therefore it will perhaps be reasonable till the end of all time within imaginable scope, to follow the ancient custom and rejoice when a boy is born and to weep for a girl. But there are degrees in the female tragedy. It is our tendency nowadays to deplore as worse than all others the woes of the woman whom modern capitalism allows to earn her own living but deprives of a husband and children, since the wage-slave is an uneager lover and a worse provider. But nowhere have I seen such settled and hopeless despair, such resentment doubled by its knowledge that it might not express itself, as on the faces of the women of the Skopska Tserna Gora

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]