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

Macedonia (South Serbia)

Skoplje II

BEFORE we went down to breakfast my husband called me to look out of the lavatory window. The part of Skoplje behind the hotel exhibits a form of urban economy which I find it hard to understand: in paved gardens crammed with lilac bushes and fig trees, all now bobbing under heavy rain, stand new and trim little houses, each alongside a hovel where a craftsman, who seems to have nothing to do with the house-owner, exercises his skill on the top of rickety stairs under sagging roofs of red-brown tiles. These stucco houses are designed in a vein of pleasantly vapid romanticism. Minnie Mouse might well have chosen one for her first home with Mickey, for they bristle with towers and loggias and a great many silly little balconies, on which she could be discovered by Mr. Disney's lens, watering flowers and singing a tender lyric in that voice which is the very distillation of imbecile sweetness.

On the pavement, under one such balcony, lay a Turk, a Moslem of true Turkish blood, as most of the Moslems are, here in Macedonia. He was in rags, his head was covered with the imperfect memory of a fez, the upturned points of his sandals had broken off. The shelter of the balcony afforded him enough dry pavement for his body, and there he stretched himself, looking out at the rain, and slowly eating something, with a notable economy of effort. He was resting his elbow on the doorstep, so that he had to lift his hand not nearly so far as one would suppose to raise the food to his bearded mouth. "I never saw quite such a hopeless proposition," said my husband. "I see he is a Turk, he has that indestructibly handsome air, but he is so unlike the Turks I have seen in the Ataturk's Turkey." "Poor man," I said, "he is the residue of residues. The Turkish population in Skoplje, which used to be called Uskub, was increased in the seventies by the Turks who left Bosnia when the Austrians occupied it. The Slav Moslems stayed, and a few Turkish Moslems of the better sort, who could cope with Western ways. Probably a large number of these Turks never found a place to fit into here, for this was already a contracting society. Then there has been a further winnowing since the war, by the repatriation of all the Balkan Turks who were willing to face life under the reforms of the Ataturk. But, all the same, I like this man." "Yes," said my husband, "this is not lethargy we are regarding, it is an immense capacity for pleasure, which is being exercised in difficult circumstances."

We went down to breakfast and sat at a table by the window, drinking coffee full of the sweet broken curds of sheep's milk, eating the peculiarly excellent rolls that Moslems bake, and enjoying the show of Skoplje. This is one of the best spectacles I have ever enjoyed, and it is due to the presence of the Turk. There are about seventy-five thousand inhabitants of the town, of whom over ten thousand are Turks who gave the town its colour in the first place. There are fewer minarets than there are in Sarajevo, but they are potent. And because there is so strong a Christian element in the town, there are constant dramatic disclosures of the essences of Christianity and Islam, each being shown up by its opposite. Soon there came past the window some Albanians, to begin the revelation. Though I had my back to them I knew they were on their way, for a look of fatherly concern on my husband's face told me that he had just caught sight of his first Albanian. "They are not really coming down," I said. No Westerner ever sees an Albanian for the first time without thinking that the poor man's trousers are just about to drop off. They are cut in a straight line across the loins, well below the hip-bone, and have no visible means of support; and to make matters psychologically worse they are of white or biscuit homespun heavily embroidered with black wool in designs that make a stately reference to the essential points of male anatomy. The occasion could not seem more grave, especially as there is often a bunch of uncontrolled shirt bulging between the waistcoat and these trousers. Nothing, however, happens. The little white skull-caps they all wear, which have an air of second-rank haloes, of commoners 'aureoles, suggest that there may perhaps be a miraculous element involved. There is of course a partial explanation in the stiffness of the material, which, where it is reinforced by embroidery, must be nearly as stiff as a boned corset. But all the same the cause of the phenomenon lies in the Albanian nature. There is something about the Moslem Albanians which would make them take chances with their national costume: it is as if they had not eaten of the tree of good or of evil, as if they were unalloyed by the seriousness that Christianity adds to the soft metal of human nature. A lovely facile charm hangs about them, comes to dazzling crystallization in their smiles.

The group of Albanians who had startled my husband passed, and were followed by some of their antithesis, women from the villages on Skopska Tserna Gora (the Black Mountain of Skoplje). The tragic majesty of their appearance, which is unmitigated by beauty, and hardly ever put to the slight test of a smile, is consonant with the history of their breed. These villages were never fully conquered by the Turk during the five hundred years of the Turkish occupation, they murdered most of the Turkish landowners who tried to settle amongst them, and an unending tale of tax-collectors, and they dourly clung to their Christian tradition. They wear the most dignified and beautiful dresses of any in the Balkans, gowns of coarse linen embroidered with black wool in designs using the Christian symbols, which are at once abstract (being entirely unrepresentational) and charged with passionate feeling. Their wide sleeves are thick as carpets with solid black embroideries, stitched in small squares, with often a touch of deep clear blue, which gives the effect of an inner light burning in the heart of darkness. Such garments, worn by grim women whose appearance announces that they would not do a number of things possible to less noble natures, have an effect of splendid storm, of symphonic music, and make no suggestion of facility or charm.

The contrast is presented by the town itself, as we saw when we went on for a stroll after our breakfast, as soon as Gerda and Constantine had joined us. We crossed the bridge over the Vardar, which was brownish with the late rains. To the left we looked past a screen of willows at the foot of the cliff on which the garrison fortress stands, on the site of a castle built by the famous Serbian Tsar Stephen Dushan, and we saw the snow mountains from which the river derived its cold breath. To the right there ran along the embankments lines of new dwellings, offices, and public buildings, interspersed with the hovels that are the tide-marks of the Ottoman Empire; and behind was the old town of Skoplje, which has an inveterately country quality, because terraces of rough farm land and orchard fall headlong into the heart of it from the landward side of the fortress. This was a town as the West knows it, exhausting, however picturesque it might be, because of the fret of effort. We took a road that ran uphill into the Turkish quarter, and knew a different sort of town.

Sarajevo is a Moslem, but not a Turkish town: a fantasia on Oriental themes worked out by a Slav population. Here in Skoplje we saw what the Oriental himself does with Oriental themes. Gone was the sense of form; we were faced with an essential discontinuity. It was explicit in the shops. They are at once neat and slovenly, they have been organized by minds that attack any enterprise with brilliance and fluency and then flag. A shopkeeper spends incredible ingenuity in displaying articles of only one or two kinds, and will put the most appetizing of them alongside others that have been unsaleable not for mere months but actual decades. In one shop playing-cards of exquisite seventeenth-century design were displayed beside boxes of candles that had once been coloured and fluted, that were now merely stained and collapsed, and that bore a date-stamp of 1921. There is at work also a love of bright colours, which never passes on to the natural development of modifying them and fitting them into designs, but monotonously presents them in their crude state; there are windows piled with skeins of silks, more lustrous than our shamefaced Western yarns have dared to be for many years, and to be bought only in white, yolk-of-egg yellow, Prussian blue, and Jezebel scarlet. Yet, in their very triviality, these shops afforded delight. I never made a more agreeable purchase than a halfpenny cone of roasted nubs of sweet corn. The shop sold nothing else: they lay in great scented golden heaps, through which there ran a ghostly crepitance as soon as one grain was touched. The owner must have heard it a million million times; it still amused him.

But this lack of psychological staying-power has, perhaps, a physiological basis. I realized that in the slight disappointment I felt at our visit, since the quarter was not so vivacious as I had remembered it on my last visit. Now some veiled women were padding by, some bearded men were sitting in cafes as good as veiled by their expressions, which announced a restriction to the pure field of sensationalism utterly outside the comprehension of the Western mind, which can hardly conceive of existence apart from the practice of analysis and synthesis. But before, these streets had been like a scene in an operetta. It had seemed probable that tenor strains might proceed from the young baker, ox-eyed and plumpish, but shapely, who leaned over his long trays of loaves and covered them with linen cloths crossed with delicious lines of reds and blues, and that the black wisps of women bargaining behind those veils might turn out to be the ballet and coalesce in some dance gaily admitting their equivoque of concealing and proclaiming their sex. But I had made my earlier visits at seven and eight in the morning, and now it was eleven, and I had noticed before that the Turks cannot keep abreast the twenty-four hours anything like so well as Westerners. The afternoon finds its vitality clouded; the evening is sluggish; and at night one crosses the Vardar from the new town, where any number of Slavs are sitting in the restaurants, talking politics, drinking wine, eating spiced sausages, and listening to music, into darkened streets where there are bursts' of singing from a few shuttered cafes, and, for the rest, houses fast asleep.

The Turks, I fancy, are a people who tire easily. When they are wildly excited, as they often are by militarist ardour and religious fanaticism, they cannot be fatigued; the reward for total abstinence from alcohol seems, illogically enough, to be the capacity for becoming intoxicated without it. But in ordinary life they seem subject to a languor that comes on in the day far too soon after dawn, and in a man's life far too soon after youth. The young Turk, as one sees him with his friends in the cafe or in a park, is a laughing and active creature, but after thirty-five he acquires a stolidity which might be mistaken for the outward sign of wisdom, were it not that it is impossible for so many to be in possession of that rare quality. He is given to a gesture that claims to express deliberation, that is actually an indefinite postponement of thought; and as he makes it his hand, even if he be scarcely middle-aged, looks sapless and old. It may be that the breakdown of the Turkish administration was not only a matter of political incompetence but resulted from a prevalent physical disability affecting men precisely at an age when they would be given the most responsible administrative posts.

But, if the morning glory had left the quarter, there was much still to delight us. I remember someone who took drugs once attempting to explain to me the charm of the habit, by saying, "You know, one gives oneself an injection and I do not know how it is, but one spends a delightful day. Nothing happens, but somehow every tiny incident of the routine is interesting and enjoyable. If one is sitting in an armchair and someone comes in to lay a tray on the table, one watches the action as if it were a most exquisite miming, and the simplest remark, a ‘Hello, are you there?’ on the telephone, sounds like an epigram." The East is said to have the same effect as drugs on those who frequent it, and certainly this town, which was so much next door to the East that one was as good as through the door, exercised that same power of making the ordinary delicious. We turned aside into the garden of a mosque, not an extraordinary building, save for the light cast on the cross-currents of Balkan culture by the contrast between its ancient and fine design and the white crudity of its substance. It was a famous sixteenth-century mosque which had been allowed to fall into ruins by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, fanatical yet far too indolent to defend their sacred places; and it had been restored by a Yugoslav official, a Herzegovinian Moslem, who had fought against the Turks in the Balkan wars because he was a Slav patriot, was now a freethinker, and was inspired to this act of architectural piety by aesthetic passions engendered in him no further east than Paris, where he had taken a degree in Oriental studies. Everybody in the garden of this not extraordinary mosque was behaving in the most ordinary way. At the fountain before it some young men were washing; two prosperous middle-aged men were sitting on the domed and pillared white porch, and talking not more dramatically than two Londoners at a club window; round the corner some older and poorer men were sitting on the grass by the tomb of a saint, wagging their beards in a conversation, portentous yet as light in weight as could well be, like the conversation in a morning train from an English suburb. There was no formulable reason why these people should afford a ravishing spectacle, but so they did . It was perhaps because irritability was absent from their world. To watch one's kind and find no trace of this disease, which in the West is so prevalent that it might be mistaken for a sign of life, was like looking in a mirror and seeing one’s skin unlined as a baby's. We ourselves fell into the serene mood of the place and sat there for longer than we meant.

But there was a view: the garden was built on a terrace high above the domes and minarets and russet roofs of Skoplje, and showed us the green hills surrounding the town, spiked with the white toothpicks of nameless Moslem graves, and the bare blue mountains beyond, shadowed violet by the passing clouds. Our Western conscientiousness made us go to look at this view from the best advantage and we went to the wall of the garden, where we forgot our purpose, for the hills fell steeply to a street where people of a wild and harlequin sort were leading an entertaining life. A load of hay had been flung up against the wall of one house, and was munched by three ponies, raw-boned and flea-bitten. Another house, which had a square of periwinkle blue affixed on its white front for no particular reason, had a mistress who was evidently an indefatigable but eccentric housewife: through its door there flew every few minutes a jet of water from an emptied basin, discharged with the extreme of shrewishness. Outside another house sat a pretty woman and two pretty girls, smiling and bright-eyed in perpetual pleasure, cooking something on a tiny brazier and drinking from an amphora they passed from one to another. One had a kerchief, one a jacket, one trousers, of bright, rich, shallow red. Soon they noticed that we were watching them, and cried out to us and waved their long narrow hands; and presently, as if to show off their treasures, one of the girls ran into the house and came out laughing, holding up a baby for our admiration, naked and kicking and lustrous brown.

This was Slav sensuousness, European sensuousness, quite unlike its Turkish, its Asiatic analogue. At the first stimulus from the outside it had refused to confine itself to mere blandness, it insisted on involving itself with material which, though it certainly can evoke pleasure, can unleash tragedy also. The woman who took her child in her arms was raising trains of thought that could lead far beyond the fields of pleasantness, that referred to the pain of childbirth, the aching inadequacy of love, which cannot keep safe what it loves, the threat of estrangement and death. She would have been safer if she had continued to sit with her friends laughing at little things beside the small flame of the brazier, and drinking cool water out of the amphora, and that is what the true Turk would have done. All over this city of two natures there is demonstrated the contrast between Christian imprudence, immoderation, audacity in search of delight, and the Turkish thrifty limitation to the small cell where anything not delightful cannot enter. We saw an illustration of it that first morning, arising out of the attitude of common men to roses.

We owed the lesson to our intention of visiting the great caravanserai which lies among the little Moslem houses, where the diplomats and merchants stayed on their way from Dubrovnik to Constantinople, a superb memorial of the Ozymandian sort, too huge as a whole and in every part to have been dictated by necessity, with its full-bodied arcades round its marble courtyard, and its inordinate thickness of mulberry-coloured brick. Beside it are its baths, long grass growing like hair from its domes, with a poppy here and there. But there was no way through the hoarding across its Arabian Nights gateway, and when small boys in fezes told us that the key could be found in a cottage down an alley, they were perpetrating what seemed to them an exquisite witticism at the expense of the stranger. This little pavilion standing among lawns hemmed in with lilac bushes and rose trees, which should have been the home of a virtuous young girl supporting herself by her needle, was in fact a police station. We looked through the open casements and saw, not Gretchen at her spinning-wheel, but five gendarmes sitting at table, one purple-faced and mountainous, others with the fine seams of their uniforms running down to tough and slender waists, but all iron-jawed and far too large for the low room. A ray of sunshine showed the red glaze of paprika on their plates and a pink wine oily in their glasses, and shone through one sprung petal of a crimson rose in a little tin cup. They sprang to their feet as we looked in at the window, and came out of a door that was not high enough for any of them, so that they all straightened up as they greeted us, like genial pterodactyls. They explained that for some final reason the caravanserai was closed, and led us back through the gardens with official but unimpassioned courtesy, which suddenly glowed into a warmer emotion when Constantine, in saying good-bye, complimented them on their roses.

Immediately all the gendarmes uttered cries of delight and began to strip roses from the bushes, and pressed them into our hands, giving the men rather more than to Gerda and myself. "Are these flowers not more pure than the snows of the mountain?" demanded the purple-faced one, tenderly taking some clusters from a white rambler. Then an idea struck him and he cried an order towards the little house in the voice peculiar to sergeant-majors all the world over. It brought out the gendarmerie servant, a young woman who looked robust but tired, carrying the tea-cup containing the rose we had seen on the table. "This," he said, pressing the flower into Constantine's hands with the air of one who pretends for politeness' sake that he gives little but who knows well that he gives much, "this we think the most perfect bloom we have yet had from our garden this spring."

Later we saw a rose of that same sort, or as like as makes no matter, in the hand of a butcher sitting outside his shop. He was a modish young man who wore his fez at an angle, and was distinctly handsome in spite of a measure of cozy Oriental plumpness. But that is always less deterrent than our Western obesity; while we put on weight because of some defect in our organization, some fault in our digestive or glandular systems. Orientals seem to grow stout because they are fond of their food and their food grows fond of them, and it and they elect to live together in a happy symbiosis. This young man's rounded cheeks and dimpled hands suggested a tranquil and unregretted union with mounds of rice ashine with fat, and soup-platefuls of such Turkish sweets as hot butterscotch. He was doubtless thinking of his approaching dinner, and he had a right to take his ease, for behind him what was left of his wares was arranged with as much taste as the flowers in a Fifth Avenue florist's. It was surprising, in view of that exquisite neatness, that he showed no emotion when his shop was entered by an extravagantly dirty old Albanian, who set about pinching all the meat between his finger and thumb. The prepossession of the West that a person who is neat will also be clean breaks down at every corner in the East. So the young butcher had nothing to distract him from the perfume and colour of the rose, which he slowly twirled between his fingers, and sometimes slowly raised to his dilating nostrils. He was so well justified, so thoroughly wise, in his enjoyment. If a turn of earth's wheel had brought a moment when it was foolish or dangerous to enjoy a rose it would have fallen through his fingers to the dust. But the purple-faced gendarme who had cried out his demand for perfection to the house, his iron-jawed men who had run about from bush to bush, they had committed themselves to their roses. They would have worked with sweat and without dignity to grow them. If there had arrived a person of influence who did not share their liking for them they would have disputed their point with him. It must be owned that they were lacking in repose and in discretion.

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