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

Macedonia (South Serbia)

Skoplje III

SKOPLJE reveals a difference between the Slav and the Turk, the European and the Asiatic, at every turn of the street, and as we went about on our sightseeing it revealed hardly fewer differences between Gerda and ourselves. There was, some time before lunch, a painful scene in a seventeenth-century church we visited, which is in itself an amusing consequence of racial differences. It is sunk deeply in the earth, because it was built in the days of Moslem fanaticism, when all churches must be set underground. That ordinance had been the fine flower of Turkish spite, for the Turk loves light and makes his mosque a setting for it, but it wholly missed its mark, for the Christians liked their churches dark, as good hatching-places for magic. Indeed, they still like them so, for a couple of women and an old man who were shuffling about from icon to icon in the darkness explained to Constantine that they had a special devotion to this church because of its mystery. Rocking and murmuring, they led us to its chief treasure, which was an iconostasis intricately carved with scenes from the Bible by three brothers, ancestors of the craftsmen who made the screen we had seen in the little church of Topola. This work is Byzantine in its recognition of the moral obligation to decorate, as extensively and intensively as possible, yet in its spirit it is purely peasant. When Abraham sets about sacrificing his son the boy stands in stockish obedience, as sons do in a good patriarchal society, and when the angel prevents him he looks up in exasperation like a farmer interrupted in a heavy job; and the angel's wings were plainly copied from a bird killed for the table, which was probably already inside the sculptor when he settled down to the secondary task of imitating the feathers. Gerda was irritated by this carving, both as a bourgeois and as an intellectual. "This is not serious art," she said, and went to the back of the church. There we found her when we came to leave, lighting a candle before a fourteenth-century icon of the Virgin Mary, which in its dim presentiment of worn melancholy was yet precise and radiant. My husband and I exclaimed in admiration, and Gerda said with extreme bitterness, "Now, I suppose, it, will go to the British Museum."

I took it for granted that her attitude could be explained by certain factors we already knew: she disliked my husband and myself, both as individuals and as representatives of one of the powers which had conquered Germany, and she regarded us as traitors to the bourgeoisie. But after lunch we perceived that her distress proceeded from roots deep in her philosophy, of which we had not yet been made fully aware. Skoplje, which had that morning at every turn of the street illuminated a difference between the Slavs and the Turks in their way of taking pleasure, now revealed a difference between Gerda on the one hand and the Slavs and the Turks and us on the other, which touched a more fundamental problem: whether pleasure has any value.

We started the afternoon standing on the embankment watching the Easter Sunday procession which was making its way along the other embankment facing us on the opposite side of the river and would presently cross a bridge and pass us on its way to the Cathedral. The sun was striking gloriously through the storm clouds on the cross and the vestments of the Metropolitan and the clergy who headed the long line of townspeople and peasants, and it lit up the crocus-coloured kerchiefs that many of the women were wearing on their heads. A gipsy girl so liked the show that, once it had gone by her, she jumped on the embankment and raced along to a point nearer the bridge to see it again, her rose-coloured trousers ballooning in the wind and casting a blurred image on the waters below. But the crowd near by were as entertaining as the procession itself. There was a group of formidable old men from some mountain village, each with the eye and lope of a wolf, and all with tender pink rosebuds embroidered on their woollen socks. There were some superb women whose fine and bitter faces were unveiled, and therefore must be Christian, yet wore the Turkish trousers, and strode along in a gait that knew nothing of Islam or, indeed, of Christianity but remembered a primitive matriarchy. There was a group of Tsintsari (or Vlachs) at a street corner sitting on their haunches, feet flat on the ground, buttocks on their heels, chins in a line with their knees, all steady as rocks, and playing with amber rosaries as they gossiped. But most strange of all to Western eyes was a detachment of men, in black uniforms, carrying rifles and wearing cartridge belts, waiting to join the procession under the leadership of a magnificent old man who carried the standard the comitadji always used in the old Turkish days, a black flag printed with a white skull and cross-bones. These seemed at first an odd addition to an Easter Day procession, until one remembered the logical consequences of a nationalist church, and the complete lack of any association between Christianity and pacifism in these people's minds. But I was puzzled by the youth of many of the men in the detachment, which made it quite impossible for them to have fought against the Turks. They were, I suppose, Macedonian Serbs who had aided in the suppression of I.M.R.O. But nobody knew for certain, not even the friend of Constantine's who had just joined us, a professor of ethnology in the University of Skoplje. "I cannot understand it," he said, "for the comitadji have long been disbanded."

I asked no more, for now the procession was mounting to the crown of the bridge, the cross-bearer was immense against the sky, and the Metropolitan with his tall veiled mitre was still more immense. As they turned the corner of the embankment and came towards us, each squatting Tsintsar rose upright in a single movement with the ease of a stretching cat; Gerda said into my ear, "Do not believe a word of what these people say to you. Of course there are still comitadji, the only difference is that they are now called chetnichi. They kill and beat people as they like, All these Yugoslavs are lying to you all the time. I said to the Professor, 'But why do you tell them 'there are no more comitadji?' and he answered, 'They are foreigners, it is better that they should think so.'"

There was nothing to be said. Of course I knew about the chetnichi. I had in my handbag at that moment a pamphlet concerning the doings of these Apache Fascists in the Voivodina. It had never occurred to me that such an institution as the comitadji should not, when the legitimate need for it had ceased to exist, survive in a disagreeable and degenerate form. I knew that in America the guerrilla forces which had fought so well in the Civil War had not been easy to disband, and that the wilder members of them had become roving adventurers who had progressively deteriorating progeny in Jesse James, the St. Louis gangsters, and the bootleggers and hi-jackers of Prohibition. I had not thought that it could be otherwise in the Balkans; and in any case it seemed to me that I, who am English by origin and of French sympathy, had little right to despise Yugoslavia for her chetnichi when England and France, with far less excuse, had their British Fascists and their Cumelots du Roi, and that a German, whose fatherland was ruled by the Nazis, had far less right to exercise her fastidiousness. I could not answer truthfully for the sake of politeness so I meant to answer evasively; but I met Gerda's eyes and saw that she was blind to everything before her, to the procession, to the crowd, to Skoplje. Instead of sight there was the working of a cloudy opacity that wanted to precipitate contempt and violence, and whatever I said would have been turned to its gratification.

The procession reached us, the Metropolitan halted and shook hands with the old comitadji, and the skull and cross-bones took its place among the religious banners. We saw them move towards the Cathedral, and we started to saunter along the embankment, while the Professor gossiped about the holiday-makers around us. He showed us some peasants from the villages down on the Greek border, who could neither read nor write, but got the silly fellows who have gone to the bother of learning such stuff' to tell them the commodity prices on the foreign exchanges, and on that information they very cunningly calculated what crops to sow. He showed us also a superb being, like a Cossack in a Russian ballet, who went strutting by in a wide-skirted coat made from the wool of a brown sheep. This, he told us, was a wealthy Tsintsar, a true nomad, who moved with his herds between summer and winter pastures and hoarded all his wealth, according to the classic nomadic fashion, in the form of necklaces and bracelets worn by his womenfolk. And he hurried us across the road to see a family of gipsies who were clearly natives of fairyland. Only there could a father and mother still shapely as gazelles and bloomed with youth have eight children; only there could they have arrayed their coffee-brown beauty, which fastidious nostrils, secretive lips, and eyes like prune-whip made refined and romantic, in garments of chrome yellow, cinnabar, emerald, royal blue, and vermilion, which were so clean that they made the very sunlight seem a little tarnished. Never have I seen a group so ritually, orgiastically unsullied. "They are Gunpowder gipsies," said the Professor; "we call them that because they used to find saltpetre for the Turkish Army, and they are renowned for their cleanliness and their beauty." But they are like Hindus! I exclaimed. "They might be from the Mogul court." "They are something of that sort, "said the Professor;" when Gandhi's private secretary came here he could make himself understood to our gipsies in Tamil. We think that they are the descendants of some conquered Indian people who fled out of Asia after some unrecorded catastrophe in the Middle Ages, and certainly these Gunpowder gipsies represent the ruling castes. But come, let me take you to our gipsy quarter, you are sure to be interested." "All, all is in Yugoslavia," said Constantine, glowing happily and trotting beside the tall Professor.

We went up the steep hill to the Moslem quarter, passing the cabaret where I had first met Astra, the stomach dancer whom we had seen at Sarajevo. Outside it were sitting three of the singers: a great distended blonde and two dark girls with that beauty which those who have not got it think must bring its owners all they wish, but which actually seems to have a commercial value just enough to bring them into the sphere of commerce. They blinked into the sunlight, turning their faces from side to side, their hands tucked into the bosoms of their cotton dressing-gowns which were faded and stringy with washing and re-washing. About all Slav life which touches on prostitution there is a strange lustral and expiatory cleanliness. We passed the sunken church we had visited that morning and the mosque garden, and came now on poorer and smaller houses. Suddenly we stopped, because a crowd of hughing people ran out of an alley and came to a halt just in front of us, turning their backs on us and forming a circle. They rocked from side to side, holding their hips and shouting with joy, while there staggered out of the alley, holding himself very stiffly, a gendarme who was very drunk. He was greenish, he held a wavering hand before his eyes to shield them from the sunlight; it could be seen that for him his riding-boots were at the other end of the earth, his dead face muttered. Somebody cried out something from the back of the crowd, and a shout of laughter went up; and he found that he could not put down the foot that he had raised. His other foot wobbled, and it seemed that he must fall. But just then there came out of a cottage a woman with an ageing and compassionate face, who went to him and caught him round his hourglass waist with an arm shrouded in a rose-coloured scarf. The crowd turned about, and walked off, as if the incident had now changed its character and was no longer amusing. She led him into a yard behind a house, and when we looked back a few paces further on, we saw her through a wide gap in a wall, pressing down his rigid body with long fine hands till he knelt, and then bringing his head forward by the temples so that he could be sick, all with a great piety of movement.

"It is here," said the Professor, just after that, "here is our gipsy quarter." From a rise in the road we looked down on a colony of one-storied houses that lay, a sharply distinct entity, on a spit of sand running for a quarter of a mile or so into the green fields surrounding Skoplje. The houses were whitewashed and many were decorated with simple stylized paintings of trees, some dark blue, some mustard yellow. We had a clear view along one or two narrow alleys running down from the high road into this quarter, and we saw a number of people, all gaily dressed in window-curtain material, sitting on the pavements with an air of comfort and even formality, and looking up with intelligent but not impertinent curiosity into the faces of others who were hurrying by, swift and preternaturally sure-footed, never stumbling over those at their feet. They were all of them extremely Hindu in appearance, but their behaviour showed such a strange ease, such a lack of the constraints that are characteristic of every conceivable society, that the scene seemed illusionary, a stereoscopic presentation of a panel from a painted screen.

"Look, are they not exotic and wonderful?" said the Professor proudly. "There are two thousand houses here, which means ten thousand gipsies." "Yes," said Gerda, her voice hoarse with indignation, "that there are thousands of them I can easily see, but the question is, why are they allowed?" "Why are they allowed?" repeated the Professor. "I don't understand." "Yes, why have you allowed them to come here?" persisted Gerda. "But, Gospodja, they have always been here," said the Professor, "they have always been in this district, for six hundred years at least, and most of these people have been actually settled here in Skoplje since the time of the Balkan wars." "They should be driven out," said Gerda, trembling with rage. She pointed at six children who were making mud pies outside a cottage just beneath us, under the care of a grandmother who had the delicate profile of an elderly Maharanee. "Look at them! They should be driven out!"

The Maharanee, who would have been well able to defend her own, heard the vehement accent and turned on us the veiled eyes of a hawk. "Now it might be agreeable to go to the gipsies' corso," said the Professor hastily. "But there," he added, "I must leave you, for I have another engagement." Every evening the Slavs of Skoplje who are of the modern world, the functionaries and the professional men, walk up and down the High Street that leads from the station to the chief bridge over the Vardar, and the Slavs who are of the old world, the artisans and the peasants, walk up and down a section of the embankment. But the Moslems and the gipsies have their corso at this end of the town, on the top of a hill, where there is a French war cemetery, crammed with the flimsy little wooden crosses that make them so much more pathetic than any other burial-places. There is such an effort to make the crosses pretty, with the white paint and the touches of the tricolour, and they are so pitifully cheap, and the reason for the need of cheapness is so plainly the enormous number required. On the edge of this cemetery, fringed with beds of purple iris, there runs a promenade from which a hillside of grass and fruit trees drops steeply to the Vardar river, winding silver among its golden poplars and willows. An immense prospect looks over a broad valley at mountains, so well watered by springs that their pastures are like emeralds and their ploughed fields like rubies, and beyond them to a wall of snow peaks. Along this promenade walk many Moslem men, mostly youths, since their elders prefer to stroke their beards in the mosque gardens, some Moslem women, who usually come to sit in black clutches of three or four in the grass under the fruit trees, and many gipsies, men, women, and children, who pass through the more stolid Moslem crowds with the slippery brilliance of fish. The gipsy women, though most of them are Moslem, go unveiled, which is an extreme example of the position their kind has won for itself as professionally free from ordinary social obligations; and this means that a thread of beauty, never troubling because never marked by profundity, runs through the crowd.

As we came to this promenade through the afternoon, that was still violet with the threat of storm and gilt with spring sunlight, we heard the throbbing of a drum that announces a kolo, a communal dance. Looking down towards the river, we saw that on a little knoll projecting from the hillside some soldiers were dancing the kolo in a circle of young men in civilian clothes, a knot of olive and black against the distant poplars and willows and silver waters. But there was another drum throbbing somewhere and we found it at the end of the promenade, where the ground fell away and there was nothing but a little plateau, wide enough for twenty or thirty people, on the edge of a cliff; and there the gipsies were dancing a kolo. Because they were Moslems and Easter was no festival of theirs, the girls were in everyday dress, and this was fortunate; for their best clothes are usually made of artificial silk brocades, which shine with a horrid yellowish lustre, destructive to the subtle loveliness of their complexions. They were wearing window-curtain material that had been steeped in sunlight and rain till every crude colour was its own fair spectre, and the prevailing note was a light, soft, plum purple; so their skins showed honey-gold, and their lips pale carnation. On the intricate rhythm of the music these girls and their boys floated like seaweed on the tide, just not quite freely, just tenuously attached to the solid universe. Their linked hands, which they raised higher than is the custom of kolo dancers, pulsed in the air, bigger than butterflies but more ethereal than birds.

Gerda said, "You like it?" I murmured, "Of course, of course." Beautiful boys and girls were dancing in the open air, wearing clothes lovely as flowers, against a background of snow peaks, trees palely incandescent with spring, and shining waters. Who on earth would not like it? Gerda said, "I do not like it. See, I have lit a cigarette. I must smoke here to disinfect myself. When I see these people I feel I am not in Europe." I said nothing; it would have been so natural to say, "I wish to God that were so." She went on, "Why do you like these people? How can you possibly like them? Do you not see that they are dirty and stupid?" I looked at them again and marvelled at their bodies, which were as economical as a line of poetry. As I looked the music changed its rhythm, but it took none of these bodies at a disadvantage; they hovered for a minute, then received the new measure into their muscles and their blood, and were at one with it. I said, "They have something we have not got." And I meant to add, "A kind of nervous integrity, of muscular wisdom." But Gerda said savagely, rooting out the double happiness of despising the gipsies and despising me, "You think that merely because you do not know these people. You are mystical about them, you think they have occult knowledge", I know what you think."

She did not. Gipsies are, in all but their appearance, particularly what I do not like. I am told that these at Skoplje are the most admirable of their kind, reasonably honest and wholly innocent of the charge, laid against all other Balkan gipsies, of stealing Christian children and deforming them so that they make appealing beggars. But I am cold towards them all, largely because they are the embodiment of that detestable attribute, facility. They never make music of their own, but they take the music of whatever country they happen to be in, play it so slickly that they become the recognized musician caste, and then turn music into a mere titillation of the ear, a pleasant accompaniment to an evening's drunkenness. There is no design in anything they do. On my previous visit to Skoplje I had attended their grand annual festivity, a whole day's picnicking in the huge football stadium just outside the town; and for the first five minutes I thought I had never seen a more gorgeous spectacle. After that I spent half an hour speculating if I found it more bearable seen with my sun-glasses or without. By normal vision the atrocious smear of lustre from the coarse fabrics they preferred spread a smear of grease over the scene; though the dark lenses removed this they thereby exposed the monotony of pattern, the scamped craftsmanship, the lack of embroidery. Then I went home, understanding what the Scandinavians meant to express when they made their troll-women hollow. A human being ought not to be too light, its experience should silt up inside it and give it weight and substance. But, all the same, when gipsies are so beautiful and do beautiful things I experience the reaction that all normal people give to beauty; and I would not that it were otherwise, for like the Slav and the Turk I value delight. But Gerda, intent on something other than delight, insisted, "It is because you are a foreigner, you do not understand these people. You think they are wonderful. But you are from the north, you should see that they are nothing but dirty and uncivilized savages, who ought not to be in Europe at all."

I began to walk away from the kolo, which I could no longer enjoy, partly because I thought the gipsies might notice Gerda's undisguised disapproval of them, and I made my way towards Constantine and my husband, who were going across some broken ground back to the high road from Skoplje. But Gerda hurried along beside me, saying, "I do not understand you, you go on saying what a beautiful country this is, and you must know perfectly well that there is no order here, no culture, but only a mish-mash of different peoples who are all quite primitive and low. Why do you do that?" I said wearily, "But it's precisely because there are so many different peoples that Yugoslavia is so interesting. So many of these peoples have remarkable qualities, and it is fascinating to see whether they can be organized into an orderly state." "How can you make an orderly state out of so many peoples?" she asked. "They should all be driven out." I quickened my steps, and soon we came level with Constantine and my husband. At once Gerda began to reproach Constantine angrily for the repulsiveness of the gipsies, and for the shameful compliancy of his country in harbouring them. We stepped on to the high road in broken order, just in front of an old man who was on his way into Skoplje. He was plainly very poor. Indeed I do not think that in all my life I have ever seen anybody poorer. His coat and breeches were so much patched that it was hard to say whether either had originally been black or brown, and the patches had themselves been patched; and his broken sandals were bound with rags but, even so, showed his bare feet. He had been greatly injured by his poverty. He leaned heavily on his staff, and he mumbled sadly through his beard to the ground. Gerda walked up to him and stood in front of him so that he had to stop, and then turned to us. "Look!" she cried, pointing to his tattered clothes and his broken sandals and laughing, "if a great producer like Reinhardt had tried to invent a figure of misery he could not have thought of anything so dreadful!" I said to my husband, "I cannot bear this," and he answered, "No, you must cheer up, some day she will do this to somebody who will hit her, and hit her hard." Constantine betrayed all his sweetness of character out of loyalty to Gerda, and joined in her laughter; but she rejected this sacrifice and made an angry gesture at him. "Your Yugoslavia ought to do something with all these horrible people!" she said, and they went ahead of us loudly quarrelling over the gipsies and the poor. I turned round and saw the old man staring after us in stupefaction.

The road ran now between barracks that stood in gardens full of fruit trees, lilac bushes, beds of purple and white iris. Soldiers were sitting at tables among these flowers, some playing cards, some singing songs to the sound of the gusla, but very softly because it was now the evening, and it had been a holiday, and everyone was tired. At one table a young soldier sat between two peasants, his parents; he was looking at them reverently because they were his father and mother, they were looking at him reverently because he was their son and a soldier. On a balcony some soldiers were going through a burlesque of drill. We walked on, and the road came out on the naked hills, and we looked over the turf to the ruins of an aqueduct which was pre-Byzantine, which was built when the Roman Empire was still governed from Rome. But the first stars were shining over the mountains, and dusk was already in the valleys, so we turned back, and saw the soldiers at the tables rising and stretching themselves and yawning, gathering up the dealt cards, picking up their guslas and going on with their songs without an accompaniment, because a bugle was calling. As we drew near the gipsy quartes we heard its polyphonic voice across the fields and saw a bonfire on its outskirts with dancing figures black between us and the flames. Nearer Skoplje still, where there was a steep embankment sloping to a little stream, we passed the old man whom Gerda had used for purposes of racial demonstration, who was sitting on the grass in the cold twilight and, with an air of shame, which increased when he saw us, was washing his feet.

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