Translated by Christina Kramer
from Issue 22
I stood on the edge of a great cliff that perched like a balcony above the blue eternity of the Lake. Behind me, in Macedonia, stood the Monastery of St. Naum. A proud peacock strutting along its red-tiled roof contributed to the beauty of this holy landscape. My gaze crossed the border marked by an invisible buoy that divided the two countries and reached the nearby shore of Albania.
My eyes settled on my native town, Pogradec, the starting point of our family’s
final exodus in that far-off year of 1942, after which we were condemned to belong to a land of no return. According to Mother’s memories, supported by a bundle of keys to abandoned houses that had belonged to our family’s ancestors, the oldest key belonged to a house on the shores of the Ionian Sea, whose waters lapped our native land. The house was at least several centuries old. Also hanging from Mother’s key ring were keys belonging to old houses that had disappeared when the great family schism occurred many centuries ago. Here Mother’s recollections ended, and Father’s picked up the narrative through his struggle to probe ever deeper into our family’s secrets.
For years I searched Father’s books and notes to find the starting point of our family’s exodus through the Babel that is the Balkans. I dug deeper into Father’s unfinished project — his attempt to find salvation from Balkan history by studying the collapse of its empires, a history through which our family history was dragged as well — a project now reduced to a pile of papers, yellowed and eaten by time, its meaning faded.
My father had studied most intently the history of the Ottomans in the Balkans
and its impact on the fate of our family. There still remained the unsolved family riddle — what happened during the past five centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans? How, after its defeat, did the family schism occur, the change of faith, the splintering of the family? How, after the Ottoman siege and victory, had one part of the family risked its life to cross to the other seashore with its old faith intact, with the obligatory ring of keys to unlock houses now aflame, an icon or two for protection, and a holy book in hand. The other part of that same family, of which I too was a distant descendant, remained for many generations, as if for all eternity, by the seashore, calling out to its kin on the other shore, hoping fate would one day bring them close again. So it was that one part of the family remained closer to Europe, the other to Asia.
Centuries passed; the family lost all hope that it would one day be reunited. It was difficult to say which part of the family suffered the greater adversity: those who had continued with the same God or those who had converted, either by force or free will. In the Balkans, one always, after putting up resistance, paid the price of defeat almost to the very brink of extinction. At first, no one would grasp the hand of the victor. However, as one of my ancestors would say, If you can’t bite the hand, kiss it. And so it transpired that the family found itself with a new God and new, unimagined, temptations. Some accepted the new faith; others rejected it. But either way, the course of the family’s destiny would be altered. An order came down from Constantinople that the family was to be separated from the sea and had to seek a new destiny elsewhere…
With great trepidation, our ancestors reluctantly undertook the family’s first resettlement. They abandoned their houses by the sea for the first time in centuries. The family dream between the two seashores was cut short. All that remained were family legends hearkening back to its glorious past; hidden in the deepest roots of memory was the polyphonic song of victory and defeat, unrest and compromise, never resolved, never completed, but its messages survived so that a day might come when one of the descendants would interpret it at last. Our ancestors sent petitions all the way to Constantinople, begging to be settled by water’s edge, either on the banks of a river or the shore of a lake.
As compensation they were granted houses and lands by the shore of this lake, right there at the edge of the small town on which I am gazing today from the high ridge as I peer through the old spyglass that Father once brought from Constantinople, through which three generations have peered at their native land across the border, here by the Monastery. They arrived with a new faith, while still retaining some traces of the old… For many in the family, this monastery remained a holy place of their lost faith. Our ancestors were, then, caught between two faiths, one not fully uprooted, the other not fully implanted. Such a fate seemed to make them more tolerant, less radical in their interpersonal relations, and in their relation to other faiths.
The Monastery was a temple of balance between the Christian and Muslim populations. The Monastery’s patron saint was a savior, a healer of pain, and a banisher of evil for all people of good will regardless of their faith. Our ancestors remained tied to the Monastery, in spite of their new faith, and in periods when there was danger of intruders, they even helped to defend it.
One could freely say that despite everything with which history clouded the waters and the souls of the people — through frequent waves of brutality, the victories and defeats of empires, the attacks and manipulations of ideologues, and the unknown consequences of conversion — the Lake, with its magical renewing clarity, washed clean, brightening hope at even the darkest hour.
Many years had passed since my last visit to the Monastery. At that time, my mother was still alive. She still maintained the family equilibrium established when Father was alive. She endured, the last pillar of the family. I have a clear memory of her lighting her last candle in the Monastery, directing her gaze to her native town on the shore across that impenetrable — but invisible — border. Her gaze rested on our former house — a house that had been confiscated — whose keys dangled from the inherited family ring.
But mother is no longer alive. It was my fate to be left alone here by the Lake, on the Monastery heights. Hovering between land and sky. Like the families in Chagall’s paintings, more in the sky than on the ground…
After Mother died, my older brothers, born in that lakeshore town, disappeared without ever returning there even though it was just within reach.
For a moment, the Lake appeared to me a giant pool of tears.
This compelling thought, in which consciousness and unconsciousness merged,
transported me to a silent blue dream that merged with the lake’s blueness and solitude. I was dreaming my waking — perhaps I was awake — when I heard Mother’s quiet voice, a voice present within me since the first moments of my life:
“Son, my dear son, don’t look into the blueness, it will bewitch you and carry you down to the bottom of the lake!”
In my daydream, I stared into the lake’s blue depths. I turned. There was no one there. I looked toward the Monastery. The peacock had spread its wings; it was as if a rainbow rose above its proud head.
I turned toward the lake.
I felt more alone in this blue eternity.
It had been years since mother had vanished, vanished even from my dreams.
Now she was here. More present than ever.
I spent the night at the Monastery. I hoped that some of my loved ones would come to me in my dream. But I could not shut my eyes…
At dawn, I approached the Macedonian–Albanian border. The watchtower was several yards away. I had not entered my native Albania since that fateful year of 1979, when it was the only place in the world to celebrate the centennial of Stalin’s birth. Now I entered at the new border crossing by the Monastery; modern border signs had been erected in these neighboring countries in the spirit of hope that this new era would bring them closer.
In 1997, it was as if a new hurricane had struck my native Albania. After the belated fall of the Stalinist dictatorship and Albania’s desire to catch in one breath the rhythm of this new era, after the catharsis of internal reckoning and revenge and theopening of a country that had been sealed for half a century, history rushed on as never before.
People were busy leaving their native land at any cost. They stormed the boats in the harbors to cross the sea to reach Western Europe and beyond across the oceans. They crossed borders high in the mountains; with their final strength and last hope they ran day and night. They fled; they fled alone from their own kin, from themselves; they ran without looking where they were going, simply to flee their native land…
It was an epidemic, a plague. It was as if I were the only one returning. I returned to my native land to see what had happened to my wider family still living there in this new time of freedom and democracy. And I, like my father before me — like all families in exile — followed my paradoxical fate. Everyone was fleeing. I returned.
Among the closest of Father’s kin, all that remained was his youngest sister, already well into her life’s ninth decade. She was dressed all in black, her face hard. It was her eyes alone that emitted that familiar energy, goodness, and quiet strength, the source of our perseverance during our long Balkan exile. A whole family had grown up around her: sons and daughters-in-law, daughters and sons-in-law, grandchildren. But everyone had his destination, somewhere else to go without return: some to Australia or New Zealand, the luckier ones to America.
Why had those not been the destinations for Father’s family when it had crossed the border? How little had changed in the family’s history on both sides of the border! My father’s sister, despite the heavy blows of fate she had suffered, stood upright, and cheerfully greeted me at the doorway to her home. Through tears, she was first to speak:
“I have been waiting for you to come. I dreamt of you yesterday. You were high up on the great cliff above the deep water. I said to you: “Don’t look into the blue waters of the Lake. It will bewitch you and carry you off.”
A shiver ran through my body. I could not calm myself in the teary embrace of my Father’s sister. How could the dreams of my dead Mother and Father’s living sister combine in my sleep?
Who could believe one’s fate?
How do people’s dreams separate and merge when a border — a simple border line — divides them, a line dreamt up and drawn by people from another era?
My aunt noticed my agitation. She calmed herself. A few final large tears rolled down her cheeks. She was just as she had been when she visited us — she had been allowed to cross the border solely for family burials. Anyone who could survive those tough times had to have spirit, though her heart was always tested. Still, her heart would hold out until her last nephew was settled. She knew her fate. In the end, she would be left alone by the Lake, enveloped in the silent cry of all her kin who had died; she would become a living beacon of hope to the departed.
I searched for the right words. I sat in the middle of the minder — the long Turkish-style bench — in the spot reserved, by custom, for a significant guest. People came to see me, people I had never seen but who were my close relatives. Others peered down from their photos on the walls from far off Australia, America, and farther off New Zealand, captured on the wall forever like pinned butterflies. As if peering out from an herbarium of lost illusions.
My father’s sister recounted times past. She had lived with her sons and daughters in their own house as if they were tenants. With the end of Stalinism, the borders opened and some injustices were to some degree recompensed, but their house was not returned to them; they were instead assigned an apartment here in Kalevo. But if one of her grandsons had not gone to the minister, this wrong would not have been righted. Soon after the Socialists came to power and someone took a fancy to my aunt’s apartment. Someone else from the Socialist government declared that this old woman had suffered enough and should be left in peace. She should be allowed to stay in her home. And she
The house was alive. Relatives both close and distant came to see me, to welcome me. Though the border had been open awhile, we had somehow been riveted to our places. The past had made us quite unaccustomed to hope.
I was embraced by close relatives who did not know me, relatives who had never seen me before.
I watched Father’s sister quietly talking. I recognized the blue expressiveness of Father’s eyes, the search for warm words that always lifted one’s mood. All at once, she stood and said aloud:
“Surely God has sent you to us at this time. It is true He has not done a lot for us, nor has he abandoned us forever. I will live a bit longer, until the last child leaves for Australia. That is what is written. And there is no escape for what is written.”
I wanted to delve immediately into the old woman’s way of thinking as she spoke of the power of fatalism and her resignation when she had no strength left to resist. I had encountered this spirit in our branch of the family, too, and had often been disgusted by it, but due to the inertia stemming from an inherited respect for our patriarchal traditions, I had adopted it as a sort of compromise. I did not have strength even now to oppose it in my aunt. She seemed to sense my disquiet and continued:
“Your father, may he rest in peace, left in time. You saw other tortures. You did not see the torments we endured here. First the cursed time of Stalinism, followed by the period of the Chinese. They pitted us one against the other. That’s been the rule forever since time immemorial here in our Balkans. We become our own worst enemies. They took away our fields and our houses and plowed up the graves of our ancestors.”
Something deep inside me startled when my old aunt mentioned plowed-up graves. Here, in my family’s native land — the native land of the heroes of my Balkan saga — the main direction of my search was closed.
I thought first of the grave of my father’s mother, unquestionably the central figure in the family saga, the one I sought most in my quest:
“What happened to grandmother when she died? Where is she buried? Was hers among the graves that were plowed up?”
“Ah, that clever one, she was lucky in her death at least. She died immediately after the war. Hers was the only grave that survived intact; she was the only one God did not forget.”
My Aunt noticed my emotional response when she mentioned that the grave of her mother was still intact. She was also moved. I had only the vaguest memories of my Turkish grandmother, whom I had last seen fifty years ago when she crossed the border for her last trip to Constantinople. She taught me some Turkish. She taught me a few words, of which I always remembered the phrase ac kapi: open the door! Deep within me, there remained forever the opened door that my Turkish grandmother left to me in my exile, the door of her great, unfinished dreams to go out into the world, to escape the Balkans.
In those fifty years since my grandmother’s death, a half-century’s absence, the significance of this woman in my search to understand Father’s Balkan exile was interwoven in my consciousness, and grew to mythic proportions.
And now, I had perhaps reached the moment of truth as I followed the life of this strong Balkan woman. My aunt, as if following the course of my inner thought, continued with animation:
“My Mother was of Turkish descent. God granted me a whole half-century to live with her. She was a strong woman. She lived several lives in one, which helped all of us. Her soul — a soul torn by all the separations and departures — could contain all our sufferings.”
My aunt was visibly stirred. Her older daughter handed her a glass of water and medicine, likely for her heart, to calm her down. But telling her nephew about her mother both excited her and calmed her. Gathering her strength, she continued:
“I don’t know, my son, which of her pains to tell you about. I couldn’t begin to tell you all of them. She had such a great soul; her maternal feeling provided strong roots in the family, which grew through her boundless and patient love.
This cursed life. Our cursed fate. Her relatives were descendants of a renowned qadi’s family. They lived for centuries in Prilep. Her father was a renowned qadi as well. He was the first in generations to sense the end of the empire. He decided to uproot the whole family, abandon all their lands and houses, and follow his fated path to Constantinople. He felt that his uprooted family could once again take root there. Despite everything, he couldn’t uproot hope as well.
He was a powerful qadi, who left behind a great deal, but also took away a great deal for his new life in Constantinople, in the unfolding of events that he foresaw. Still, every summer he would return to his native city by the Lake. He soon befriended our family, in particular my father, who was by that time a lonely widower.
Your grandfather was a strong man, but he had been broken by the early death of his first wife and the torments of his new life with the children, who, even though they had reached adulthood, were now motherless.
“Then huge family quarrels began that still haven’t been resolved, mainly about how the land was divided. No matter how you divide land, it’s not possible to please everybody. After he had divided what he divided and found some peace, he was overtaken by a different worry. All his closest kin, on both his mother and father’s side, left for Constantinople. They left in time to get themselves well settled. And they did succeed, wonderfully. They ended up in palaces, but then forgetfulness took its course. No force on earth could separate your grandfather from the Lake. He stayed behind in his loneliness beside the shore holding the great spyglass your father brought him from Constantinople.
He was left behind to watch over the bitterly divided root of the family on its native soil beside the great expanse of water…
My aunt seemed to follow the inner line of my curiosity about our divided time, and she continued:
One evening before his departure, while gazing out across the blue expanse of the lake, the old Prilep qadi poured out the depths of his soul to my father over a glass of rakija.
“My dear friend, I have come to bid farewell to both you and the Lake. I am taking my whole family to Constantinople. Our family’s time in the Balkans has come to an end. We were citizens of a strong empire that ruled five hundred years. But our time has now passed forever. We have not become part of Europe nor freed ourselves from Asia. We need to go to Constantinople before we are driven from here by force and humiliation. History does not forgive if you don’t follow its course wisely; you have to flow with it, neither ahead of it nor behind it. We are leaving behind the graves of our ancestors here in the Balkans …”
That’s how the qadi spoke to my father. He poured out his soul to the very dregs. As the light on the opposite shore faded, the qadi told my father the secret he had been carrying deep inside for a long time:
“My dear friend, for years I have been coming to this Lake and enjoying the hospitality of your home. I have always considered you a close friend. And I deeply respect your family. Of all those we leave behind, you are the one we will miss the most. I am taking with me five daughters and four sons. They are all ready for our great journey. They will undoubtedly handle the uncertainties of the future better than I will. I see you here a young man, but already a widower with your life still ahead of you. It is not some long-standing tradition for a father to offer a daughter in marriage. But I would leave my youngest daughter to be your wife. Believe me, my friend, it is as though I hear the voice of providence telling me to do this. Let my daughter be a bridge between our families…”
Father accepted the hand of the qadi’s daughter with joy and good fortune. My son, new Turkish blood now began to flow into our family; our fate was quickening…”
Luan Starova was born in 1941 and is a novelist, poet, scholar, diplomat and literary translator. An Albanian from the Republic of Macedonia who writes in both the Albanian and Macedonian languages, he has served as the Republic of Macedonia’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal, and was formerly a professor of French at the University of Skopje. His books have been translated into many languages.
Christina Kramer is a professor of Slavic and Balkan languages and linguistics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the language textbook Macedonian and co-translator of the novel Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian.