By Dubravka UgrešićJune 26, 2019
I’M NOT ONE to pay attention to dreams. But this dream I remembered, though only its blueprint. The details and nuances change with the telling. I have preserved the blueprint and have been carrying it with me like mental baggage I can’t seem to shed for a quarter of a century now. The doorbell rings at my Zagreb apartment. I open the door and people I’ve never seen before come pouring in. “Who are you? How dare you barge in without my say-so?” I shout. “This is my apartment!” A woman, meanwhile, is changing her baby’s diaper on my bed, a man goes into my bathroom (“Hey, that’s my bathroom!”), somebody opens the fridge and begins taking out food (“How dare you! That’s my refrigerator!”), I fume and threaten (“I’ll call the police!”), but they don’t hear me. I’m invisible to them. My apartment fills with people and nothing seems to stop them. “How can so many of them fit in here! As if they’re not people but a deck of cards!” I think in my dream.
A few months after I dreamed this, war broke out in my country, Yugoslavia. Tens of thousands of refugees dispersed across the globe, some even finding their way to Afghanistan. With a brand-new, only just valid passport from the newly minted state of Croatia, I left my country. Or I should say my country left me. I know now that the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of refugees who are knocking on the doors of the European countries did not leave their countries. Their countries left them.
No matter what we call them — guided by the etiquette of political correctness — whether emigrants or émigrés, migrants, refugees, exiles, or asylum-seekers, we all know whom we’re talking about. This is our shared cultural meme. European, Christian civilization began with people seeking refuge. All of us have internalized the image of God banishing Adam and Eve from paradise, wagging his rage-filled index finger. This image is a part of our lasting cultural legacy. I set out into the world when the then president of Croatia — with that same godly ease and menacing finger — announced he was the “Croatian George Washington” and declared Croatia to be “heaven on earth.” Today, when I watch jihadist videos, I note that they are ever ready to wag that finger. Wielding it like a sword, they threaten those who refuse to obey with horrible punishments.
We all have refugees as part of our mental vocabulary: the notions of expulsion, exodus, exile, are built into the very foundations of our civilization and personal lives. Yet we tend to close our eyes to the numbers (at the end of 2014, some 60 million people had been displaced, the most since World War II), to the images of the dead bodies washing up on the shores of Italy, Spain, and Greece, to scenes from refugee ghettos, to the geographic site — the island of Lampedusa — one of the symbolic topoi of the “migration crisis.”
Marjola Rukaj, Albanian photographer, takes portraits of refugees, but also the small things the refugees are carrying with them, with all their symbolic potential. She takes pictures of cell phones, trinkets, a ribbon, a bracelet, a necklace. Examination of one of Rukaj’s photographs froze the blood in my veins. The picture was of an inexpensive necklace and, suspended from it, a razor-blade charm. I experienced the razor blade as a miniature passport allowing the crossing of the last border, between the world of the living and the world of the dead, an exit, as if into death, a poisonous snake we carry with us like a pet, to be set free from the cage only once and never more.
While we close our eyes, migrants are making their way, using superhuman strength and tenacity. According to a report by the Norwegian government, in November 2015, more than four thousand migrants crossed the narrow Norwegian-Russian border, thereby opening a new and unexpected “arctic route.” Russian law forbids traversing the last dozen miles on foot, so they covered those last miles riding children’s bicycles over the frozen wastes. Perhaps some of them riding bicycles warmed themselves with visions of the lights of Paris, unaware that at that very moment, on November 13, 2015, terrorists had turned Paris into a site of bloodshed, violence, and fear. Reality becomes fantasy at this point. Life is not a dream; life is cinema, hunger games.
No doubt many of my former countrymen — themselves refugees 20 years ago and now law-abiding taxpayers in Western European countries — are dead set against the idea that this new wave of refugees will become their fellow citizens. The countries which stepped out from behind the Iron Curtain, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, have since hastened to raise new — barbed-wire — curtains, without a thought to the fact that a Hungarian, Romanian, or Bulgarian child, not just a Syrian child, could become entangled in the wire. Countries like Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia over the last several years have been treating refugees like tennis balls for their games of petty, local, embittered political tennis.
Today a large portion of the world is tight-rope walking. It is difficult to say on which side these tight-rope walkers will fall or whether they will fall at all. The landscape is not attractive: down below are fields sprouting rolls of barbed wire and swastikas, and the view of the other shore is murky at best. Nobody can guarantee there isn’t a crazed suicide bomber crouching there on the other, well-lit shore. Nobody can tell yet whether tight-rope walking is the new lifestyle, the new code, the new morals, the new politics. Terrorism is amoral, as Jean Baudrillard declared after September 11. Have we, the citizens of the world, been so overcome by fear that we, too, have become amoral?
Europa was, herself, a migrant; according to one mythical version she was the daughter of a Phoenician king, born in the city of Tyre in what is Lebanon today, and astride a bull — her lover, Zeus — she reached the shores of Europe. Reaching the other shore astride a bull is every bit as spectacular as riding across the last dozen miles of ice on a child’s bike.
Refugees and migrants serve as a mirror, a test, a challenge, a summons to confront our values. The events, some of them visible, others less so, which have followed since the “migrant crisis” was identified, are being added to the crossword puzzle. The people fleeing their countries are the beginning and end, the cause and effect, they are the deck of cards from which the near future of the world will be read. And whoever knows how to read these cards will know what lies ahead for us.
I don’t know when it was that I first met Meliha, a Bulgarian woman who cleans apartments in Amsterdam. All I remember is that she introduced herself as Meli …
“Meli isn’t a Bulgarian name, is it?” I asked.
“Well not everyone who comes from Bulgaria is … Bulgarian,” she said cautiously.
Meli’s background was Bulgarian Turkish. She was from a distant village somewhere in the northeastern end of the country. Her parents apparently did little but have children, producing a brood of 17. Three of them died, said Meliha, and 14 of us are left. Carried away with their procreational vigor, the parents seem to have failed to note that in communist Bulgaria they’d had decent medical care, readily available contraception, and the right to abortion. Having spent his reproductive role, her father died like the salmon after spawning. Her mother, the queen bee, lives the life of a fertility goddess: her children look after her and after one another, the older ones raising the younger.
Meliha and her four sisters were renting an apartment together in Amsterdam. They were all working as house cleaners and all of them also had jobs at Albert Heijn, the largest and best-known Dutch supermarket chain. Albert Heijn is such a powerful company that they put a supermarket up in the middle of Museum Square in Amsterdam, rubbing elbows with the cultural giants of the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and the Stedelijk. The Albert Heijn supermarket is the fourth “giant”: it keeps an eye on museum visitors, passersby, and denizens of the Museum neighborhood. Many, having purchased a bottle of water and a sandwich at the Albert Heijn supermarket, recline on the supermarket’s architecturally appealing slanted grassy roof.
Meli and her sisters cleaned the supermarket twice a week, and they reported this part of their earnings to the Dutch tax collectors. Their regular payment of taxes would be key on the day when they went to the Dutch authorities to request Dutch citizenship. Meli arrived in the Netherlands at the age of 19; now she is 28. She was born in the year the Berlin Wall fell. This detail meant something to me but not to her. She works every day from morning till night, and stops by my place when she can, on Sundays.
Meli barely has a fourth-grade education. She never traveled around Bulgaria, she’d never been to Sofia, the closest being the Sofia airport from where she flies to Amsterdam. She cycles through the streets of Amsterdam like a true Dutch woman. And when she stops by my place to visit I often sit her down at my computer. We work on the basics, the names of the capital cities and countries of Europe …
“How can you not know! You need to know where you are in the world,” I insist. She laughs. Her smile exposes a sharp tooth growing over another tooth.
“And you should go to the dentist, for God’s sake, to have that tooth taken care of!” She laughs again. She has no intention whatsoever of going to the dentist.
Meliha and I speak in Bulgarian. Her Bulgarian is not strong. Mine isn’t much better. Mine was left behind somewhere in my childhood, I learned what I knew while I was visiting my grandparents, my mother’s parents, who lived in Varna. With their death, our family vacations spent on the Black Sea also came to an end. Meliha has never been to the Black Sea. Just like her sisters, she bought a house in her village and a small apartment in a nearby town. She rents out the apartment. Meliha is a successful young woman, especially if one considers what her chances for success were to begin with. She renovated her house following urban standards. Thanks to her ties to Bulgarian trucking she managed to arrange to have all the furniture she’d bought in Amsterdam delivered to her village. Everything is now brand spanking new in her house.
“I’ll come to see this miracle for myself,” I say.
“Come,” she says, and laughs.
“I’ll come once you’ve put in a jacuzzi.”
She laughs; she has plans for a jacuzzi.
Frank is a manual laborer. He ripped down walls in my apartment, removed all the rubble, and prepped the apartment for the electricians, plumbers, and other tradespeople. He did this all in three days, for a surprisingly modest wage. And over those three days I learned that Frank was the son of a Dutch Protestant minister, that he’d been married, had no children, was well educated and had a job, and then one day he abruptly decided to abandon it all. He closed his bank accounts, his tax numbers, his phone numbers, he de-registered his addresses and completely removed himself from the system. The jobs he did as a manual laborer he found through people he knew. Frank’s girlfriend’s phone number was Frank’s only contact point. I paid him with a pang of guilt; I felt he was charging too little for the job he’d done. We said our goodbyes. For some reason I thought I’d never see him again.
With no forewarning, Frank showed up at my door some 15 years later. He joined me for coffee, and we talked. In the meanwhile he’d bought a house in a distant mountain village somewhere in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Turkey. And his girlfriend is with him. He helps the villagers build and repair their houses and, in return, the villagers teach him how to work the land, cultivate vegetables, set up beehives …
“So what are you doing in Amsterdam?” I asked.
His Dutch passport had expired, and without a passport he couldn’t travel; he was worried he might have difficulty renewing it, because the Dutch authorities could no longer find a single item in his file but his birth certificate to prove that he was a Dutch citizen. Frank had done far too thorough a job, apparently, at removing himself from the system.
A Bulgarian woman in the Netherlands, a Dutch man in Bulgaria, this is only one of the millions of similar stories of today’s Europe. If there is anything truly relevant in the current inflation of intellectual narratives about European identity, a European future, the European crisis, Europe after the wall, new European walls — then it should be the narrative of the magnificent, remarkable circulation of human material. Human cargo. Wars, murders, genocides, political systems, states and borders, ideological and religious systems, nationalisms — all this pales in comparison to the fates of ordinary people. Sure, if Frank had moved to Bulgaria during the communist years, maybe he wouldn’t have needed a Dutch passport anymore, maybe he’d never have been able to leave Bulgaria again. Sure, if Yugoslavia hadn’t come apart at the seams, if a mob of brutal thugs, elected by the democratic majority, hadn’t grabbed power, I wouldn’t have ended up in Amsterdam and I would never have made the acquaintance of Frank and Meli. Nor would Meli have ended up in Amsterdam if Bulgaria had not become a member of the European Union, followed by the transition and state-run thievery that brought Bulgarian citizens to the verge of starvation. Meli is not in Amsterdam for the tourism; Meli is here to feed herself and her large family, which was brought into the world by her worry-free, childish parents. Whatever the case, the entire world relies for its existence on worry-free, childish parents.
Meliha has an iPhone, the most recent, expensive model. She shows me pictures of a wedding. Of her 10 sisters she will soon be the only one who isn’t married. The weddings are grand, expensive, with a long guest list and shimmering dresses. One of Meliha’s sisters married a Turkish man in Istanbul. The wedding was colossal. They found a groom for Meliha as well, but he wasn’t worth mention, a fool … and this other one, whose picture she shows me on the screen, handsome, muscular, with a modern haircut ending in a cowlick on his forehead …
“Now that one likes to be in charge,” I say, touching his picture on the screen tentatively with two fingers as if it were a dead mouse.
“True,” she says. Meliha may be short on experience, but her discerning eye ticks like a Swiss watch.
Bulgarians, it should be said, have, at times, humiliated their Turks, compelling them to work the nastiest and most poorly paid jobs, and to change their name and faith. Today Bulgarian women dash off to Turkey, where they work as house cleaners, nannies, and maids; the Turkish middle class is on the rise, has need of their services, and is willing to pay. Bulgarian women do the same work in Istanbul as Meli does in Amsterdam, as Croatian, Serbian, Romanian, and Albanian women do in Italy, as Slovakian women do in Austria, as Lithuanian women do in Switzerland, as …
And while the European political bureaucracy spreads its wings in Brussels, and while prominent political thinkers fling philosophical mortar now and then at the ideological construct of Europe, and while petty European fascists nestle into European commissions like laying hens, clucking loudly and every so often producing a “serpent’s egg,” and while in many transitional countries there is not so much as the letter D left of democracy, everyday European life continues to push in various directions, and on invisible cyber-papyrus, millions of European human fates are being recorded.
What happened with Meli was a miracle. She, who’d been so reticent simply because she had a vocabulary of barely five hundred words, she whom I’d coached in European geography, she had learned to speak Dutch. I’d never have known she’d mastered it on the sly if Dutch friends of mine hadn’t stopped by one Sunday while Meli was visiting. She conversed with them with real eloquence in Dutch. That Sunday, in the presence of my friends, it was hard to stop her. Meli’s self-decolonization happened in language, through language, with the help of language. This is why I’m beginning to think she will never go back. Where can she go back to? A native language where the best she can do is stutter?
Europe bristles with paradoxes. Paradoxes are what keep it alive. This, of course, is not something that those who build the barbed-wire walls and fences know about; they’re convinced they are in control. In the Storm campaign for which Croats feel particular pride, they expelled more than two hundred thousand fellow citizens, Serbs. Ten years hence the population of Croats began to shrink. Right now the shrinking is accelerating from one month to the next. Croats are leaving the country, their heaven on earth, in search of better jobs, and this is not the first time this has happened in their modest history. Whoever can is fleeing, those with little or no schooling, those with a plenty of schooling, the young, the old … they are going wherever they are welcome: Ireland, Denmark, Faroe Islands. Such as a young man, Ivan, from Slavonia, whom I sat next to on a flight to Zagreb last Christmas. He couldn’t have been much over 18, a manual laborer, he mixed mortar, carried bricks …
“How’s it going for you on Faroe?”
“Great, there are plenty of people there from around here. It’s just a bit on the cold side,” he said and laughed.
When he talks, he swallows parts of words and compensates by drawing out the rest, as do people from Slavonia. He speaks, though he is clearly unused to conversation; words confuse him, yet I feel he enjoys being the center of somebody’s attention, no matter how fleeting or random. He is going to his village, going home for the Christmas holidays, and then he’ll return to Faroe …
“So what will you do while you’re in Slavonia?”
“Dunno, have me a look…”
“What will you have a look at when you just told me your parents died and you have no family left?”
“Well, I don’t…”
“To see how the house is doing…”
“But you said your house is crumbling and you have no electrical power…”
“Well, I don’t…”
“So what will you do there?”
“Dunno, have me a look…” The young man dug in his heels and a hard expression flitted across his face like a shadow.
At that moment, in the plane as it was landing at Zagreb airport, I felt as if the young man, too, was a shadow, like Meliha, and like Frank became with his voluntary self-exclusion. They, like millions of others, lead parallel lives. These are people with no voice yet they are motivating, advancing, and sustaining European life. They are the invisible Europe.
George Steiner, one of the last top-notch European intellectuals with a strong humanistic bent, in his oft-cited The Idea of Europe (2004) ennumerates five postulates defining Europe. The first are the “café,” as a place for creating and exchanging intellectual values. Indeed, Europe is crisscrossed by cafés, which are key to the cultural and intellectual history of Europe. Take the Odeon, for instance, in Zurich. A glance at its clientele, which included Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Frank Wedekind, Karl Kraus, William Somerset Maugham, Erich Maria Remarque, Klaus Mann, James Joyce, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Franz Lehar, Arturo Toscanini, Albert Einstein, Vladimir I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, bears out George Steiner’s assertion. The second postulate is “geography” or “walkability,” the “human scale.” One can master the distances in European cities and countries on foot. The third postulate, which sets Europe apart from other geographic constellations, is the constant commemoration of the cultural past or reminders of it. Streets, squares, and buildings in European cities bear the names of major European writers, philosophers, painters, scientists, statesmen, reminding us of how inextricably interwoven are the European past and present. The fourth postulate on which the idea of Europe relies is the interweaving of two powerful traditions of civilization, the dual origins of Europe, where, metaphorically put, one parent comes from ancient Athens, the other from Jerusalem. The fifth postulate underpinning the idea of Europe and the European is a continual awareness of a possible end to European civilization, the presentiment of this end, the awareness of potential apocalypse. The presentiment of the end is not merely a subject for the ruminations of philosophers such as Spengler and Hegel; it has its roots in the European experience of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and mass destruction. Hundreds of millions of people were killed in these wars, and six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Many parts of Europe were razed to the ground. The firm commitment never to let this happen again was flouted by the relatively recent “Yugoslav” wars (1991–2001), in which, as if the warring parties were following a textbook, many of the same things were repeated: the ethnic cleansing, destruction, expulsion, genocide (Srebrenica), the camps, the forced resettlement, and the refugees.
George Steiner — who senses the coming of the collapse of Europe, the incursion of the barbarians, and the fading of European ideas — seeks a way out through cultural utopia, through dreaming a new dream of enlightenment, through focusing on things of little utility and on truths: “The dignity of homo sapiens is exactly that: the realisation of wisdom, the pursuit of disinterested knowledge, the creation of beauty. Making money and flooding our lives with increasingly trivialised material goods is a profoundly vulgar, emptying passion.” Steiner condemns the “despotism of the mass-market and the rewards of commercialised stardom” because of which the best minds of Europe are embracing “the edenic offers of the United States.”
At the rare moments where Steiner lapses into a typical European lament, the reader might stop and recall just how much Europeans have gained from the idea of America. And how much America itself has gained from the many émigrés who went there from Europe. Perhaps there is relevance in a story told by a guide on a tour boat on which I cruised around Manhattan a few years ago, about how the eastern shoreline of Manhattan was fortified with rubble transported from Europe during World War II, when the ships returning to the United States after delivering aid to England would load rubble from the Blitz as the ballast necessary to stabilize the ship. Who knows, maybe the eastern shoreline of Manhattan was built on rubble from Coventry Cathedral! Even if this story isn’t true, the metaphor still holds. People didn’t flock to America to save their lives, ensure a better future, or take advantage of “edenic offers,” but for a set of ideas which America exemplified: the “dream,” the simple things of freedom, choice, tolerance … America is a land of settlers, it exists thanks to the people who settled there, who are settling there, and who will settle there. Millions of lives are built into American culture, into the literature, architecture, movies, art, science, medicine, technology. Many of these people came from Europe. There is nothing sadder than a country whose borders are bristling with barbed wire, yet none of the refugees have any intention of staying. Through Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, and other countries, the refugees seek only passage. Bad countries are merely corridors, and the refugees know this better than anyone.
During Yugoslavia, there were many factories, institutes, streets, and schools named after Nikola Tesla. Socialist propaganda expressed by the slogan knowledge is power rang out on all sides. Nikola Tesla was a living example that the enlightenment sentiment espoused by communism was possible. During the recent war, the monument to Tesla in Gospić was destroyed, along with his family home and museum. Until recently the home where Tesla grew up in Smiljan was surrounded by mine fields, but now it has been rebuilt and made into a museum. For the tourists, of course. The main square in Gospić used to be called Nikola Tesla Square. Today it is Stjepan Radić Square. Countless squares and streets in Croatia bear the name of Franjo Tuđman, a third-rate politician, and the first president of the Republic of Croatia. The new Zagreb airport is also named after Tuđman. Although he was born in Croatia, Nikola Tesla was ethnically a Serb, which is the main obstacle to his inclusion in the Croatian pantheon. In Serbia, many streets, squares, and schools, as well as the Belgrade airport, bear the name of Nikola Tesla. For Tesla, at least as far as the Serbs are concerned, was a Serb.
In the United States, there is a statue to Nikola Tesla at Niagara Falls. Yugoslavia gave this copy of a statue by Yugoslav sculptor Frano Kršinić as a gift to the United States. In New York City, a corner of Bryant Park was recently named Nikola Tesla Corner. A statue has been installed on Long Island at a key site for Tesla’s scientific work. There are busts of Tesla at many American universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Michigan, and MIT.
This fragment of a story about Tesla confirms the respect for education, science, invention, enlightenment, progress — everything Tesla personified — and which the culture of the United States values far more than they are valued by the cultures from which Nikola Tesla came. Inclusivity — a great idea that still attracts people to America. Walls and barbed wire will not prevent them from making the trek, drawn by the pull of ideas of a better, more humane, creative, and dignified life. Even if they arrive at their destination disappointed, stripped of rights, humiliated, they will do their best to make real the ideal they set out to attain. Maybe they will be invisible, maybe they will not have the right to vote, but they will be the people who sustain life and lift human standards, the standards of the humane. The zero-tolerance policy will sooner or later backfire on those who are advocating for it. It embitters the life of many who have lived here for generations. The true despair begins when we suddenly feel there is nowhere left to emigrate to, that all destinations are equally bad, that there is nothing beyond the wall. The only hope left for us is that we haven’t yet been faced with the last wall. We haven’t, have we?
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać
This essay was originally commissioned in 2017 for a three-day workshop in Essen, organized by Praxis Europa, “a coalition of people from academia, civil society, business, administration and the culture sector, who wish to engage with the idea of a democratic, just and sustainable Europe, and to end the threat of its disintegration.” An excerpt first appeared on Literary Hub, and this full version will appear in Ugrešić’s forthcoming collection of essays, The Age of Skin (Open Letter Books).
Dubravka Ugrešić is a European author whose novels, short stories, and essays have won wide acclaim, and who is the winner of, among other awards, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She is based in Amsterdam.
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