Karl Emil Franzos, an Austrian Jewish writer at the end of the 19th century once called the Eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire “Half-Asia”. Not only that, he dedicated them two entire books containing sharp depictions of life in these provinces. I dare say that no publisher would have accepted that title today. Racist, discriminating, these would have been the epithets. In the end a young and ambitious editor would have come up with the compromise formula to pave his career with Carrara marble: “Reports from Half-Europe”. Sexy, critical and optimistic. The fabric of success. He would have proceeded to ask Franzos to rewrite some of his stories and to underline the two characteristics so typical for the region: the overwhelming hospitality of the people and the tolerance of the multi-cultural environment. The result? We would have never heard of an author by the name of Karl Emil Franzos for I cannot imagine him describing pogroms as acts of multicultural tolerance.
Recently I was invited to participate at a cultural event, which dealt among other issues with mental borders and the role of intellectuals in the transformation processes in the region. Unfortunately, we did not touch upon one border that is of essential importance to me, especially in the cultural context: it is the border to bad taste, to disgust. The event took place in a location in the centre of Skopje, which initially was planned to be a public car park, but miraculously turned into a shopping centre, an office building and a hotel with conference facilities. Now the car park has its own outdoor parking lot. Juicy, you think? Here’s more: while the miraculous transformation happened – probably as a result of the benediction it received from the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the owner also miraculously became mayor of Skopje’s centre district.
There we were, discussing about the collaboration of intellectuals and their greed for small privileges, sitting in the very incarnation of transitional abject absurdity. It is the culture of the periphery, or to be more precise of the palanka, that makes these things possible. Who cares about laws, about rules, when there are guys with balls to transcend them? The neighbourhood thug remains what he is, whatever his function. And this is exactly the problem. This is why Half-Europe is just not good enough. As long as this type is awarded public functions, there is something essentially rotten. It reeks of Berlusconi, of Jörg Haider. I personally prefer Schuman.
The macho attitude of the palanka thug has its manifestation in popular culture: turbo folk. And in line with the miraculous transformation of parkings into multi-purpose commercial centres, Skopje is hit these days by a wave of turbo folk stars: from Ceca to Jelena Karleuša to a plethora of others whose names I won’t even bother remembering. It is still a phenomenon to me that the widow of one of the most notorious criminals of Yugoslavia’s agony can still idolise her defunct husband in her songs and get away with it. More than that: be a star. Palanka it is. Shame was not invented there. Nor decency. Or humbleness. How else would one explain the neurotic haste in fabricating the future of an invented past? I am talking about the so-called project Skopje 2014. Oh, and by the way: the project contains a neo-baroque parking building.
Let us get back to hospitality and tolerance. The EU special representative is getting a taste of both at the moment, when self-styled media cronies who do their best to make the current government look like a regime do not cease with personal attacks below any acceptable levels. A lynch-mob would be the next logical and palanka-like step. Of course it won’t happen. But creating the very atmosphere is already enough. It must give them this morbid collective satisfaction the mob often displays after a pogrom. And who will be tomorrow’s targets?
This week marked international tolerance day. I did take part in the march organised by Skopje’s civil society, even though my tolerance has limits when it comes to the culture of aberration. And it is zero towards disrespect. The precondition for a functioning society is mutual respect. Respect for individuals, not for groups. No respect for codes of honour that enslave young men, women or children, no respect for group intolerance. No respect for the destructive anti-culture of the palanka. No more Half-Europe. Respect for individuals born from self-respect. That is what I marched for. And with me, very few others.
Vision? Avoid the peripheries…