20 years after

Published in Balkan Transitional Justice

Jasmina TesanovicAustinMarch 23, 2019
Author Jasmina Tesanovic started the first internet war diary while living in Belgrade when the NATO bombing of the Serbian capital began 20 years ago – a personal document of life-changing moments, extreme emotions, human kindness, survival and death.
Twenty years in peace are like 20 days of war. During the bombings of Serbia and Kosovo, I wrote from the point of view of any anonymous woman living her daily life in Belgrade, with children, friends… fishing for food, water, electricity, cigarettes… Necessity was the mother of invention, so I invented the first internet war diary, before bloggers or blogs existed. My war diary was spread through mailing lists virally, 20 years ago. ‘The Diary of a Political Idiot’ got me many friends and foes, and it changed my life.

The war diary began when the first planes flew over Belgrade, with these words:

“I hope we all survive this war, the bombs: the Serbs, the Albanians, the bad and the good guys, those who took up the arms, those who deserted, refugees going around the Kosovo woods and Belgrade’s refugees going around the streets with their children in arms, looking for nonexisting shelters, when the alarm for bombing sets off.”

Jasmina Tesanovic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Margery Epstein.

I remember life-changing moments in those days of war, when I learned about solidarity, human kindness, sharing, life and death. I remember a man on the bicycle who pedalled to my door from Novi Sad, 60 miles, in order to buy Hannah Arendt’s book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. My feminist publishing house had printed a mere 100 copies, because of shortages during the bombings.

I gave him the last remaining copy of the Arendt book for free, and then he asked me if he could take a shower since there was no running water in his town.

I remember my teenage daughter telling me rebelliously she that preferred to die with her best friend under a bridge, and not in a stuffy bomb shelter with her mom. I remember my women activists standing in Republic Square protesting against the Milosevic regime, and writing a collective message/poem; we all had our identity cards on us, in case we were attacked by soldiers or police. I remember those long nights of bombing that we spent down in our gypsy neighbour’s basement, drinking rakija and smoking her cigarettes instead of dosing ourselves on sleeping pills.

Those were days of crisis when emotions and survival mattered more than anything else, those were the days that we all learned that civilian habits do not matter in war, that we are all in the same trench when it comes to the violence of warlords.

I also learned that we don’t need many things we imagine we need, that money and consumerism are pretences, that electricity and running water are luxuries, that medicines are contraband and that our neighbours are not the people we believed they were. The human condition in the extremes of war was so simple: every day that we survived was a beautiful gift and every good night’s sleep was an orgy.

Twenty years afterwards, nowadays, I have friends from all over the world who write to me with fondness about how they came to know me. As electronic text, online, while I was in dire straits, writing my diary entries as if each day might be my last, roaming the city for electricity to charge my laptop, and phone lines to send my email… and a gas stove, so I could take raw meatballs out of my purse and fry them for my family.

Every day was similar, lived between air raid alarms, CNN and BBC satellite news and Serbian TV propaganda. During the bombing of the Belgrade TV building, 16 lives were lost, although the regime knew that NATO was certain to demolish that building. I had stored some of my own movie footage inside that stout television building, because I was trying to protect my best work, and of course the bombs obliterated it.

I also shot a new documentary during the bombing, for a German TV production. We filmed on the bridges of the Danube while NATO propaganda leaflets, written in broken Serbian, told us that the bridges were targets. Milosevic was bringing in buses of civilians to stand on the bridges as human shields.

Every day my bored teenage daughter cruised the streets with her school friends, unbeknownst to me, to gawk at the new bomb craters. The asylums were closed and every night, mentally ill patients came to my door. They had heard that I had publicly stated my fear of the bombs, and that I offered shelter, company and drinks to anyone who would admit that they were scared, too. Many people came with sleeping bags, people I will never forget, though I never saw them again.

The worst night came when a school nearby was bombed. Our house pitched and swayed from side to side; often I still have nightmares of those moments of vertigo, of the physical feeling of my home collapsing. My daughter still flinches when a tyre bursts.

But I also remember those kind people from the outskirts of Belgrade feeding us for free in the nearby market, and black market smugglers selling us their wondrous toilet paper and soap for few small coins.

I will never forget my guilt and responsibility for other people who were once my Yugoslav fellow citizens, now aliens and enemies, worse off than I was, persecuted, expelled and killed.

Civilians and force-drafted soldiers, often raw troops hardly of age, had to shoot and shell each other, while others had to skulk around as war deserters, and we hid them in the towns.

Today, many other wars in faraway places in the world are grinding on, with scenes of bombing and despair, the modern successors to what we went through. The global sanctions are worse than the explosions, for the deprivations are the ‘killers without a face’. My mother died because of a lack of antibiotics in her hospital. But wars in general have become routine: if you don’t know who the offender is, then it’s you.

However, then and now, I refuse to be categorised as the victim of the Other’s violence. If you don’t know who the victim is, then become a peace activist and find out.

Jasmina Tesanovic is an author, feminist, political activist, translator and filmmaker. Her book about life in Belgrade during the NATO bombing in 1999, ‘Diary of a Political Idiot’, was published by Granta.

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Diary On Time

On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths

1.

1.1.2017

I have decided to write this diary as time goes by. My small observations as time passes…. New Year’s Eve is just a moment of a year’s time, and I am interested in every moment that a year can hold, for every fraction of a passing second is as novel, in its own way, as the New Year is…

I always dreamed of having an ability to stop time, for better or for worse, or better into better yet… The transformations, measured by small invisible changes… I feel these moments and see them because I want to do that. I have no large abstract time anymore, no grand histories but lived experience, heartbeats of time, ticking slowly, as drops of life, as drops of truth, of order inside a chaos, of shapes inside a black void…

Only now that youthful passions have subsided within me, can I seek out peace in the unvarnished truth. Even small truths, mere passing details of a tangled historic epic, for I am just letting time be… in its flow… A trail of existence to nothingness, or vice versa… To find simple and calm joy in this universe which gave me form, and is now giving me lived sensation while slowly absorbing my form back into its informal infinity, nothingness, non-being…

As a being in this universe I need silence and respect, words which are few, but thoughtful… They might be not words but gestures, sounds, leading toward dance and music; everything means something …Meaning abides in almost anything, if you sharpen your senses and feel, hear, think, let it flow…

I swooned in a rural hotel in the mountains of Serbia, where loudspeakers played Serbian songs of lamentation. I didn’t care for the hotel’s chosen soundtrack, so I put on my own earphones, I tried watching a movie on my computer, yet then, all of a sudden, I heard nothing, saw nothing, except for that hot wave of lamentation, the traditional sorrows of of my fatherhood, of my motherhood, of my sisterhood.

People like me, but dead and gone, except that the moon was new and beautiful next to a tiny shiny star in this clear mountain air above this small, modest, extravagantly grieving village. I felt more emotion than the individual soul can bear: I was myself and beyond.

I fear these profound feelings, like lunar tides. They take me nowhere in life, except to my buried past and the graves of my loved ones. I returned to Serbia as an adult because of that call, and then the painful tumble of lament became a violent war that I had to flee to survive. I fled not only falling bombs but my rising inner demons, reviving a past beyond my lifetime, setting modernity on fire. That ominous moment in 1.1.2017, at 17.00, in a village hotel in the clear mountain air, still lingers with me…

2

2.1.2017
I watch time go by like a careful cook watches the skin form on a pan of scalded milk. I feel time, I experience time, every tiny clue is a gift that reveals time’s passage…. The proverb says the watched pot never boils, but when you choose to watch that pot, there are really many simmering little clues in there, many, many.

3

7.1.2017

Time is like a medicine, a narcotic, an anesthetic, a blessing, a hug, a surge of warmth, the smell of a baked cake… The dream of happiness…. This feeling of time that marches in huge eons, and the atomic dust of the present instant… I sit entirely still, in order not to disturb the placid flow….

When the moment of death arrives, it will have that same placidity, I know… We live on the cliff-edge of happiness, but we die in peace jumping into the void… Poetry fails me when I strive to describe this awareness of life within time, of temporal existence…. Only now, after so many years of knowing time, can I separate the true feeling of time from life’s other sensational elements, people, places, objects, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars…

4.

8.1.2017

Defense, that’s what it is, or the death drive maybe, a religion without a name, a yearning for peace and order in a chaotic, opaque cosmos… Defense, an act of conservation, a tall wall, barbed-wire barriers, that is my counting of the seconds with my body… No one can trespass and attack if I am perfectly still, and if the flow of time around me is entirely unperturbed, then I can never come to harm…. No haste, no waste, no dreadful hurry to the final end…

5.

9..1.2017

When I cook porridge, I can see time seething through the grains of nourishment, grain that will seethe inside my body and out of it, back to the earth again… Grains of time, little vessels of the here and now, boiling, softening, digesting, and so tasty, too. What joy, cooking harvested grain for breakfast, one more sustaining loop in this earthly cycle of passage …

6.

10.1.2017
As I walk, in continuous footsteps, I realize the disturbance to my peace of mind in this awareness of rhythm. To count time, to measure it, to make time expand, to waste time, to run the clock, stop the clock, whatever…

To measure time is a distortion of the sanctity of human life, the existential wholeness of our emotions, our entire experience. Being above, or even better below, one’s sense of self is safe, it is dull but productive: by being timed, I become a vessel, a machine, a time-bomb…. I might break, go haywire, explode or implode, because I am a human entity, not a schedule or a set of processes.

But being human, I do have a brain, so I can measure, plot, scheme, plan, control my thoughts, my motions, my emotions…

7.

12.1.2017
A turtle and a rabbit are passing some time together. The turtle is a fan of history, while the rabbit is a race contestant. The turtle taps the brakes, the rabbit hits the gas, but time rolls on anyway.

The turtle slowly lives out his century, while the rabbit lives fast, dies young and leaves a horde of children.

As night-time flowed through my dreaming brain I had a vision. It felt like some perfect insight, a fable, an animal Aesop folk-story… But it came without words. My visionary dream consisted only of the turtle and the rabbit. My dreaming brain could not slow down to pound out a series of sentences…the visionary dream just leapt by, my unconscious mind bounding and cavorting, dumping all rational meaning like so much abandoned baggage off the back of a speeding truck.

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Bangalore Literary Festival 2018

I still have Indian dust on my shoes from the city of Bangalore, where I spent almost a week at the international literary festival. 

    I was mind-boggled at the scale of this national Indian event: literature, politics, activism, feminism.  There was music and even street art, but what a crowd. Sixteen thousand highly literate participants, roaming from one outdoor stage to another, and engaged with every atom of their souls. 

    Literary culture persists in this part of the world, where people still believe that leafing through books is a transformative spiritual experience that can change the world. 

Authors of the first world, beset with Internet and economic crisis, often seem like plastic vanity-toys kept past their sell-by date, but maybe what they lack most keenly is a creative readership.   As a passionate reader, I often claim it is more difficult to read a book well than it is to to write one. As a less passionate writer, I know that even one ideal reader is enough to motivate a decent book.

    The beautiful literary carnival —- held on the broad, leafy grounds of one of Bangalore’s finest hotels, an oasis of glamor and privilege —  contrasted with the crooked streets of Bangalore where the sacred cows, pariah dogs and torrents of honking traffic live with a passion for survival. This was not my first visit to India, so I was ready for the epic scale of grandeur and abject poverty, but it was still a culture shock.  

    The jet-set’s digitized skyscrapers tower like phantoms over vast bazaars seething with a seize-the-day human vitality. It’s reflected in Indian literature,  where the English language, global yet somehow frail, towers over sixteen vernacular publishing scenes.  In the Bangalore festival, professional writers traded erudite quips in English because thats how one gets it done, but they were singing in the English-speaking choir, and they knew it. The seething, vibrant life in those modern Indian streets, half chopped coconuts and half cellphone components, is never taught at Oxford.
  
     All over the world we women haunt conflict zones, and India, which is vast, has plenty of them. The gunfire tends to sound the same but the conclusions are different.  The national patriot woman works to support her brave men at war; the peace activist withdraws support from men who aren’t brave enough to refuse the uniform and leave the slaughterhouse.  There is one common ground, though: whether life is called “peace” or “war,” the women always struggle in a trench.  

    The ongoing #metoo scandal in India is briskly spreading all over the country through social media.  It started with celebrities — actresses and directors, but spread through media centers, universities, publishing, wherever women get sexually harassed by wealthy and powerful men, which is to say, all over the place.  It’s evidence that complaints of Western feminism have a universality, and wherever women don’t speak up about the suffering of women, it’s not because the oppressions aren’t noticed; it’s because the complaints are repressed.   It’s taboo to speak up, and even a small distance in cultural mores can make the speakable unspeakable.  

  Women are keenly attuned to what can be said in what conditions.  At the festival, one female mystery writer complained that she simply can’t bear to read a “classic English whodunnit novel” which is set in Scotland.  All those careful cultural assumptions about who gets battered to death by the butler with the fire iron, they are fine in a homey English county but just don’t work in distant Glasgow, which seems as incongruous as Bangalore, almost.  This may be indeed be a literary problem, but it doesn’t explain why crime and detective fiction thrives inside India for Indians, because it does.  

     At the festival, a female science fiction writer complained: why must I be targeted as a woman when I write fiction about science? I may be a biological woman, but why should that restrict what I can write? I remembered that as a young writer, and as a young woman, I shared her frustration, but I gave it up as soon as I realized that my writing didn’t emerge from some gender-neutral science laboratory. 

    When women were not on the page, it was an absence.  My favorite writers of novels missed the women’s perspective. My own life experience was visibly missing from classical novels.  The women characters were lame, my world was not that world of canonic literary classics, I was invisible there, and not withstanding the fact that literature was my safe place, and a source of worldly education, I was  miserable. I had no power, I had no words. My experience and wisdom had not been captured in those novels I read. It was in my body, as in every other living woman through history, outside of genre, in a gender gap.

    As a woman without a fatherland and without a mother language, my own literature had to be born ante literam. The luxury of writing without a gender also has a gender, it is male “mainstream.” But the stream is not the ocean, and dams can break. 

    In Bangalore I did a “book signing” without books! My books have never been in print in India, but I do have website with many of my books online,  and an old fashioned pen in my hand. A handshake, a signature, and a hug for a book from a website address! It was fair barter.
 
    Bangalore has many temples, small and big, fancy and clean, awkward and trashy.   The whole city conveys the impression of a temple on the move. The pavements are broken by banyan roots, the skies are speckled with vultures, the soil is overrun by small but aggressive striped squirrels, so watch your step! 

    The traffic is Los Angeles times ten, with no lane or crossing discipline.  Pedestrians including the numerous cows and dogs simply amble through the noisy torrent of motor-rickshaws, endless scooters, bikes ringing, cars honking, trucks blasting.  Traffic policemen occasionally shake-down the worst offenders, who can either appear in court or else cough up half the cash on the spot, for cop’s pocket.   Somehow the whizzing vehicles respectfully avoid killing elderly women and small children.

    In the old summer palace of the Sultan Tipu, a historic structure which in  Italy would be guarded relentlessly with video cams, the local people sat on the gleaming wooden stairs, meditating, solemn. A little girl danced as endlessly as an extra in a Bollywood movie, gently applauded by her neighbors. 

     It is a densely crowded, communal life in India. Most every task that might be done by one person in the West is parceled out among three or four people, then performed for an audience.

    In a coffee shop I simply asked for a cold soda.  The waiter conveyed the request to the boss; the owner gave the waiter a key to the refrigerator; another waiter opened the fridge, yet another retrieved the bottle  and, finally, my original waiter, with a flourish, brought it to me, opened it and carefully poured it out for me. Then I drank it in a rather showy fashion, because, after all that fuss, I felt obliged.

    People want to listen and to serve: in my hotel the Don’t Disturb sign is replaced by the written board: Please let us clean the room soon, our pleasure is to serve you. As a writer, as an activist, I confess I feel much the same.

    I feel edified and cleansed after being in Bangalore. In India, people check on your condition all the time, emotionally and materially. Then they certify your stay with a nice red stamp, ink in your passport,  or henna on your body.

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Trans Jesus Perfomance

live amsterdam

TRANS-JEZUS-PERFORMANCE from Jasmina Tesanovic on Vimeo.

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Villa Diary July

Villa Diary July

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Entry Three , La villa

href=”https://fenicerinnovata.tumblr.com/post/175374764263/the-villa-diary-entry-three”>entry three

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Interview With Glamorous Ghosts

Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling are currently writers in residence in the “Vigna di Madame Reale,” a baroque villa built in Torino in the 1650s. For this newspaper, Jasmina and Bruce are interviewing the patroness and the interior designer of the villa.

“Madama Cristina,” Cristina Maria di Borbone-Francia, is Duchess of Cyprus, Princess of Piedmont and Queen of Cyprus (1606-1663). Her master builder, chief dramatist and long-time companion is the Count Filippo San Martino d’Aglie (1604-1667).

JT: Your Majesty, and Signor Count, thanks so much for letting us write our novels in your beautiful hillside villa! We’re the “Globalisti a Torino,” and we met each other in Torino, and we got married. So it’s great to be here in your palace, which is the site of your famous Turinese romance.

BS: We’re also grateful that you were somehow able to return from the dead in order to talk to an Italian newspaper.

Fd’A: That feat was not easy. I haven’t appeared as a ghost in Torino since the late 1970s.

MC: I haven’t been seen in Torino since the night that I died, and I flew across the River Po in a flaming carriage drawn by four flaming horses.

Fd’A. I saw Her Majesty performing that spectral feat, by the way. In fact, I was living in this villa at that time, and this is the place where she last came to me, in her flaming ghost carriage.

MC: I wanted to say good-bye to him, in the special place where we were most happy.

JT: That is so romantic! (she chokes up) That makes me want to cry!

BS: (handing her a tissue) You two hardly seem dead at all, to us. I’m from Texas, and I can see that you two are living presences in this city. Especially you, Madama Cristina. The San Salvario district has a big, long street called “Madama Cristina.” An excellent street! Really nice shopping!

MC: I command you to address me as “Your Most Serene Highness.”

BS: What?

MC: This is a royal audience! A reigning monarch must be addressed in a polite and courtly fashion, such as: “If it would please Your Most Serene Highness to offer us your wisdom on the following topic,” and then, and only then, do you presume to pose any question to me.

BS: But this is a newspaper interview! Newspapers don’t have enough space for polite, elaborate Savoyard court rhetoric. The people need to know the facts!

MC: I know what a newspaper is! We had a newspaper in Savoy. One only, and it was controlled by a Jesuit.

JT: Your Most Serene Highness, may I presume to ask if you read that newspaper?

MC: You’re a foreign woman from the Balkans, am I right? Yet you’re also a writer? A woman, who writes?

JT: Yes! Yes I am!

MC: Then I command you to read “Astrae,” by Honoré d’Urfé. It’s the best novel ever written at my court. It’s thousands of pages long, so the court ladies can read it aloud to each other, all winter. It’s a romance, so you are sure to like it.

BS: Count Filippo, what do you think of that romance novel?

Fd’A. I’m not a novelist. I’m a man of action, made for festivals, choreography, costumes, opera, ballet, and tournaments. And architecture of course. And I did a lot of urban planning.

BS: So, you were pretty much the one-man government of all Savoy, then.

Fd’A (nodding) At Her Majesty’s command, of course.

BS: Yet you don’t have any street named after you. I’ve noticed that Prince Maurizio and Prince Tommaso, who were bitter rivals of yours — they both have streets in modern Torino. But not you.

MC (warningly) Sir, you are pressing on his sore spot here.

BS: Count Filippo, let’s be frank here. You were the court favorite of your Duchess here, her secret lover and basically the powerful Prime Minister of all Piedmont, but there seems to be some shadow over your political achievements as a statesman. The Turinese should have properly named a whole city square after you.

Fd’A. My San Martino family, they have their street named in Torino.

BS: But not you. It’s about the scandalous royal romance, isn’t it? You two were in a settled, intimate relationship, but you never married. Because she’s a royal Bourbon princess from France, the sister of Louis XIII, but you were just a modest Piedmontese country gentleman. But you shared a bed in this villa, against all propriety. Is that why you were denied your proper fame and glory?

Fd’A: Look here, presumptuous foreigner: you many think you understand Turinese baroque politics, but you have it all wrong. I don’t need any fame and glory. Her Majesty already has all that — she was born into that condition! As for me, I manage all the grandeur and magnificence. I design the glorious sets, I choreograph the famous dancing and public festivals, but personally, I’m modest and humble. Like a Capuchin monk, almost.

BS: You don’t appear very humble. You have beautiful lavender silk clothing and all kinds of gold rings and royal medals.

Fd’A. Ridiculous! This color isn’t “lavender!” This is a special tint called “gridelino” or “mauve gray.” It’s Her Majesty’s signature color! As her minister, I always dress in “Cristina Gray.”

JT: We’ve noticed that your big villa here is full of that ‘gridelino’ color.

Fd’A. Because I decorated it myself! Of course, the Vigna di Madame Reale doesn’t look as grand today as it did when I managed it. I gave Her Majesty huge formal gardens, a band-stand, a dance-floor, and her own zoo.

MC (to JT) He’s so nice to me.

JT: I can see that.

MC: He’s just so charming. And so handsome, too. The “Bel Filippo,” they called him. Every woman in my court was in love with him.

JT: That must have been troublesome.

MC: Yes, I had to put up with a lot of trouble to keep him always at my beck and call, but he was worth it. Filippo d’Aglie is absolutely the most entertaining man in the world. He was the greatest creative genius of Baroque Turin. He was inventing ballet, and also opera, just for me. He could play ten musical instruments and write poetry for me in four languages.

Fd’A. All part of my day’s work, Your Majesty. It was my privilege to serve you and my native realm, the Duchy of Savoy.

MC: You can see how good he is.

JT: Yes. I married a guy who is sort of entertaining, but he’s Texan. In your age, all the Texans were naked savage cannibals.

MC: Your Texan still seems rather rude and brutal. You should make him sit up straight and comport himself more like a gentleman. Does he speak any Latin?

JT: Not one word of Latin! I’m a literary translator, but Texans are terrible at languages. He’s writing a book about you, but if this villa was still in Baroque Turin, maybe he could clean out the palace stables for you. Other than that, a Texan would be no good at all.

MC: Well, you seem a bit better than him. My father-in-law, Duke Carlo Emmanuel, had a chance to become King of Serbia. Then I would be the Queen of Serbia, and your people would have been my loyal subjects.

JT: Really?

MC: Why not? My sister was Queen of Spain, my other sister was Queen of Britain. I was Queen of Cyprus, even though I never saw Cyprus. A small, primitive Balkan country like yours would be easy to conquer. Serbia just needs better administration. Then it would be less ugly and backward, and more grand and magnificent, like Savoy.

BS: Your Most Serene Highness, that’s some impressive political acumen.

MC: I pick good servants. The key to governance is delegation. Giovanni Botero, the geopolitical strategist of Savoy, was the best political thinker in the world.

BS: I don’t know much about Giovanni Botero. I’ve seen his street in Torino, though. It’s right downtown.

Fd’A. You must read Botero’s treatise, “On the Grandeur and Magnificence of Cities.” That was our manifesto for Turin. Everything we built here, every map, every street, every citadel and artillery firing station — it all relates to that plan.

BS: Wow! Thanks a lot, Filindo! That’s a great tip!

MC (to Fd’A): He knows that my pet name for you was “Filindo.” How does he know that?

Fd’A. From books, probably. Books can outlast great buildings, sometimes. Not very often, though.

MC: Why must we suffer as fictional characters? Isn’t it enough, for you and me, that we suffered as historical characters?

Fd’A. Your Majesty, I was just thinking that myself.

MC: Every relation between mortal man and woman has a sadness to it, because it must end. Journalists, I must dismiss you. This audience is at an end.

JT: Oh no! Please! You can’t! We were just getting started!

BS: There’s so much more we still need to know! What about the time you were kidnapped? Did you really start your love affair during the Black Death? And what about the Compagnia di San Paolo?

JT: It’s too late! They’ve dissipated into air, like spoken words… There’s nothing left of two of them, but one small, mauve gray fog…

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