| Diwan Special issue|

Ljubica Žikić

Born in 1953 in Belgrade (Serbia), lives in Sarajevo (B&H).

TATTOOS OF THE CITY

The editor of our paper very accurately noticed that most of us at the office had trouble sleeping, especially after the war. He said that we seem to be somehow distant in the mornings, still in our nightmares. That is why the meetings will be held late at night. Darkness and loneliness are full of demons and by working at night we will manage to chase them all away. We can use daytime to sleep for as long as we wish, we can use the daytime to research and write and we can report about our work at night.

As if in some wine-induced ecstasy, we all agreed to this. That night I got an assignment to write something about our city. Something...something...that will have a smell, a taste and a colour - the editor advised me.

”Our city has suffered so much, and all that anguish caused immense disorder...”

”In the ’new world order’,” interrupted Milan, a member of our editorial board who was an expert on this topic as well as obsessed with it.

”Let’s not get into that right now,” the editor told Milan off and continued to explain the essence of the text to me... in our souls and the great consequences that our city and it’s inhabitants still suffer.

Torment. Tor – ment!

The word that was supposed to be the theme of my article echoed in my head.

It’s August, the weather is extremely hot with occasional clouds passing overhead, strong thunder in the sky with brief showers. Most of the citizens are at the seaside, the Film Festival has begun. To write about this subject was already getting difficult.

Being interested in awkward things I used the afternoon to head down to the banks of the Miljacka. One of my first metaphors was that the city is a shell and I have to put my ear onto everything and listen closely in order to hear its primordial murmur.

Primordial. Pri – mord – ial – x!

Some inner voice kept warning me that I had to keep my eyes open as well - usually you are unawake and you don’t notice what goes on around you, for image = thought, and thought = image.

First thing I noticed was our city’s host cleaning the streets. His uniform seemed especially interesting to me: green trousers, a garish orange blouse with grey stripes. With his left hand he held the trolley with a broom and a shovel. He was leaning with his right arm on the stone bank of the Miljacka, looking at the river. Interested in what he was looking at I stopped beside him. A low set dam in the river that made a mini-cascade created a whirl where many things disposed of in the river gathered up. It is known that sad rivers always boil at a certain spot, some even bleed, they always curdle. That is how I saw everything that the garbage man was observing: countless numbers of plastic bottles, balls big, small, tennis balls, pieces of styrofoam, three plastic buckets with paint, planks of different sizes and a teddy bear.

”Well, this city has gone insane,” said the official expert for such things, but not responsible for keeping the river clean.

I was just about to tell him that many rivers in other cities are not much different from this one, but the man just continued to push his trolley completely uninterested in what I had to say, as if he thought he’d said it all with his comment.

I moved on from Drvenija to the next bridge where I noticed many people standing in a line as if following a strict protocol. I thought about how we would usually line up like this every time we were waiting to take over an estafette, or welcoming some foreign official who came to visit our city. The only difference was that this protocol was turned upside down and the people were bent over the bridge, looking at the river.

Another group of people waiting for a tram were also bent over the river and then they all let out a scream and stepped away from the stone fence.

A bare-chested man, who was standing in the water, took a snake and swung it towards the group of curious people. This unfortunate man continued to search the river with his bare hands. He moved from left to right, backwards and forward, occasionally loosing his balance. He fought with the beasts only he could see – or maybe he wrestled our entire unconscious zoo – all those beasts which got out of the control of our consciousness and were now watching and stalking our city from every corner.

Then he suddenly moved towards the left bank. He glanced at all the frightened faces on the bridge and said:

”There are four more left!”

His hands went back to searching the water and we would step back every time he straightened his body in fear that he might throw another snake or some other beast he caught towards our group.

Then one woman shouted, ”Well, this city has gone insane!”

I thought about telling her that there is nothing strange about that and that every city has its clown, but the woman had already grabbed her daughter’s hand and dragged her away. These were probably the moments when a decision that had been ripening inside her for a long time was finally made: her children will not live in this city and they will leave forever.

Further investigation of this lonely warrior was no longer interesting to me, so I headed along the pedestrian area on the river’s left bank towards Skenderija.

I could hear music playing from the square in front of Skenderija. Coca-Cola had prepared a sort of a party for all the children in the city. They built an actual fortress out of red plastic boxes. By doing so, they set the foundations for the future Coca-Cola city that will expand by itself.

Expand. Ex - pand!

I heard Milan’s voice saying that: Yugoslavia should have been erased off the map because of the many layers of interest of the dominant foreign political protagonists, and especially because of the new world order. In order to understand this a few things should be explained such as what is the new world order, what are its goals and who represents it? He was obviously talking to Fikret, a member of another paper’s editorial board. I tried to avoid meeting them purely for the sake of time. I also didn’t want to waste my topic on them.

I started looking around the interior of the Coca-Cola’s city. In it you could get a free drink, and they were giving away red balloons, stickers and heart-shaped coasters. Posters with messages such as : Taste it! Coca-Cola. Life tastes good! were all over the place. Right next to this fortress was a red ring made out of sponge with two boys competing in it. They were holding short poles. Most of the audience of the same age as the two boys was cheering. Parents were among them. This was the place where the future gladiators of our city were beginning their training.

I ran into Milan again who said:...Legend has it that the syntagm the new world order was first pronounced on a speed boat called Fidelity, during a fishing trip just before Operation Desert Storm. It was uttered by the President of the USA, George Bush, during a chit-chat with General Scowcroft.

However, the phrase has been idealistically formed long before that and its essence was best explained by Richard Gartner in his work entitled ”The Thorny Road into the World Order” published in ”Foreign Affairs” in April, 1974, which clearly underlined the destruction of independence in many countries. There will be no progress unless we create a World Government, review the UN charter and fully authorise the World Court. In brief, the home of the new world order should be built from its foundations and not from its roof. To be more concrete, a circle should be formed around the idea of national independence, a circle of partial but constant erosion with which much more will be accomplished than by using the out-dated technique of frontal attack...”

All the things that Milan said sounded a bit sorrowful and I was already familiar with them. Something else drew my attention. On one side of the square there was a gigantic, rubber Coca-Cola man floating above us. The machine which pumped the air into him made the rubber man do amazing things. He would rise up in the air, bend his arms and legs, he moved just like that unfortunate man in the river, back and forth, up and down, from left to right. He performed that balancing act with great ease. He levitated between the sky and the earth, not having a spine like we ”real humans” do, or any centre or fulcrum.

...”In translation it would mean that the elections are ’free and democratic’ only if they serve the purpose of the erosion of national independence i.e. democracy...”

Milan was impossible to avoid today. I ran away from him to the other side of the square. There was a huge red, rubber tower rising towards the sky. I was somehow most upset by this tower. Its spiral twisting and twirling reminded me of smoke.

I remembered a day in history, in the distant nineteen forty-five, when the American bomber B-29 dropped a bomb over Hiroshima at 8,15 am. A city with a population of half a million. They claimed that the bomb exploded at the altitude of five hundred and seventy meters and that the fire ball’s temperature rose to seven thousand degrees. More than two hundred thousand people were killed. Three days later a bomb was dropped on Nagasaki as well.

A hidden thought suddenly popped up into my head: ”What kind of a fire is in store for our city?”

”Not only are they making the children crazy but their parents as well. They are the pioneers of the new world order...” I could hear Fikret’s voice behind me. He was observing the ring and starting to add things to Milan’s speech coming to a conclusion:

”This city is no longer normal when it allows something like this to take place!”

Everything around us was red; the red fortress, the ring, the virtual man, the tower, the posters...

My psychic aunt would say: ”There must be some mumbo jumbo involved!”

”Maybe it’s just bad taste,” spoke my inner voice trying to calm me down, always ready to compromise. This is simply a commercial presentation of a soft drink!

Drink. D-r-i-n-k!

I started walking quickly towards the Vrbanja bridge also known as the Suada Dilberović bridge. The sun was scorching my face mercilessly.

I thought about the things I had for the story on our city:

Let’s see.

Colour: orange, grey-black, red.

Taste: sour, salty, bitter.

Smell: of caramel and dried meat.

I rushed toward the shade of the linden-trees in Vilsonovo Promenade.

Not only on the map, but also in general, I considered this to be the metaphysical centre of the city.

This could be the right subject!?

I tried to remember all of the historical data about it.

It was named after the 28th American President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson who in 1917 declared war on Germany and marked the end of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. But coincidences never seem to end because that same Austro-Hungarian empire built this promenade at the beginning of the last century and named it ”Kalay’s promenade” after their diplomat, politician, Financial Minister and leader Benjamin Kalay. After the fall of the monarchy (helped by that unfortunate young hero-terrorist whose foot steps were forever removed from this city) Kalay’s promenade was renamed ”Wilson’s Promenade”. This name will be changed into Mussolini’s Promenade in the period from 1941 to 1945.

Mussolini’s, Mus - so - li - ni’s!

After the war the street will recover its original name after the 28th American president, also the founder of the League of Nations - today’s UN - up until 1960 when the government renames it to ”Youth Promenade”.

The fact that the city and its government were sentimental towards their conquerors is a completely different story. Neither government, nor the city could predict that these conquerors would turn into vampires under new masks and with new names remain constantly present in our city.

”Wooden Spikes for vampires!” superstitious traditionalists would suggest.

The more educated ones with more practical wisdom would suggest patience.

After all, this street should not be given to the conquerors but to its citizens.

Despite everything it always contained the essence of all our loves

- both the wrong and the eternal ones. Our emotions made the lindens grow taller. That is why we counted them so that we would know that there are 480 reliable but discreet witnesses of all our embraces and kisses. Our lindens, dating from the last century, are as old as we are so the city heals them, but they are indestructible just like our memories and immortal loves.

Starting to get very tired I was yearning for the shade that the lindens provided. I wanted to rest on a bench and make a sketch for a possible story about our city. I walked towards the 17th bench (mind you everybody in this city has their own bench!) but after I passed by a couple of the first ones there were no more left. They were all ripped out of the ground. An elderly couple was walking in front of me, holding hands. I heard them say:

”This city must have lost its mind when it allows this kind of vandalism!”

Maybe, just like the woman on the bridge, they also fantasised about leaving this city for good and joining their children who had long been living in other cities around the world. At least those cities will have benches in their parks and pedestrian areas.

I remembered the November in nineteen ninety-seven when the Governor of our canton and the head of the European Commission (EC) in Bosnia, Ambassador Donato Chiarini signed a Memorandum on Understanding. It included the priority tasks of the programme ”Europe for Our City” whose donation was used to renovate this pedestrian area and its benches. Milan would probably come to a conclusion that the foreigners used this shady construction manipulation to see whether our behaviour in the period of post-war urbanisation was good and to file their observations in their archives.

Whether. Whe -the-r!

Some strange August this is!

All of a sudden clouds started gathering and I could hear the roar of thunder in the distance. Finally I saw a half broken bench. What a relief! I took out my note book to make some notes on this unusual walk which might be a draft for the story of our city. Not even an older man, kneeling in the grass and looking for something could surprise me anymore.

”Here, I’ve found it!” he shouted and pointed at the four-leaf clover.

Right then lightening struck right over our heads and a strong thunder roared at the same time. Instead of covering my head with my hand, which would be a normal reaction, I instinctively pressed my note book tight against my chest protecting it as a father would protect his child from thunder.

”Well this city has gone insane if you can get killed at the moment when you’ve just found your lost happiness!” said the old man, frightened and lying on the ground.

A voice in me rebelled as well: ”Indeed, this city has gone insane when you protect your scribbling instead of protecting your head.”

The rain stopped just as abruptly as it had started and I was already running towards my apartment.

The sun came out again.

In front of my building I saw Bobek, one of the first tenants in this building, just like my father, working on the lawn. He held the rake in his hand and his sickle was lying by his side.

When that divine time had silently run out, the time of pioneers, the youth, Party-approved, and when our city became consumed only by a regular, democratic and earthly time and when the tensions of the universe became quiet (in our city at least), Bobek continued to live in the world of work actions that we all used to be a part of.

”It seems that I’m the only one who is crazy in this city when I try to make the environment better for all of us!” said Bobek instead of a hello.

”I’m in a hurry,” I mumbled, running away from him.

I was planning to take a shower and wash down this anguish and sweat off my body and then, finally, start writing my article.

Water. Wa –t – er!

The telephone rang. I heard Milan’s baritone on the other end.

”Did you know that B.R. killed himself?”

I almost dropped the receiver on the floor. B.R. was a respectable university professor and when he returned after the war many promised him his job back but time passed… Time in our city has a very imperceptible way of passing.

”Why, this city has gone mad,” I could hear Milan’s voice on the other end, ”when it allows people like this to kill themselves!” without waiting for my response he slammed the phone down as if I was to blame for this accident.

Kill. Ki –l –l.

This day was somewhere in between the sky and the ground just like the Coca-Cola virtual man.

Now I finally wanted to see my sketch for the article:

Torment. Tor – ment? Primordial. Pri – mord – ial – x? Expand. Ex – pand? Drink. D – r – i- n – k? Mussolini’s. Mus – so –lin – ni’s? Whether. Whe – th –er? Water. Wa – te – r? Kill. Ki – l – l?

”Think twice” were always the words of warning my old friend used to say. She left the city and now lives in Medulin, near Pula.

Considering my inclination towards double talk and vagueness (something my editor considered a flaw, because everything has to be crystal clear) I thought that the best thing would be not to write anything and go to our ”editorial board of vampires” and admit defeat.

”Atlantises and atlantas surely cannot be what this world is made of and undoubtedly belong to the world of metaphysical shadows. However, these shadows, pushed back from the battle field of the real and primary reality become another reality and can become bewildered as the black birds…the black birds of Orpheus…” I thought I had heard a warning from the old Protomaster and my teacher.

Translated into everyday language they are all just tattoos of the city.

Everything tattooed can be surgically removed and thrown to the wind.

Is that right?

That’s right!

And what if the wind moves into our dreams?

Dreams. D – re –am –s?

And there are also dream – eaters.

Yes – yes!

Translated by Edin Balalić

 

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