Swimming lessons in history’s currents

An emotional return to my ancestral town of Ohrid, in North Macedonia, where I am asked ‘Whose are you?’

Kapka Kassabova

Every time I went into the water, I felt instantly happy. Emotion and memory dissolved, only the present moment remained. And it was enough.

Then I’d drag myself out of the water, put on my clothes, walk to the jetty and then to the square by the harbour, and once again feel weighed down by the town’s complicated past. A large mosque once stood here. During the interwar Serbian government (1918-39), a statue of King Alexander of Yugoslavia was erected in front of the mosque, facing the lake. When the Bulgarians returned during 1941-4, they dumped the statue in the lake. When Yugoslavia returned under a red flag in 1945, the mosque was blown up to make room for a square, now full of cafés. A statue of St Clement holds the town in his hands.

While buildings and statues rose and fell, the Chinar remained a constant witness. Standing at the junction of the charshia (market) lanes, the Chinar was a huge plane tree, allegedly planted by Clement himself in 893. It was of “immense magnitude”, the English painter and polymath Edward Lear observed when he spent time here in 1848—though at some point it had been split by lightning, and I found its branches clipped and its trunk held together by a metal corset. Over the centuries it accommodated cafés and barbers. This is where Christians and Muslims, men like my great-grandfathers and their Turkish and Albanian friends, came to get a shave, click their worry beads, drink coffee brought on a copper tray by a boy, crunch salted chickpeas, and shake their heads at the folly of politicians.

Across from the Chinar used to be the Radich Hotel, a barometer of Ohrid’s mercurial 20th century. Under the Serbs, it was renamed the “King of Serbia”. When the Germans arrived in 1941, the owner Radich displayed a swastika, and later that year when the Bulgarians took over, the hotel became “Hotel Great Bulgaria”, that country’s tricolour was hoisted, and Radich sent Tsar Boris III 40 kilos of lake trout. All the while, Radich went on greeting visitors with the Japanese “Banzai!” (“May you live ten thousand years!”). Radich’s own son, in the resistance, didn’t live to see 30; he was killed by the Germans. Then the Communist state “nationalised” the hotel and turned it into an officers’ club for the Yugoslav People’s Army, and the only reason Radich wasn’t shot as an “enemy of the people” was because of his dead partisan son. The building was demolished in the 1960s and the land restored to the Radich descendants in the 1990s, who are apparently still arguing over it.

‘Watching the comings and goings in the charshia was a tradition. Men on battered bicycles carrying humble groceries, elderly men with faded rolled-up umbrellas and old-fashioned trousers, young women in painted-on jeans, and Muslim women in headscarves’

Next to the Chinar is a public drinking fountain with multiple spouts. Surprisingly for a town set on the water, there was no drinking water until 1821 when the Albanian Djeladin Bey commissioned this fountain; previously people in the gated town bought it from pedlars. There was no sewerage, either—on rainy days, each household would pour their collected waste into the gutters, and the fetid mass would run down the streets into the lake. On the facade of the nearest shop, a stone inscribed with an Arabic tarikh, or dedicatory poem, still marks the launching of the fountain:

What the great Alexander did not bring,
Djeladin Bey did—the water of eternal life.

Now the Chinar was boxed in by benches where locals sat in the shade, and boys cycled past with coffee trays on chains. Every day, I came down from the gated town to drink from the fountain, repeatedly explain to a shopkeeper who said we were distant cousins that I didn’t know how he could obtain a Bulgarian (read: EU) passport, and have Turkish coffee at a restaurant that backed onto Ohrid’s last functioning dervish lodge.

One afternoon, I met the lodge’s caretaker. She was the widow of the last sheik, or head dervish, and her son owned the restaurant. Her name was Slavche, a diminutive of Slava. She was a tall woman with a fine-boned face who moved with the air of one who knew her stature. It was not the time for deep conversation—it was Ramazan and they were fasting—but she did ask: “Whose are you?”

At the table was another woman. Her husband had put on his white Albanian keche, or skull cap, and gone into the mosque to pray with a handful of other men. I mentioned the family name.

“Oh,” Slavche said, and smiled. “The darling Tatjana! I see her as if it were yesterday. My son adored her. She was his teacher.”

She took my hand, her face shook, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I remember the day we buried her. The whole town came to see her off. It was a scorching day. The sun was shining and she was lying in that coffin. Her mother broke out in eczema. A remarkable woman, her mother.”

Now all three of us were crying. The other woman hadn’t known Tatjana or her mother, she was crying for company. I suddenly realised that I’d never met Tatjana either. Later I learned that Slavche’s younger son who had been Tatjana’s student had died in a car accident. Slavche never mentioned her own loss, not now or later when I returned for her story. Her friend at the table was a Christian from a nearby village who had married an Albanian Muslim; to escape family opprobrium, they had moved here. Perhaps she had something of her own to cry about.

Watching the comings and goings in the charshia was a tradition. Men in keches, men on battered bicycles carrying humble groceries (a loaf of bread, three eggs in a plastic bag), elderly men with faded rolled-up umbrellas and old-fashioned trousers, young women in the painted-on jeans that are perpetually in vogue in the provinces of southern Europe, and Muslim women in headscarves. Some moved around with their overfed sons or grandsons, in whose demeanour you could glimpse that Oriental mix of henpecked and despotic. This wasn’t a Muslim phenomenon, it was an Eastern phenomenon, and down in the charshia the East was as ever-present as up in the gated town.

Their habits were the same. Only their styles were slightly different.

Not many Muslims had ever lived in the gated town other than grandees in their sarays (palaces); the residents of Imaret, the former Islamic complex at the top of the hill; and the rulers in the kale (fortress). In the early decades (the late 1300s) of the Ottoman conquest, those among the town’s Christians who could afford it emigrated en masse to Venice. Many who stayed took Islam. The newly Islamicised became known as ben Allah, sons of Allah. Some say that the remainers saw themselves as guardians of the relics of Clement, “our golden one”, buried up at his monastic grounds at Plaoshnik Hill which was to become Imaret. And so the new arrivals and new converts took the lower parts of town, by the Chinar, where they built mosques and dervish monasteries, where the Via Egnatia passed, where the markets sprawled in the mud, where later the rag-tag armies of this pasha or that bey would block the view of the Lake as the Ottoman Empire began its long agony.

Meanwhile, being Ohridian became synonymous with having gardens. Muslims and Christians alike owned extensive orchards, vegetable plots and vineyards. The monk Naum is credited with introducing viticulture to the Lake, though it’s hard to believe that vines weren’t grown here earlier. There’s a local saying about the Lake’s hinterland: so fertile, it could birth a human. The old Christians stayed in their gated town and tried not to mix with outsiders, especially not people from the outlying villages, seen as deeply inferior. Whose are you? Your name gave your origins away. Snobbery will be the last thing to die here.

Many of the men were merchants, traders, drovers and dealers who travelled for extended periods to Berat in Albania, Elbasan and Durrës (Durazzo), Venice, Salonica and Istanbul, Dubrovnik and Trieste, and later in the years of national revival to Leipzig and Vienna, Paris and Moscow. They’d leave the family in the hands of the oldest woman. These matriarchs were known as kiramanas, matrons in Greek. Many of the men secretly took other wives in other towns and villages, and had other families while away on business. Polygamy was open for Muslims, furtive for Christians. Perhaps that is why the gated town developed a matriarchal system of surnames: the women made sure they left their mark.

Whose are you?

I’m the daughter of Angelina.

So that girl would become Angelichina. The absence of the men made the women more powerful within families and communities.

Up in the gated town, people kept an eye on each other from behind twitching curtains, whispering, shuffling around at night to check up on the neighbour’s tree, the one that cast a shadow, or the neighbour’s wall, the one he was building illegally. I met siblings who lived in the same house but hadn’t spoken for years, for reasons long forgotten but not forgiven. There was even a word  to describe women who listen, then spin gossip: portirka, from the word porta, or doorway.

Just how attached this community were to their customs can be gauged by the fact that well into the 20th century,
when most Christian town women in the region wore modern European dress, here many stuck to traditional costume: an embroidered shirt, a thick black woollen belt wound around the midriff where you could tuck various objects and money; a heavy woollen skirt with an additional apron-like layer, and long embroidered arm warmers worn under wide sleeves, medieval style. How women managed to walk the steep lanes in this get-up is beyond me.

But there’s more. The women of the gated town also wore the varosh, a thin white scarf that covered the forehead down to the eyes, and a black face cover indistinguishable from the Islamic veil. A town chronicler of the early 1800s wrote that “women were not supposed to go to church, or anywhere else for that matter”; their only outings were on Monday, market day, and Sunday, bath day.

Down in the charshia of the lower town, people watched each other openly over the rumbling of voices and water fountains, the spinning of chickens on grills, the tumble of dice in backgammon sessions. Homeless dogs sunned themselves on the pavement and were treated as public pets. The only thing that interrupted this calm was the local madman.

Jovan Kaneo Church on Lake Ohrid. Sveti (Saint). Macedonia. Europe. (Photo by: Enrico Bottino/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Every day after lunch, he conducted his routine. He was a short man and wore his shirt open at the top, with tufts of black hair poking out. He bounced up and down the charshia with a grin and a radio blasting songs in different languages, and sang along with the lyrics, punctuating them with shouted swearwords. In Macedonian, then in Albanian, then perhaps in Serbian, Turkish and Bulgarian. The next day, the order was different, but the routine was always multilingual. People tolerated him with smiles.

“And anyway,” said the waiter at Neim’s Restaurant, “is he mad or do the rest of us hide it better?” The waiter was a tall, grey-eyed Albanian who had returned to Ohrid after 20 years in Zagreb, to look after aged parents. He preferred Zagreb, but—“Fate,” he shrugged, as he served my order—a homely dish called tavche gravche, an Ohridian diminutive for beans in a clay pot. “Balkan fate. You can’t run away from family.”

“I know,” I said.

The restaurant was named after the owner, Neim—pronounced “name”, so that the running joke was to ask him in English “What’s your name?” and he’d say “Name”—and it was the last establishment of the charshia, past the Evropa Bureau de Change and the Shogun barber’s, and before the start of the new town, which wasn’t in fact new.

When I asked the waiter how life was for the ethnic Albanians here, what with the current political deadlock, he said: “We have always lived in peace. But who knows?” And his jaw hardened fatalistically. He relaxed when he asked what family I belonged to, and heard the recognisable surnames.

Neim, a stocky, charismatic local Turk, had gone to school with someone in our family.

“And of course, I remember Tatjana,” he said. “How could I forget her?”

We watched the resident homeless dog eat the remnants of a meat dish on the pavement, but not the rice.


Excerpted from To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, February 2020)

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