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Gaddafi, Libya , and Me, Part 3

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

The second year was less memorable than the first. Once I was invited to an all-female party (all-female and all-male, the only two kinds of parties you had in Libya) that was taking place in one of the Libyan villas located behind our village. In the absence of men, women were going wild. Sweaty and underdressed, they were dancing the night away. Their hips were a blend of fire and physics I had never seen in such a sync before. I was amazed. I tied a scarf around my hips and gave the dancing a try. Aisha, the Libyan girl who spoke perfect Serbian and who invited me to the party, gave me a quick breakdown: you don’t move anything above your waist. The concept sounded simple until I tried, then impossible. I love to dance so I kept trying. I wanted to be one of the girls spitting fire with their hips, but it wasn’t happening. I didn’t even get close to it. I kept trying for a while, I decided not to care about doing it all wrong, which was exactly what I was doing, dancing with my entire body instead of my hips, then I just sat down and watched. Looking at the uncovered, wild women, it was difficult to believe I was in Libya, and even more, in a Libyan home.

But overall, that second year brought nothing really new. I loved what I loved, and I hated what I hated. My sentiments didn’t change. I had even fewer friends, and the Bini boy went back home at the end of the previous school year, which didn’t prevent me from writing pages and pages about him, or really about me, in my journal. I was slowly getting introduced to and dealing with the concept of “never again.” Yes, there was a remote possibility that some of the people I got to know in Libya I was going to see, under some circumstances, again, but I think I was realistic enough to know that most people, who were from all over old Yugoslavia, I was most likely never going to see again.

Today I don’t think much about that “never again” thing. I’ve been through it so many times, and I might note that this phase of life I am living now is going to end, but I am usually OK with that. Sometimes I feel like I lived at least ten lives, and all of them but the one I am living now simply ended at the point when I was not really ready for them to end, but they did, and I survived. I moved on.  And I am fine with the fact that those lives ended and I will never live them again, never in that same configuration. I assume most people go through the same thing of witnessing some of their lives end. But many years ago, when I was fourteen, I had a really hard time with this concept. Libya became my life, my friend, my companion, and I knew once I left, I was never going to come back to Libya again. Libya was totally isolated then, under strict sanctions, so it was quite clear to me that there was no going back. That really hurt. My attachments were always strong, and the skill of detaching I had yet to learn.

As the months were going by, my emotional tension was skyrocketing. I was stuck between my newly developed attachment to Libya and the upcoming choices that I had to make. I knew I was going to a grammar school (the same one my dad went to), and since I was a very good student I didn’t have  to worry about not being accepted. But I knew that Serbian school system was not flexible and that the choices I made at this point of my schooling would largely determine my professional direction. I had to choose between math and science or languages and social science.

I always loved math and was very good at it, but I was getting increasingly attached to English and, secretly, to writing. My mother thought I should stick to math as I was always very good at it. My father definitively wanted me to  stay away from medicine and the crazy work hours it demanded, and maybe even from math, which would take me to some less than ideal work spaces, something like a factory if I studied engineering (at least that how it was in the Yugoslavia of the eighties). I felt torn between the two for a while. Finally, I decided against math. I chose the direction of English. If I had never gone to Libya, I don’t think I would have.

In mid-May I was already getting ready to go back to Serbia. I had my grades and my transcripts. My diploma was going to come later. The ticket was bought. The day was set. A new school and a new life sounded exciting, but I was acutely aware of the fact that I was leaving Libya forever. I pressed flowers and leaves, and I took a lot of walks. I reminiscenced over Libya as if I were already gone. I was sad, but that sadness didn’t make sense to me. After all, I was going home.

The last few days came. I started packing my stuff. I wanted to have a good-bye party. My parents agreed. I chose my very last night in Libya for the party (not thinking much about my early-morning flight). I invited a lot of kids, big and small. I didn’t care if they were 6-7 years younger than I was, I felt they were all part of my Libya.

I remember the party was very noisy, and my parents let us kind of take over the house. It lasted late into the night, probably later than it should have. When everybody was gone, my mother suggested we should leave everything as it was and just go to bed. I looked around. The paper plates with bits of food and empty glasses were everywhere. I went into my room, which looked no different than the living room. I stacked up the dirty plates and glasses to get to whatever I needed and suddenly broke into tears. I am still not quite sure what exactly it was, most likely everything: Libya; the people I met and shared a time in my life with; my room; the view from the kitchen balcony; the sunsets; the beaches; the nights after Ghibli. I sobbed for a long time, afraid that my parents were going to hear me and that I was going to have to explain why I was crying. But they didn’t (or at least they chose not to show they heard me). They themselves went directly to bed. I eventually calmed down and fell asleep. The following morning I left Libya. That was more than twenty years ago.

 

When the Arab Spring protests started in the Middle East, I didn’t think they were ever going to spread to Libya. Not because people loved Gaddafi. (Back then at least once a week my mother shared with me a new story of the experience and anti-Gaddafi sentiments of some Libyan doctor she worked with.)  I thought it was impossible to have many pro-Gaddafi people in a country that was rich with oil and was supposed to be relatively well-off, but because of Gaddafi’s politics it wasn’t. I didn’t think the protests were ever going to spread to Libya because that man had been there forever. Way, way too long. It almost felt like he was made half from flesh and half from stone so he was still alive and able to repress and torture, but at the same time, he rose to permanence. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Then, things started happening in Libya. I started thinking, well, maybe, people were finally ready. Something like evolution and revolution. The rebelling forces were finally united and ready to get Gaddafi  out of his seat. I followed the events in Libya pretty regularly in the beginning. I thought of my first and maybe most important English teacher who married a Libyan doctor, despite the fact that her husband could never leave the country while Gaddafi was in power because his family “sinned” politically. My teacher had a son with this man before I left, which meant that her son was now in his twenties, at the age when he was old enough to fight. As I was listening to the news, I recognized the names of places. I was hoping that Gaddafi was going to be removed soon.

Then the international community got involved. I was not sure how I felt about that. Yes, I definitely wanted to see Gaddafi out of his seat, and I couldn’t imagine there would be many Libyans who wanted anything different, but I am always skeptical when any kind of international intervention is planned. By default. I guess much more often I’ve seen NATO and other powerful countries be led by their interests than by sheer altruism.

But, I have always thought Gaddafi was a madman so I tried not to think about the possible ulterior motives  of NATO for supporting the Libyan rebels. I tried to forget the piece of info that my husband read and shared with me a few months ago, that the US actually used the Libyan prisons to store/interrogate the suspects involved in the September, 11 attack.

A few weeks ago, I asked my husband if there was still fighting in Libya, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything in my irregular exposure to the news . Yes, he said. Then I started hearing about the pro-Gaddafi forces rising again.

All I could think about was despair. The absolute despair. It reminded me of the time when we protested against Milosevic. I didn’t actually know a single person who was for Milosevic, but I knew that didn’t mean that Milosevic didn’t have supporters. In the same way, I hardly met anyone who actually loved George Bush. My frequent thought was how could you possibly like someone who was so unintelligent and inarticulate, and at the same time the president of a country that has such a big say in the world’s politics? Pretty scary thought, but George Bush was still elected a president, even twice. So things that don’t seem to be even remotely in the realm of possibility do happen. I concluded that there were people who, for whatever reason, wanted to keep Gaddafi in his seat.

Then, at that point, I would stop thinking about the supporters and turn my attention to these rulers themselves. What does it means to have so many opponents and to be able to turn a deaf ear to all of them, to maybe hundreds of thousands of people, and still want to stay in your seat? To be Slobodan Milosevic and ignore months of student protests, the biggest university of the country and most of the country protesting against you, and to still want to stay to govern the people that don’t want you? To be George Bush, to bring a strong economy to a collapse and get the country into another war and still want to stay? And finally, to be Gaddafi, to be thrown out of your seat and to fight to get back into the same seat despite the fact that so many people don’t want you there?

And then in the midst of all that, I hear: Libya’s ex-leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been killed. A few times in my life I was in a similar situation when I thought it was a good thing that someone was no longer alive. Every time I strongly approved of someone’s death, I felt really strange. Like today. I had to remind myself that so many other people died because of Gaddafi and so many more would have died if he were not killed today. That this was the only way.

Gaddafi, Libya, and Me, Part 2

October 26, 2011 2 comments

Acacia niloticaMimosas bloomed under my window since February, making me feel like I had just stepped into a dream. I ran downstairs barefooted and came back upstairs with armfuls of mimosas. My room was full of mimosas. A vase on my desk, a vase on the dresser, a vase next to my bed. I taped the flowers into my journal (much later I learned, this was not the most practical thing; the dry flowers kept breaking and shredding that later I couldn’t even open my journal from that time without making a mess).

It was warm all the time. In December it got cooler, even rainy and windy, but the autumn-like weather lasted only a month or two. In February, I was sensing spring. I wanted to be out all the time. I came to like the wind called Ghibli, or rather the aftermaths of this wind. It was a warm wind coming from the desert, and it blew maybe once a month. While the wind blew, we kept the windows closed, but that didn’t help much. The wind filled the house with red sand. If you chose to go out during the day when the wind was blowing, you got as close as you could ever get to stepping into an oven. It felt like you couldn’t breathe. Sometimes you could even see waves of red sand in the air.

By the time the evening came, the wind would usually stop. And it would feel as if it had never blown. The nights that followed were gorgeous. I never learned if there was anything concrete that was special about them. But I eagerly waited for those nights and I delighted in them. There was something in the air that took me to a place where I felt so alive and so humble, because life felt so simple and so beautiful, a state of bliss so easy to reach.

By the time spring officially came, I was comfortable living in Libya. My English became better and more powerful, I was in love with mimosas and the Bini boy, my scant social life left plenty of time for daydreaming.

Overall, I was happy. Until my parents started mentioning the angry Americans and a possible military intervention in Libya. Spending time on our kitchen balcony, I started noticing endless lines of tanks in the red-sanded flat distance. I stood on the balcony and watched the tanks moving slowly. I wondered how many tanks the Libyan army had and where they were going. My mother kept saying, If the tanks are all the Libyan army has, the Americans will flatten the ground. My parents also believed that whatever happened, the Americans would leave the hospital alone (and our village was practically attached to the hospital). So ultimately, according to my parents, there was no reason to worry.

I watched the tanks go by for weeks, on and off, but I didn’t think much about them. They became part of the landscape, moving slowly like giant ants that were interesting to watch, yet way too far to have anything to do with me. Or maybe just part of the sunsets that I tried not to miss, convinced they were the most memorable sunsets I had ever seen, the red of the sky merging with the red earth. So, ultimately, the tanks didn’t really bother me.

Until the morning of April 15, 1986, when my mother woke me up and said I was not going to school that day. Before I even had time to ask any questions, she said, We were bombed last night. I was confused more than anything else. I didn’t hear the bombing? Was that possible?

My mother said my father wanted to wake me up, but she screamed No. I believed her, screaming was her specialty. She said my father panicked, my always so composed father who so many times managed to calm himself quickly enough to be able to hold a scalpel and cut people’s flesh only a short time after my mother delivered one of her spectacularly delirious exhibitions of fury and madness. That man whose control of his feelings I always admired panicked and ran towards my room to wake me up so we could all leave our apartment and go somewhere safe, but my mother screamed No, and then continued to scream, Where? Where are you going to take us? Where?  I could easily imagine the scene.

My mother won, as usual. I stayed asleep, my parents, I assume, listened to the bombs blowing up, pretty loudly, pretty close, trusting the Americans selected their targets carefully and were capable of being impeccably precise. Later we learned that yes, the Americans carefully selected their targets and were in general precise, but that didn’t mean there were not plenty of civilian casualties.

I stayed inside that day. I didn’t necessarily expect anything unpleasant to happen during the day, but I wanted to be perfectly safe (I’d definitely always been the extremely cautious type when my physical well-being was in question). I wrote in my journal. A long entry. A lot of pages. Decorated with a lot of pressed mimosas. I tried to make sense of the whole thing. Bombs dropped off the airplanes, bombs went off, and I slept through all that. Now I wouldn’t be that surprised by my ability to  sleep through a bombing because I know I’ve done it once. But then, I found it difficult to believe I slept through something as loud as a bombing must have been.  I packed a bag of stuff (the bag included my journal, some clothes, and a lot of peanuts – my idea of dry food) and put it next to my bed. In case we needed to be evacuated, I was ready to go.

When my father didn’t come back from work at the regular time later that day, I became restless. I knew my mother was scheduled to work nightshift that evening (she was a nurse), which meant I was going to be alone once seven o’clock came. We waited for my dad to come back home (and we couldn’t call him, because nobody had a phone in the apartment), but when my father was not home by six o’clock, my mother arranged for me to stay with a friend of hers.  I was only thirteen and I was not ready to stay alone overnight.

People generally expected a second night of bombing. I sat quietly in my mother’s friend’s apartment, across from this lady that I didn’t even like. I flipped through an old copy of some Serbian magazine and pretended I was interested in the subject matter, just to avoid talking to my mom’s friend. After all, there was nothing I had to say about the whole thing. I was afraid of what might happen in Libya next, of the concept of war, at that time completely abstract to me. Secretly, I was hoping someone was going to just  put me on the plane and take me back to Serbia. My mind was everywhere and nowhere.

Around midnight my father showed up to take me home. He spent a long day in a hospital different from the one where he usually worked, a Benghazi hospital that was closer to the areas where people got hurt during the attack. He was tired and went to bed, and I waited for another round of bombing for a long time and fell asleep only when the morning light started breaking. The second attack never came.

Our school reThe Mediterranean Sea from Benghazi opened. The life went back to normal. Weeks went by, and I eventually unpacked my bag. Days got hot. We started going to the beach. I fell in love with the Libyan beaches. With the beautiful  Mediterranean. Instantaneously. So many years later, when I mention the sea, I don’t picture the Adriatic. Or the Aegean Sea. It’s the Libyan Mediterranean that’s still lodged in my head. The water cooler than in the Adriatic, the color deeper, the waves wilder (but nothing – nothing – like in the ocean). My idea of perfection.

On weekdays we went to the few local beaches for an afternoon, but on weekends we drove for an hour or even two hours to get to these frequently wild beaches with magical sand and magically blue waters. I baked in the sun with pleasure, soaked in olive oil, refusing to even hear my mother’s concerns about the damaging influence of the sun. I simply didn’t care. My skin was dark and shiny, I felt a bit like I owned the world. Like I just stepped into a paradise. By pure chance. I loved living by the sea.

I visited Serbia that summer,  despite the Chernobyl catastrophe that took place earlier that year. My mother tried hard to convince me I should stay In Libya, which was farther from Chernobyl than Serbia was, but I didn’t care about possible radiation. I wanted to visit Serbia, period. So I went.

Things didn’t change in Serbia a lot in a year. My cousins that I played a lot with before coming to Libya had new friends and didn’t really care to include me. I didn’t keep in touch with my old friends, which didn’t mean much as I stayed with my aunt who lived in a village away from my town. I got to meet some new kids of my age (and I was very much in the mood for falling in love so I could forget the Bini boy), but most of the time I spent alone, simply entertaining myself: reading, writing in my journal, watching the villagers take their tractors out of their big yards early in the morning and come back in the evening with carts loaded with hay, wheat, whatever. All summer I had private literature lessons with my mother’s old professor as my mother thought my Serbian Language and Literature teacher in Libya was horrendous and that I didn’t learn anything about literature interpretation. I visited my old apartment a few times, but it felt weird being there. It brought up memories, but all blended together, making it impossible for me to decipher what was the exact thing putting me in a funk.

The time in Serbia (or rather Yugoslavia) flew by. Coming back to Libya felt strange, it felt like Libya was now my home, but the one I wasn’t happily going to. Some of my friends left, and a few new families with kids arrived.  I felt like an old-timer when my new friends asked me questions. I had that attitude, Yea, it’s different, not a big deal though! You’ll see.

We got a new set of teachers that were overall better than the previous year’s set. However, the school population shrank. I was now in the eighth grade, which consisted of only two students, me and a Montenegrin blond boy who sang a popular Bijelo Dugme song so many times in a day that by the end of the year I knew the song with every single atom of my body.

Acacia niotica / MimosaAfter being in classes back home that had more than thirty students, it felt funny being in a classroom the size of a bigger closet with only one other student. Teachers acted like they were stopping by our classroom only for a cup of coffee and a chat. My biology teacher weaved these spectacular stories that were vaguely related to the subject matter she was supposed to teach to us. For example, this man had a very weak heart, and he went on a trip, and then this – whatever – happened. I liked nothing better than to go home, share the stories with my father, and look at my father’s facial expressions. This was also a good indirect way to invite my father to tell me how the heart worked or whatever we were learning at the moment. Anything that was biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, my father talked about and explained like these were the most exciting things in the world. And, interestingly enough, he would easily get the very-ADD-me to pay attention. Today, I can’t remember much more but the real basics (if that much), but the gleam in my father’s eyes, the passion of his words, the delight on his face, I’ll never forget.

Gaddafi, Libya, and Me, Part 1

October 20, 2011 2 comments

Libya’s ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi has been killed today. “Libya’s ex-leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has been killed after an assault on his home town of Sirte, the transitional authority’s acting prime minister says. … He [Gaddafi] was toppled in August after 42 years in power.”

benghazi cityscapeMy parents and I arrived to Libya on October 17, 1985. It was incredibly cold and snowy when we were leaving Serbia despite the fact that it was only mid-October. I said good-bye to my classmates and my teachers. Some of my teachers thought my parents were doing an awful thing – dislocating such a great student in the middle of the school year and almost at the end of my elementary schooling (I was in seventh grade).

My parents were not concerned at all about my ability to adjust to a new school, new immediate environment, new country. They simply expected I would. They would help me with schoolwork if needed, and I’d just handle the rest the way I handled another new school at the beginning of the fourth grade (they wanted me to study German instead of Russian so they moved me to a different school – that was it; I doubt they spent a second wondering what I thought about Russian and German).

My parents applied  to some cultural-technical exchange program a few years before we went to Libya. It was after they lost hope that they were ever going to find work in their field in Austria, Switzerland, or Germany. It was well known that Libya needed physicians and nurses and they wanted to go. I was, of course, going to go with them. I was going to go to a new (Serbian) school, make new friends, and live in a different country. That was it.

When we arrived to Benghazi, it was still warm despite the fact that it was late at night. My mother’s colleague took us from the airport to his apartment. All I saw from the new country was the people in Muslim attire at the airport, the stretch of a highway and the city lights. That night we stayed in the house of our new friends. They had a daughter about my age, Kaca. I slept in her room that night. Interestingly enough, we didn’t talk about Libya, but about Yugoslavia. Libya was there, around us (although still totally unknown to me), but Yugoslavia was what we both left behind.

The following morning, in bright daylight, I finally saw that new country where we were going to live for at least a year and our new apartment. The landscape looked very different. We were surrounded by red sand on all sides. The land was perfectly flat, from our kitchen window you could see for miles ahead. The apartment was furnished and pretty spacious, my room overlooked the center of the village where we were going to live and the hospital where my parents were going to work. This village was called Hawari, it was a suburb of Benghazi, built around the 7th April Hospital as housing for foreign employees, mostly employees from the republics of the old Yugoslavia and the Philippines. On one side, the village was surrounded by Libyan villas (months later I was going to spend hours on our kitchen balcony studying the front yards of these villas, waiting to see a human being step out of the house; I rarely saw any signs of life around the villas).

We had no TV or radio in the apartment (what was the point when we couldn’t understand anything anyway?). Months later we bought a small stereo, but the only thing we occasionally listened to was the Voice of America broadcasts and the few cassette tapes of Serbian music we brought with us.  My parents would regularly bring home a copy of Newsweek magazine, but it took me a while to be able to understand anything as it was only a few weeks after we arrived to Libya that I had my first English lesson. I started going to school immediately (school went from Sunday to Thursday, we were off on Fridays and Saturdays). There was a school bus that would take the kids from Hawari to the city center where the Serbian school was located.

The first day I went to school, I walked to some sort of Principal’s office, and gave the Principal my basic information. He said the school didn’t offer German (which was what I studied before I came to Libya and which, as a foreign language, was one of the requirements for graduation) and asked what my parents were going to do about that. I said I hated German anyway, and I was going to do three years of English in one. He nodded his head  doubtfully and that was the end of our discussion.

The school was a joke. The building was small and dilapidated, the classes had between two and five students on average, and most of the teachers were unskilled and uninterested in what they were teaching. I had a great math teacher in the first few months, but then she went back to Serbia. That was the pattern that often repeated. When people’s contracts expired, they would go back to Serbia, and an untimely replacement would eventually arrive.

Fortunately, by that point in my life, I had good study habits and a good foundation in subjects such as math, physics, and chemistry. So I just followed the textbooks, and my parents helped, my mother with language and literature, my father with grammar, math, physics, chemistry, biology. History and geography I studied myself from the same ridiculous textbooks that followed me until I left Serbia. And I diligently practiced writing the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Every letter was written in a different way based on its position within a word (beginning, middle, end), and there was a forth version of the letter if it was standing alone. I filled pages with the letters the way I did in the first grade when learning the Serbian alphabet, but the Arabic language itself was beyond my ability to comprehend. The instruction our teacher (interpreter by profession) offered was pretty bad, with no real curriculum and no teaching experience on his part. I didn’t learn anything but how to write letters, and I didn’t care.

I made friends with kids that were around my age, and we hung out in the middle of the village, maybe sat on a bench and talked, or walked around the village. Occasionally we went to some sort of a “club,” which was the only thing there was in the village in addition to a small grocery store and the hospital. In the club, grown-ups (including my father) played chess, and we could occasionally watch a movie (with no Serbian subtitle) and drink tea with peanuts. (I have never learned anything about the origin of this drink that consisted of tea and peanuts that were in the actual drink).

There was not much to do. I was a budding teenager and I continuously longed for things. I wanted my country back, I wanted more friends, I wanted a “normal life” (“normal life,” I suppose, meant doing the same things teens did back home, which I am not sure was much different from what I was doing). I complained a bit, I was unhappy a bit, but I worked hard on my English and I was happy about my fast progress.

Libijska pustinjaMy parents worked a lot (according to Serbian standards), and I was learning how to entertain myself in the absence of TV, radio, movie theaters, restaurants. Occasionally my parents took me to downtown Benghazi, but it was mostly to do some kind of shopping. Silly shopping. To buy things you didn’t need. We could never buy anything we actually needed (for example, shoes, clothes, technology) as only traditional Muslim attire was available in the stores and maybe, maybe some technology at ridiculously expensive prices.  If you happened to go to the few semi-empty department stores in Benghazi, and by any chance you decided to actually buy something, it would take forever (literally) for you to attract the attention of a store employee and pay for your purchase. Now Serbs were definitely not known for their great customer service skills, but the behavior of department store employees in Libya was beyond imaginable. They would simply stand in twos and threes and talk animatedly, gesticulate, giggle, and there was no way to attract their attention. First you maybe tried to make an eye contact, then you said “Excuse me” or the equivalent to “Excuse me” in Arabic, but they would absolutely not respond. They would continue to talk, simply ignoring you, and then, maybe fifteen minutes later, if you were still there, they would saunter lazily up to you and take your money. Numerous times my parents and I just put the stuff back onto the shelf and left the store. It really came down to how bad you needed something.

Most of the food we needed we bought at the small supermarket in Hawari, but there was nothing too fancy in the Libya of that time. When meat, eggs, or bananas would arrive, you had to wait in line for a long time and then buy large quantities of these foods. You never knew when the next delivery date was going to be. Libya was under sanctions then, and there was definitely a shortage of many foods.

There were sections of the city that were right on the water, with well-maintained gardens and palm trees, and maybe a tall building or two, but we never went there. Nobody went there. Libya had no tourists or foreign businessmen.

There was a modest Serbian library in the Serbian club that was located on the first floor of the building where my school was, and my father took me there often.  I read whatever books the library had, books that were appropriate for my age and those that were not, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Spending many hours on our kitchen balcony,  I started experimenting with water colors and temperas, ending up with some version of sunset and a lot of playful “abstracts.”  I made carrot cookies that were actually edible, and started making paper and cardboard decorations for my room. My room became the cleanest room in the house. I started keeping a journal, and I wrote often. I spent time with the few friends of similar age I had, and I went to whatever birthday parties I was invited to. At one of these parties, a brother of my Albanian classmate, one of the few people that were older than me, asked me to dance with him and that was it – I was in love. My journal started filling fast. I celebrated every instance  of seeing this boy. Directly, or from the window of my room. A few years later, I laughed at the number of specially decorated journal entries that looked like this: I saw Bini. He said hi. It didn’t look like I wanted from him much more than that.

I guess I was lonely. And I was definitively very nostalgic. Maybe it was the first time I felt that emotion. I longed for the people I cared for, but even more for the places I left behind. That surprised me, the fact that I wanted back the city I never particularly liked. That from afar, I loved and terribly missed everything and everybody. I wrote a few letters, I received a few letters, but I was definitively never much of the letter-writing type. I daydreamed. I walked around the village. By the time mimosas bloomed, I accepted Libya for what it was. A slightly strange, lonely place for a foreign teen  to be. And a paradise on earth in some ways.

America’s Love Affair with Child Death

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

This article offers just another example of how this country is (not) the best country in the world. The article offers some grim statistics while the Republicans are trying to further cut down any social programs this country has.  Infinitely sad and scary.

When Sesame Street Meets Porn

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment

When both my husband and I worked full time, we exchanged a lot of e-mails during the day. Meaningful and meaningless. Some as short as this, Hi. Some a few lines long: Sleepy. Hate my job right now. Want to run in the fields (my husband’s response to this would be: A field of hops?).

Now that I stay at home, I call my husband in the morning once Andrei and I are up and fed (not necessarily dressed). And I might call him at random times during the day for this or that reason, but I can usually count on his habit of sending me a news link or two before I even get to my computer.

This is the link I got yesterday morning. Sesame Street YouTube channel hit by porn hack.

OK, I don’t have anything against porn. And I have some respect for hackers, at least for the brilliance of their minds. I can’t say I like how they employ their brilliance, though. So the main question is, Why Sesame Street? Why would you direct your attack towards kids?

Now, I am not sure how exactly my son fell in love with Elmo. I guess it was one of those winter evenings when Andrei was tired and cranky but it was too late to put him down for a nap and too early to put him down for the night, and I was cooking dinner, and my husband was desperate. He played Feist, 1, 2, 3, 4. Andrei loved the song and the video that went with it. I joked, This is my son’s first crush. We played the video again, and again, and again. My son was around eighteen months old.

Then we expended the repertoire. Tilly and the Wall’s ABC song. Jason Mraz’s Outdoors. Adam Sandler’s Song about Elmo. Will.I.Am’s Who I Am song. Paul Simon’s Me & Julio.

At the same time, I introduced Andrei to Serbian children’s repertoire: Bracu Ne Donose Rode, Moja Mama Divno Prica, Ivin Voz, Medo Brundo, Najlepsa Mama na Svetu, Vuce, Vuce, Bubo Lenja. And some of my all-time (though not children’s songs) favorites such as two Macedonian songs, Makedonsko Devojce and Biljana Platno Belese. We sang along (or at least I sang along), and I got a refresher on the lyrics. But, the videos, especially the children’s videos, were really old and of poor quality, and Andrei soon started protesting whenever I tried to play them for him. So we just switched to me singing these songs for Andrei during the day and before he would fall asleep, and we forgot about the videos.

However, a few months later, my charming geek of a husband ran into some Goran Bregovic songs. I introduced my husband to Goran Bregovic in the first few months of our dating. We watched Underground, Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, the exceptional movies whose music Goran Bregovic composed.

Since my husband found these videos, Goran Bregovic is the absolute winner in our household. We all love his music. Gas, Gas. Kalashnikov. Mesecina. Hop Hop Hop. Maki Maki. My husband plugs the computer into the speakers and the TV. In the evenings and on weekends. When we are content, when we are tired, when we are in not such a great mood. All three of us sing along and dance. Faster, faster, faster, wilder, wilder, wilder, until we are out of breath. Then we play Uspavanka za Radmilu to help our son wind down. And then we continue with our day or night.

I hope nobody decides to turn my son’s (and my husband and mine) favorite YouTube videos into porn. No, I really don’t have anything against porn. But please, if you decide to toy with our favorite artist’s videos, choose something equally head-spinning and blood-boiling. Introduce me to some maybe Colombian or Argentinean artist. Or choose a clip of a meaningful (slightly erotic) movie, maybe something like Last Tango in Paris or Bitter Moon. I’ll say to my son, Wait ten years, then we’ll watch this. It’s good, but it’s not for you. Now. But please don’t present me with porn when I am in the mood for Goran Bregovic. Or when I decide to play Elmo for my kid. I’ll survive the porn, but it’ll definitely put me in a bad mood. Until I find Kalashnikov.

When You Get to Reading and Writing…

October 12, 2011 1 comment

serbian cyrillic alphabetMy son is only two, but I think about teaching him how to read and write in Serbian. I know we are a few years away from that point, but I am savoring the thought. Serbian is a phonetic language, it has two alphabets, Cyrillic and Latin, and it has thirty letters and thirty phonemes, that’s it. It’s all pretty simple, thanks to Vuk Karadzic who revised the Church Slavonic (staroslovenski) language and came up with this pretty simple version of Cyrillic alphabet, with a simple premise: Pisi kako govoris, citak kako je napisano (Write as you speak and read as it is written).

Maybe, just maybe, the very thought of Serbian being so easy to read and write once you can speak it gave me the courage to embark on this bilingual journey with my son. How can I allow my son, I was thinking, to live his life without ever reading the authors who wrote in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, only few of whom have been translated into English? Milorad Pavic, Ivo Andric, Milos Crnjanski, Bora Stankovic, Jovan Ducic, Serbian folk songs, fairy tales, Ne daj se, Ines…the list can go on and on….

In case you are getting ready to start teaching your child how to read and write in more than one language, here is a great article  that offers plenty of practical tips, Teaching Children to Read and Write in More Than One Orthography: Tips for Parents, published in the Multilingual Living magazine.

Raising a “Happily Bilingual Child”

October 12, 2011 2 comments
butternut falls

Buttermilk Creek, Ithica, NY

No matter how much I instinctively trust my son’s ability to somehow sort out the two languages he is learning, there is always a slight fear on my part, or maybe just a thought, that at some point, in some way, two languages might confuse him. It’s not something I think about much as I have committed myself to teaching my son Serbian in addition to English, period. But, I love to see studies like the one cited in The New York Times’ article Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language. The article explains  “not just how the early brain listens to language, but how listening shapes the early brain” and goes on to conclude that “bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking, skills that are often considered part of the brain’s so-called executive function.”

This is yet another study to show the benefits to bilingualism, which comforts me and encourages me to try harder to give my son Serbian. And the article mentions somewhere the “happily bilingual child” and acknowledges the fact that “there aren’t many research-based guidelines about the very early years and the best strategies for producing a happily bilingual child.” Yes, I’d like to be see more research done in this area, and consequently some guidelines on how to raise “a happily bilingual child.”

Oftentimes I think about the possible emotional consequences of bilingualism. I consider myself to be bilingual, but the kind of bilingual that differs from the kind my son is going to be. I was thirteen when I was introduced to English, and I had Serbian “in place” when I started learning English. And I have to admit that I have always felt like the two languages were slightly at war within me. In my life in the US, many times I felt like I had to suppress my Serbian, or at least some aspects of my Serbian, in order for the same aspects of my English to flourish. I am not happy about this, but I am happy  as long as I have at least one language fully available when I need it. For example, I write my stories and this blog in English, and I feel English will be my dominant language in the area of writing as long as I live in an English-speaking country.

I wouldn’t call myself an unhappy bilingual, definitely not, but I hope my son has an easier time being bilingual. I kind of count on it as he is absorbing both languages at the same time. But I’d definitely like to see more studies covering the area of “happy bilingualism” and hear other people’s stories of bilingualism.

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