In those rare moments when, bent over his opened books, he considered his fate, seeking solutions to the Balkan history of his family, in those moments when he thought he was fully prepared to begin writing the history of the Balkans through the declines of the three empires with which the life of his family had collided (Ottoman, Fascist, and Stalinist), my father began to ask himself which was his fatherland: the fatherland of his ancestors or the fatherland of his descendants.
He himself was deeply convinced, and no one and nothing could dissuade him from his belief, that his library remained his ultimate fatherland. It was filled with books in various languages, in various scripts, from various eras. Here, too, was a globe he rotated when he couldn’t settle upon his homeland.
My mother was not concerned about the family’s survival so long as she could see my father in the library, relaxed in his own country. If she sensed that the pages of a book were disturbed, if Father’s shadow played along the walls of the room, then my mother feared that another exodus lay ahead…
Before uncertain departures, my father would often mark down the tally of his lost, discovered, abandoned, forgotten, and renewed fatherlands, states, and monarchies. One could see in his documents how many there had been in his life by looking at the heads of the different leaders on the canceled administrative stamps.
Even though the Ottoman Empire changed my father’s original faith, and religion then was the equal of state and fatherland, the Ottoman Empire did not become his country. After his studies in Istanbul and his brief meeting with Atatürk himself It was expected that Turkey would become his home; his mother’s Turkish identity may also have had an influence. In this way she would have realized the distant dream she had when she sent him off to Istanbul to her people, aware that she herself would never catch up with them in their great flight. Father returned to the Balkans.
His fatherland became Albania, an independent state with an uncertain future amidst the Balkan perils. But it was not to remain so for long.
When his frail native country became trapped in the web of Fascism, Father consciously gave up his fatherland and crossed the closest border. Between Fascism and the Communism that loomed, he chose the loss of his homeland. In any event, he could not have avoided Communism in either his native country or his adopted one. But here, in Yugoslavia, liberation from Stalinism came much sooner than for our relatives across the border in Albania, who suffered beneath it much longer, a great deal longer. While my father was indeed saved from Stalinism, he remained an émigré of his old country. As emigrants, we were, in fact, in some sort of Balkan way station, a place to sojourn before continuing along pathways of resettlement across the ocean.
My father accepted his new citizenship and was freed from further phantom emigrations. We did not become citizens of America or Australia, nor even New Zealand, as did the others who crossed the border after us. After assuming citizenship, my father did not believe, even in his dreams, that as a new citizen of the People’s Republic of Macedonia, then part of the Federated People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, with his old Ottoman law degree, he would become a socialist judge in a single step. As a new immigrant, not to mention a non-party member, one who did not wish to be counted in the government structures as a minority representative chosen by quota, my father knew that he would not be able to advance far in a legal career and move up in the judicial hierarchy. Fortunately, while working in the Institute for National History, he discovered Ottoman-era documents from Bitola, Turkish court administrative records dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and thus secured his future and the future of his children.
My father ended his life as a citizen of the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia and of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. He did not live to see the breakup of Yugoslavia, which gave his offspring citizenship in a new country, the Republic of Macedonia. First they were a minority, then an ethnic minority, and now a nationality, without ever sufficiently understanding the terminological importance of each new designation.
And so, in my father’s family, in the space of a single generation, fatherlands changed more than once, citizenship changed even more frequently, together with an equal number of changes in the designation of civic status. This is too much for one generation! But not so in the Balkans, where this, and even more, was possible. What lies in store for the future generation of the family, God alone knows, as my mother would have said while she was alive, holding her final citizenship.
The Fate of the Books Habent sua fata libelli —Latin saying
Of all that materially remained in the world at the end of my father’s life, it is possibly his books that most clearly reveal the lost past. It is also possible that one of the secrets of my parents’ durable and harmonious marriage was my mother’s good-natured encouragement and support of my father’s love for his books, and her transformation into a kind of holy patron of his library. It is, in fact, from the pages of my father’s movable library that one can most clearly read and understand the history of my family that my parents constructed. Wherever the path of migrations and the instinct for family survival drove us, my father’s books accompanied us.
A new book was like a newborn in the family, with its own place in our family’s life, or like a new footpath that allowed one to walk yet farther along the long road of life.
During the family’s frequent migrations, during the frequent changes of Balkan borders, which often fatally and tragically split the destinies of individuals, families, and nations, we left everything behind except the books.
The books also befriended us in those moments when there was only enough time for life itself to be saved, as if hidden on one of their pages was the riddle to the family’s salvation.
Even before I had learned to read and write, my father’s books, guarded as I was under my mother’s watchful eye, served as my playthings. Ever since then I have had a passion for those large, tightly bound, multicolored volumes and have reveled in them with no thought as to whether I will ever read them.
When I was still an unschooled child I could easily “read” various scripts. Even then, I “read” that my father had books written in Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin letters. At that time, all books were the same at first glance, but when I opened them, they immediately became different, one from the other. But these differences, texts in different alphabets, began to have significance for me, to have specificity, before I had yet entered the world of interpretable signs.
The various alphabets appeared to me as the first mirrors of the destiny in which I had to examine and discover myself in different ways. I had to discover, in the three different typographies of the manuscripts, that unique form with which I would identify, as if I were destined to remain until the end of my life forever in the center of the labyrinth.
As I grew, something changed in my relationship to my father’s books, to the yellowed lists with their handwriting that nearly overflowed, ready to spill off the page, the peculiar deeds of lost property, decrees, diplomas with pressed-wax stamps, miscellaneous certificates, testaments, books of all sorts.
In the center of the large windowless wall of the guest room, the room that in fact adjoined the balcony, a two-winged wooden cabinet stood. For us children, this cabinet evoked a constant illusion of the world beyond, on the other side of the wall, in the cupboard.
The cupboard was rarely opened, and therefore it, more than anything else, sparked our childhood curiosity. It was always locked up tight, both with its own lock and a separate padlock.
The cupboard was a sort of annex to my father’s library. The cupboard was its heart, for within it were located the oldest manuscripts, handwritten sacred books, rare geographic maps of imagined Balkan states, the family’s precious documents: papers that provided proof of the family’s identity.
The cupboard was wide, deep, boundless. Most often, it was my father who went in there, more rarely my mother, and then only when she needed to free the books of their collected dust. When my father entered the cupboard, we children had the feeling that he was entering some new dimension of time in the labyrinth of his manuscripts.
We children thought that there, in my father’s cupboard, in that labyrinth of lost time—and how quickly time was lost in the Balkans—were to be found the afflicted books, those damaged by too much reading, too much time.
As soon as he had “cured” a particular one of his afflicted books, my father would return it to its usual place in the library.
My father ordinarily kept the cupboard locked up, and he left the key with my mother, in case the books should rise up.
One morning, when my mother had gone to the market and my brothers had gone off in various directions, either to school or out with friends, I remained at home alone, absolutely alone. Naturally, my eyes drifted to the cupboard. I looked and saw that, for the first time, the key was still in the lock. I was overcome with excitement. I turned the key. Our family Babylon was opened; it was as if I were entering into the realm of a forbidden dream.
The books appeared to me like living things—that is how strongly I was affected by this encounter with them. First, the large encyclopedias caught my eye, and then the old sacred books, the deeds, the papyruses, the family documents. But it was the pages with multicolored stamps embellished with the green forms of postmarks that most captured my attention.
Who would have known, then, that in those papers was inscribed the whole of my family’s odyssey?
It was as if there, on the torn and intact stamps alike, resided all the resurrected monarchs, despots, and kings of fallen kingdoms who at various times had governed my family’s fate. They were now enclosed, vanquished, abandoned in my father’s big cupboard. I was prepared at once to deal with their thwarted power, to detach them from my father’s, from the family’s, papers. This was, in my eyes, to be their ultimate downfall.
I tore the stamps from the vital family documents, and in so doing, I defaced the identity of our family, which had with so much difficulty been sustained and safeguarded through the Balkan storms.
I imposed my order on my father’s documents and manuscripts. In those yellowed pages was engraved most of all the memory of Balkan time.
In the Balkans, everyone wanted to steal our time. In those days, I was under the illusion that our lost, unlived time was shut up in the cupboard with the rare books.
Engrossed in my task, I cut the small pictures from what were perhaps the only encyclopedias in this region of the Balkans. I unglued the duty stamps from the baptismal certificates, as though I were freeing them from their ties to past regimes.
Later on, I traded the small stamps that had marked the family’s most significant documents for the stamps belonging to neighborhood children. In exchange for stamps with pictures of fallen kings and old coins with faces of fallen Roman emperors, I received stamps of current rulers. In the Balkans, such trade was always bountiful.
Sometimes I exchanged two kingdoms for one, sometimes even three. That’s how quickly their value fell.
I left the cupboard in unparalleled disarray, having destroyed, forever it seemed, my father’s ordering of time. I had likely been inside the cupboard for a long time. As I emerged, I met my mother’s frantic gaze. Rarely had I seen my mother crying. All the doors and windows of the old house were open. The crosscurrents carried my father’s papers out of the cupboard, and they flew everywhere, piling up mostly on the balcony. My mother chased after them in a frenzy, not letting a single one fly out of the house. After she had gathered them up and closed all the windows, she entered the cupboard. And what did she see there! She remained in that cupboard a whole eternity.
She put things in order as best she could, but there was no way that she could return the old order to the papers and the old books. There had been no greater upheaval in the history of our family than in those moments when what had been held most sacred was thrown into doubt. During the era in which my family lived in the Balkans there had been two world wars, civil wars, great earthquakes and epidemics, forced migrations—strong raps of fate on the doors of our family. We had also watched helplessly as those closest to us died and departed.
Neither before, nor in the years that followed, did I ever see my mother so frantic, so upset.
These dramatic events brought white into my mother’s hair. Yes, her white hair was a veritable archive of our family life.
Her stifled cries of anguish and insurmountable pain pressed to the very roots of her hair. She had suffered many blows in her life, battles of life and death; her body had endured frequent pregnancies, and she most painfully paid the price for maintaining the family. In her life, she had suffered and endured a great deal.
Her whole life was spent fighting to keep her children alive. We children had become accustomed to seeing death enter the family and depart again and to watching my mother wear herself out in battle with it. This episode of the books was yet another means of torment for her.