“Furriers distinguish between a large
number of varieties of fox fur in terms of
color—red, purple, fiery, red guinea, fancy
silver, and others.”
—Svijet, 8 October 1965
In the year that Tito died, I rode my first donkey. A dead donkey, at that—or, to be more precise, one that had been preserved. The animal was on a wooden disk with wheels, and the man who was charging for the “rides” would push it around the beach among the well-oiled ladies and gentlemen with children, all of whom were eating salami sandwiches that they’d pull from little coolers. Several years ago, in Banja Luka, I made a bet with some friends from Dorćol who didn’t believe me when I said that a donkey could be “treated” that way. We were sitting on the bank of the river there, eating fish. My girlfriends thought I was nuts, that the donkey had been alive and I just didn’t remember it. Later I scanned a photo of it, though, and emailed it to them. It was hardly great journalism, this picture of me astride the donkey, in sandals and socks, but it did the trick.
So it was that in 1980, then, we had our summer vacation in Baške Vode. Recently I found out from a different friend (she was from Sarajevo) that Baške Vode (short “a”) is a Turkicism and that it means “separate waters.” And that Baške Vode was right there, at the midpoint of the Adriatic. Ajde!
And, also in 1980, my brother was born. A twin—on the zodiac, that is. He and old man Tito are both Geminis, sharing a birthday.
That same year Comrade Tito died. I use the word “comrade” because I was a Pioneer. I don’t use the feminine form of that word, meaning a girl Pioneer, because my gender world developed only later. In Amsterdam one time I was at a friend’s house (his family came from Montenegro) and I saw a Pioneer cap hanging on the wall. Among the many items there—books in English and Italian, international diplomas, and museum passes—there was that blue cap. Navy blue. We even said it that way in Bosnian: sailors’ blue.
It was like the sea that was visible in the background of the photograph where I’m sitting on the preserved donkey, back in the year Tito died.
Tito is no more, and only memories remain. Treated ones.
In elementary school there was this custom of going to work for one day with one of your parents. It sounded so serious, this action. Nowadays we’re well aware of the fact that work can’t be taken for granted. The Recession, and all that. Capitalism. The human factor is not essential. Sunscreen—now that’s essential.
My friend Dženita’s mom worked for the company called Šipad Sebešić. Dženita had an apartment in one of the so-called “military buildings,” but no, her dad wasn’t an army guy. He was some sort of administrator in the post office. Sitting on a lace doily atop the TV set they had a battery-powered gondola souvenir from Venice. The thing she and I found one time in the uppermost cabinet in her parents’ bedroom didn’t run on batteries, though it was every bit as interesting as that. It was a rubber ball that you pressed to make a gigantic penis pop out. Dženita’s mom had gotten it as a birthday gift.
To get to the office at Sebešić, you had to go up a tall, broad staircase covered in dirty green carpet. Plants in big flower pots in the corners. Large windows, as if orders had come down for nothing to be concealed (but it still could be if you put it in the top of the armoire under the towels and the seldom-used satin bed linens).
On the mezzanine there stood a stuffed bear.
The bear was impressive in and of itself. Of course, all preserved and mounted bears are impressive in their own way, just as all living bears are scary in their own way. At any rate, there was more to this attraction than just the bear. There was also a photo on the wall close by.
The picture was of Tito in Bugojno—a town located in the same canton as the factory building. He’s in his hunting outfit. One of his feet is propped up on a fallen tree, and a dead bear lies next to him on the ground.
One could assume that the picture represented THIS bear. Or we could assume at least that the author of the installation intended to give that impression.
Not once did we pass by that bear, in its typical taxidermy pose and everything, without our hearts beating faster.
Your heart might speed up when you see a flag sticking up in the sky, but it always speeds up when a stuffed bear looks you right in the eye.
My grandma’s brother was a hunter, a real hunter. He had boars’ heads hanging on his wall, and a bottle opener with handles made from deer hooves and coat hangers from a stag’s horns, and what’s more, his wife warmed her legs in rabbit pelts. But that of course didn’t mean he was taking good care of her; it was more just that he was recycling every animal he had shot.
Besides his hunting rifle, the only thing he loved was Tito. And I mean fanatically. And he pronounced the name with a long “i”: Tiiito.
After I’d been to Tito’s grave for the first time—in the House of Flowers in Belgrade—I told him what it was like there. “Well, what was it like?”
Well, everything was deadly serious, and precisely because it was all so deadly serious—and going around Tito’s tomb was like walking around the Ka’aba in Mecca—I found it funny. I couldn’t help myself. And I felt sorry for the guards. Did they get breaks? Or a catheter?
I said to him, Stari (he was called Stari, Old Man, too, just like Tito), first we just have to record the new episode of Musical Toboggan. (This is all true. Btw, recently, when I slipped and fell on Ferhadija because of some ice, the first person I saw when I got to my feet was the show’s host, Minja Subota, for fuck’s sake.)
So then I said to him, “Stari, it was deadly serious.” Whenever I hear that phrase nowadays, “deadly serious,” I recall my visit to the mausoleum. And the gold letters “T-I-T-O” on the marble.
He told me I should have a little more respect. ‘Coz those were the days.
When people say that things used to be better, they are ignoring the subjective factor, which is to say they were younger and more beautiful then, and more optimistic, and so by default their perspective was a bit more rose-colored.
But today we know that it’s a fact that it was better once. Because all of us born after 1980 grew up in abnormal societies. For that reason I’ve always been obsessed with dystopias. With situations where nothing is for sure. There’s no certainty, and the only hiding place is the one you build yourself. Of natural materials.
Then again, as Heidi Klum’s ex-husband sings: We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy.
Next to the exit at the House of Flowers stands a souvenir shop today. They have books about the breakup of Yugoslavia, pens with Tito’s name on them, and postcards of him at Brioni (or is that Brijuni?) with cat-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and a Richard Burton who’s sunburned to a crisp.
One of my language instructors during the freshman year of my English major at the university was a woman who’d been their interpreter while Burton was filming The Battle of Sutjeska. She’d kept the letter, in which Burton thanked her for her attentiveness, professionalism, and companionship. In Belgrade I heard once that Dennis Quaid is like that, too, an upstanding guy; he was making a film there right after the NATO bombardment and he left his fixer a large tip when he had to leave abruptly. I mean a really large tip. Those stars are cut from the same cloth. These digital stars nowadays don’t know how to deal with people.
And that was when my friend Zorana bought me a souvenir: a pin with Tito’s autograph.
I would see that same signature for years whenever we’d drive into my hometown, Travnik. It was up on top of the mountain to our left, white, and you could see it from airplanes, too.
White is the color of victors.
Slobo is seventy years old, but he goes around lying and saying he is sixty.
Every time we go to the Café Ribica, Slobo is there somewhere. Either he’s rushing off someplace and you can’t catch him, or he’s putting out fruit around the café, going on supply runs, or feeding his fish, a real fish’s fish that all the tourists admire when they come in here. All the while his glasses dangle from the string around his neck. And so we behave like typical locals and permit ourselves to fall in love with oodles of details about the café, from the mirrors, fans, teas, figurines, fliers, and mismatched glasses to the drawers in every corner, the glass bowls, postcards, and framed photographs that won’t budge. And the tassels and sugar dishes. For us everything is as interesting as if we’d just come in here for the first time.
But one time Slobo sat down with us, ordered wine for the table, and we all stayed there till after midnight.
He got revved up and talked and talked. About his life in Sarajevo before the war, and how he had to leave because of his name. His given name and his now-familiar surname.
Sometimes I pretend that I don’t understand about his names, because I wouldn’t want him to feel uncomfortable that I got this right away. Or want him to think, by some chance, that I had noticed the names earlier.
Then he told us about how he’d been Tito’s taxidermist. (Today people would say that he’s licensed and insured . . .) He lived in Tito’s residence in Dedinje, stuffing the guy’s animals with straw. There were lots of them, for Tito loved to hunt. “Those were the days . . .”
Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible that Slobo prepared that bear in Sebešić.
Close to the Šipad Sebešić factory is a village. It’s called Dolac, like the square in downtown Zagreb. In Turkish times, the taxidermists lived there. Their real specialty, however, was the preparation of human heads. So that they wouldn’t rot while being shipped to Istanbul. This is where they speared them with stakes, so they could serve as examples, lessons. This subtle educational practice wasn’t effective, as it turned out, because the viziers, you know, didn’t exactly have people eating out of their hands in Turkey or the rest of the empire.
Ol’ Slobo doesn’t mess with chemicals anymore, because he says the ones in those treatments are harmful to your health and take years off your life.
On the first table in the Ribica on the right-hand side stands a bound annual edition of the magazine Svijet from 1963 (The World: A Weekly Illustrated Magazine, Sarajevo, vol. 14). On the cover of the May issue is Josip Broz with Jovanka, his wife. Next to the photograph it says:
“The President of the Republic, Josip Broz Tito, is currently in Norway on an official visit to that friendly country. This is the first visit of the Yugoslav president, and the first by the leader of any socialist state, to this country in the north of Europe. The visit has awakened great interest in the world public and has met with enthusiasm on the part of the Norwegian population.
“(photo) President Tito and wife Jovanka at the airport in Surćin before the departure of their special flight.”
In his left hand Josip Broz Tito is holding a hat, the lining of which is showing. Jovanka holds the same pose.
Close to the Stefansplatz in Vienna there is a branch of Nordsee.
Now Nordsee is not a Norwegian outfit, nor does it have any connection with “the north of Europe.” This fish restaurant on the pedestrian zone in the middle of Vienna—with all of its bright colors and optimism—comes across as completely artificial. Who knows, maybe Erik Brandis, the natural scientist from Travnik, had stood on this same spot a century ago, marveling at the life in the place and at the world in general.
And at lucky events, too.
Like at the fact that in a few years an unexpected gift would fall into the lap of his collection, which he had founded in 1884.
In 1887 the schoolkids of Travnik would, to wit, be celebrating the birthday of Franz Joseph (the Kaiser, whose nephew was Franz Ferdinand).
The Kaiser was well pleased by this, and in return direct from Schönbrunn made them a present of a stuffed lion and a tiger from his own collection. (Moreover, the man’s birthday was August 18, which means his zodiac sign was Leo).
As for that tiger and the lion, well, they’re still there in the museum in Travnik with that stiff taxidermied look on their faces. All in all they’re holding up well, and Pioneers used to file in to see them, like today’s students from the high schools do.
In medicine there is a phenomenon they call “the phantom limb.”
It’s usually an amputated leg that one can still feel somehow.
You can’t move it for the simple reason that it isn’t there anymore. This is a frequent occurrence in people who have lost arms or legs in wars.
Clinically speaking, their body parts no longer exist, but it’s as if they do.
And Tito is a phantom limb as far as the physical area of the former Yugoslavia goes. People wish he was here, but, objectively viewed, he isn’t. Nor are there likely scenarios in which he will be.
This is, in point of fact, escapism, these thoughts that someone else, a someone-who-no-longer-exists, could clean up the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Sometimes I wonder how old Josip Broz Tito would manage if he lived in times like these.
What would he say on Twitter?
What would his Facebook profile be like?
Would he blog about Justin Bieber, or the Showtime series Homeland?
What kind of comments would he make on the events in Egypt, or paper napkins, or the memoirs of Jovo Kapičić? And what would he have to say about smoking bans and Word 2012, which wouldn’t let you change the screensaver?
Living with Tito was honorable. In the book of that name, all kinds of emotions have been preserved. If there’s anybody who doesn’t know, by some coincidence, what it was like when he passed away, the photographs in there tell you it was tough.
It was tough for people on the street, for people on the soccer field, and for the folks along the tracks where his train passed by. And for the medical staff that took care of him during those final days. That’s when they had his leg amputated, too.
Nowadays this thing would be called a “coffee table book,” like those supercool editions put out by Taschen. And Tito’s name often comes up over coffee. Cafés, those mythical, nostalgic, and utopian locales, take his name.
Utopias, as we know, do not really exist. It’ s the same way with ideal leaders. And even more so with ideal nations. What is a people but an abstract category that runs on that authority in the white suit, on the birthday relay race, on Rex the dog and Galeb the yacht?
Followers blinded by promises.
Perhaps he never existed either, and we just dreamed everything.
“. . . Tito, we swear our . . .” Good night, and good luck.
© 2012 by Ajla Terzić. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.