Week Before The Festival: Goran's Spring in Croatia

Life During Wartime

/ by Mima Simić

The American road rolls away from you like a never-ending reel of undeveloped film, exposing its black back to the sun, simmering combustion. I drive into a town called Page, Arizona, it is Sunday and no café under the great white sun is open, it's July. The air is dry; the heat coaxes the water out of the body slowly, sweetly. In a park behind Walmart I meet a guy called Michael, it's his adopted American name – his last name King. A king, really, he laughs, as the wind blows his black native hair into his face, into the lavalier, the sound crackles in my ear. Michael is a two-spirit. It's the name for the people who, I have read, embody both the female and the male. They cross the gender border, the article said; and I can't help imagining these wild wild spirits, barefoot, dancing on the dusty border – in a dress if they were born a boy; or with war paint on their faces if they were born a girl. But in Navajo, they don't say two-spirit, they say nádleehí. Split into two winged words, a whole universe of nádleehí flies away. Because I don't speak the Navajo I don't understand what Michael means when he says – my people, we have four genders. Or when he talks about the sacredness of nádleehí before the Navajo were offered a new language. I can't imagine the borders, nor the space of nádleehí. I can only see two-spirits dancing through the gauze-thin summer dress, a reflection in a well; just as I see Michael shrunk and framed in the LCD display of my camcorder.

We don't have nádleehí back home, across the continent and the ocean. Maybe at home, too, there once had been a language, before the land rumbled and slid from under us, a language that sounded as melodious, as soft. Maybe in my language, too, there once was poetry in the colorful dress on a man, a sanctity in a pair of trousers on a woman at Sunday Mass, to be stripped off her by her wife after it. Or maybe there was indeed far more than that, a whole tree of words to pick from, the words that tasted like honey and bloomed in your mouth.

Michael lives on a reservation, about two hundred people there, no running water. It's hard to find a boyfriend there, familiarity breeds indifference, that's why every couple of months he goes to Vegas for the weekend, the clink-clank and the jingle-jangle – he likes the crazy sounds and the crazy nights and the clubs and the bars, away from the silence of the reservation, the dry land, brothers and sisters, dry blood. On the reservation there are no jobs, so in tourist season he comes to Page and works as a tour guide at the Lake Powel Navajo tribal park, guiding extra-large American tourists and medium-sized European ones through the desert canyons, over the bluest of waters that a mobile phone has ever seen.

Do you ever get people from Croatia? I ask.

I find it hard to imagine them making their way over here, 10 000 kilometers of air, road and water, to come to this little tourist office not that far from Walmart in Page, Arizona, and have a Navajo two-spirit take them by the hand, a guy with a string of beads around his neck, and bracelets and necklaces that jingle-jangle, and a name that he brushes off like a mosquito bite.

The wind is now picking up and it's impossible to keep filming. I turn the camera off, and now we are looking at each other, we can finally talk, man to man, woman to woman, whatever language permits us to be at this particular moment, at this particular place, behind Walmart in Page, Arizona.

How's the road been treating you so far? he asks.

I love your land, I say.

As I say it, I shrink with embarrassment. In the space between the words the land was taken, sprayed away with chickenpox, burnt with scarlet fever, blown off from under his feet with whooping cough. And then it was all adapted for widescreen, in all the colors of the rainbow and brighter than the pearls of Mardi Gras.

I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. That's not how I meant it.

What do you mean? he asks.

Sometimes I sleep at Walmart parking lots. The only land they have not so far driven me away from. A police guy somewhere in South Carolina woke me up at 3 a.m., he said I couldn't be sleeping in the car outside of a school, someone might think I was a terrorist. This was in a town the size of a teacup, man. He told me I couldn't stay there so I drove on, the middle of the night, through a string of dead towns, I drove to the first Walmart and then I roamed through the aisles for water and I brushed my teeth in their bathroom and I changed my underwear there too, and together with all the bums of Somewhere, South Carolina, I was left alone in the parking lot, the bright buzz of the floodlights lulling me to sleep.

You can't not love this land.

How long have you been driving around? he asks. Do you miss home? How is it there?

I don't know what to tell him about how it is, or what it is.

You know, I say, last summer I was in my hometown, on the coast (the sea more beautiful than Lake Powell, I'm telling you), and in my old room I found my old diary. I've been keeping it since always, and this one was written during wartime. I was sixteen then, and you were probably just about to leave your first footprints in the sands of the reservation. I started reading the notebook, to see what it was like – to see what a teenage two-spirit, a Croatian own nádleehí felt like, was like, as the shower of shells rained upon their town, as they listened to the flop-flop, and the whistle and the boom of the rockets. But in the notebooks there was nothing. Nothing. Days were translated into book titles, film titles, into petrified quotes, a page-sized life, framed by a letterbox. As if all along a fictional life was happening alongside the factual one, and only the former was worth noting. By the way, we had no running water then either, but I could hardly prove it to you now. We lined up with buckets, out in the streets by water trucks, to get water for cooking and showering. During power cuts we read by candlelight and my mother once burnt the apartment down having fallen asleep with a candle lit. But for all I know it may have only been her dim memory, or a note in someone else's diary.

I guess war is like living on a reservation. You get used to the strangest things, you don't even stop to make a note. (Either of us could have said this, may have said it – there is no way of telling, the camera was off.) It flashes upon you only when you speak to a stranger, a microphone.

As the wind dies down he takes the lavalier off his shirt and pins it to mine. So, man to man, stranger to stranger. A European tripper to a live First Nation audience of one. About home.

Michael, it is the most beautiful land, it's the Ava Gardner of European countries (you know, pretty much all white), it's the jewel and the pearl and the clitoris of the body of Europe, it is all the aesthetic and sexual and ethereal and the cypress smell in gardens and cemeteries, and the scream of the crickets and the froth of the waters and the slow death of independent journalism and the swastikas on the facades and the clean waters of streams and rivers and waterfalls and cleaning the streets with drinking water and cleaning the language with holy water and the clean smiling faces of teenagers outside of churches collecting signatures to ban gay marriage, and mighty (but also mediocre) literature and marvelous (and also invisible) poetry; no money no food for stories and poems or the starving cats on the islands and the fat cats in the cities, well we have only one city, really; five Croatias can snugly fit into one Arizona, one-hundred-seventy-four Croatias into the one USA. But so beautiful, Michael, so beautiful. Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon – all of the forests, rivers and lands that were bought for peanuts and stolen by chickenpox, they have nothing on it, they've got nothing on Croatia.

You're such a nice guy, Michael. You speak softly and gently, and in the few sweltering hours that I've known you, you never once said a bad word – even when you spoke of the massacres and the tears and the exiles and the poverty and segregation, you never swore – and I know it wasn’t because of the camera, for the camera was off. But, this is the truth, Michael. When you ask me about my home, I have to swear – both my spirits are raging and spewing curses, for this fucked up place has been a mental sewer for years, decades, the war was just the beginning. A nationalist siege, a clerical occupation, the land sold off for faux pearls, to new millionaires, factories shut down, murderers for leaders, thieves for ministers. The old withering away and the young fleeing to Ireland to work at restaurants and garages even though they know no word of English. The language we are left here with is army green, and black and blue from the punches and the cusses; the dirty Marxist cunts and the cocksucking motherfucking partisans and the goddamned atheists and filthy faggots and degenerate dykes. With a rusty piece of homeland in their mouths, fat old tongues keep bleeding communism – even though, you see, the army and the communism have been dead for decades. (And how is one to speak about life in a dead language?) But, hey, look at me ramble on; what would a young Indian guy like you know about communism anyway? Same as a young Croatian guy, probably. Or a girl. (Or a two-spirit, really).

We are lost, Michael, I'm telling you. For all the technicolor beauty we have, for all the movie productions that are pouring in to shoot here, for all the millions of tourists and all the road tolls of all the toll roads in the land, we are lost. Yes, whatever we there ever was, is lost. The pieces of land we can still hold on to, our own reservations, are stories: in the cafés we read books, in the movie theatres (some still survive outside of shopping malls) we watch and listen and hang out and talk, and take notes for our diaries.

Our land is made of air, our days are made of fiction, much like it was during the war, because, Michael, the war here has never really ended.

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Mima Simić

is a writer, film critic and a political activist. She currently resides in Berlin.