gypsies, roma, kosovo

Whispering Rings

Rezijana with Remzija and her children

The battle of wits starts. So far, all we really know about what is happening was a sort of message in a bottle... Now each of us must try to guess the other's secret. 

We are all seated on the sofas. 

Reska makes the first move, showing off her gold and speaking of an imaginary fiance of hers in the Italian police; but what is most surprising is how she was able to obtain a Croatian visa. The message is, I may be small and a woman, but I have resources that you cannot even imagine. 

Kadri calls in his friend Medo. Medo, tall and bull-necked, his long hair bound up in a pigtail, comes in pretending to be drunk and sits near us in order to listen to what Reska and I tell each other. He does not want us to know that he understands Italian, but he is so proud that he soon lets the secret out. 

I make the third move. I simply pretend not to know a word of Serbian, Croatian, Romanè or Albanian. Mysterious and innocent at the same time, while Reska says I am a colleague of her supposed fiance, and that we both came to attend an international conference in Ljubljana. When she explains to me what she told him, I smile  without denying, and ask her to make it clear that my range of operations does not cover Croatia and that I am here simply on holiday. Later, I  vaguely say that I work for "the State". This foreigner may well be lying, thinks Kadri, but it is best to keep on the safe side: nothing good ever came of killing a policeman. However, although this strategy helps to protect me, I have to be careful not to frighten Kadri too much before we have thought up a good plan. 

Kadri in the meantime fills the room with his allies: his sister, his brother, his brother-in-law, his father and the gloomy figure of his mother: light skin and blue eyes, a cruel face and straight shoulders, she walks with a true stick -  a heavy and knotted branch. As she watches silently, Kadri's following takes out beer bottles and starts drinking. The children have been driven out with a shout, but a small girl comes running in to give Kadri a glass, and then disappears. 

Remzija appears. Politely, she serves us tea and coffee - how the Islamic world resembles itself everywhere. She speaks little, but when she does, she laughs and jokes. Although there is something desperate in her expression, she is surprisingly beautiful and slender, with the dark skin, the fascinating eyes and the strong body of her brothers. It is impossible to imagine that she has had six children. She cooks, picks her children up in her arms and seems to be a happy wife. I find it impossible to guess what is in her heart. 

Languages overlap, each marked by symbols of fear and power. Medo challenges Reska on the slippery and secret ground of Romanè. My friend speaks Serbian, and the enemies reply by slightly changing the speach into the dominant language of a victorious Croatia. Then they all move over to a noisy Italian. I speak with Reska in Italian, spied upon by Medo, and I speak with the others in German. Suddenly, as we are eating, Reska asks me to say out loud some verses from the Qur'an, in Arabic. Arabic is the most powerful of all languages, but they bend and sweeten it with Turkish sounds. Suddenly I, the stranger, insensitive and ignorant, show that I possess the very heart of Islam. Triumphant, Reska tells everybody that her ally knows every language, it is his job. In this war of Islamic piety, Kadri tries to counterattack: he has an uncle who went to study "in Arabia" twenty years ago. Where, I ask politey - Mecca? Al-Azhar? Kadri is forced to admit that he does not know. 

Darkness falls in that house without light or water. In the twilight, I can make out the faces of our adversaries and of the children, frightened and quiet, but curious. The generator they put on is unreliable - the light goes on and off. 
Kadri and I start speaking in German. He takes me outside, to see his horse, his cow and his car. The enormous factory chimney is lit up and the full moon reflects on the swamp... later, I would hear tales about how bodies disappeared into the water without leaving any trace. 

He claims he spent thirteen thousand marks for his Passat car, which, he says, he bought "from a police inspector." Then he begins to complain of having to work at night, sweeping the streets and earning an amount which changes at each breath: nine-hundred, six-hundred, three-hundred marks a month. 

That night, I have the living room all to myself. I sleep on a mattress on the floor, with a sheet and an eiderdown. In the cupboard, behind a light curtain, the Qur'an, and outside the large window, a thick mist lit by the moon. 

Reska and Remzija are under constant surveillance. The relatives follow them like shadows. Midnight goes by, as does one o'clock, and finally they go to bed - but Kadri's brother lies down near them, pretending to sleep. In the dark, Reska puts her hand out and feels a body: is it her sister or her enemy? Her fingers slide along a hand until she recognizes Remzija's golden rings. Then, more by touch than by whispers, Remzija tells Reska the truth.  
Kadri's animals are not just his cow, his car or his horse. His woman too is an animal, who for eleven years has cleaned his house. For eleven years, he has beat her in his drunken nights. For eleven years, he has procreated children on her body. Not so much out of passion, as to get state subsidies for numerous families. At night, Kadri does not clean the streets, but leads his prostitute out to pasture. We later heard that Kadri had also knifed one woman and raped another. He now lives with his prostitute, who however is in gaol at the moment. Every night, Kadri beats his wife with his strong fists. For three weeks, he had kept her a prisoner in a room, Kadri's mother feeding her secretly. 

Remzija's last child was born just a few months ago. As soon as she ceases giving it milk, Kadri has decided to send her out on the streets too, chained down by the blackmail of the children and by threats of physical violence. To prevent her from fleeing, there is not only the distance that lies between Misheveçka and Planet Earth: Kadri's animals are looked over by his six brothers, plus his father and mother, plus Medo and his eight brothers; and to close off every possibility, Kadri has also burned Remzija's papers. She cannot cross any border, she has nowhere to hide in Croatia and if she goes to the police, they will send her back home until she gets herself new papers.  

Every narrative is imperfect, and affected by countless factors. But in the end, we have to choose whether we prefer the official story, or the direct story of the victim when he or she dares to speak, despite the tremendous costs involved.   

Kadri, without running any risk, expectably says that his family lives in the best of all possible worlds. Remzija, whispering in fear at night, tells her sister that she lives in hell. And she has nothing to gain by saying so. 

It is up to us to decide whether we prefer to listen to the oppressors or to the oppressed. 

[You can also read an   article of mine about the close relationship between this story and the issue of so-called "destructive cults"]. 


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