Born in the harbor-city of Durrës, Albania, during the communist regime, Arian Leka (1966) belongs to the group of those authors who appeared in the forefront of the artistic creativity after the opening of the Albanian borders. He is author of eighteen books, numerous scientific articles and a monography devoted to the hidden avant-gardes literary, modernism and socialist realism in Albania and in other former socialist countries. Many of his books have been translated and published in foreign languages, like German, English, French, Serbian, Croatian, Romanian, Macedonian and Bulgarian. Arian Leka has received several important national and international awards. He is Doctor in Literary Science and a Researcher at the Academy of Albanological Studies.
Inside the circles of a secret recipe
By Arian Leka
Standing on the Balkan Peninsula, any “Europeanized” mind would be struck by the huge number of controversies and ethnic trouble spots that abound in its areas. Historically, the people on this small Peninsula have almost always tried to conceptualize their own space and existence in the light of both ethnic/linguistic diversities and religious/cultural differences met among them. This is one of the main reasons why “identity” appears to be even today the dominant feature of the Balkan discursiveness.
Despite the striking diversities and differences, however, there are a huge number of common things among Balkan people. Especially a delicacy.
It is a dish called CHORBA.
Trying to make it clearer to some who are not familiar with the Balkans, it is necessary to explain as brieﬂy and succinctly as possible what CHORBA means and what it is.
CHORBA is a sort of pottage soup; almost all of the Balkan people know how to cook it very well and with a creative heart. The Balkan people can cook it even better than the Persians or Turkish who cooked it originally.However, would you think that cooking CHORBA would be quite a difﬁcult enterprise? Not really, I presume. But I am not sure. Allow me to share with you how to proceed. These are the ingredients you will need to prepare and cook a typical Balkan CHORBA:
two tablespoons of misunderstanding; one kitchen spoon of contempt; one teaspoon of offence and predominance; two or three slices of chauvinism and grandiosity self-feeling; one measure of extremism and some national egoism; some collective madness and intolerance; some paradoxes that are to substitute the kitchen herbs; and a few ghosts (for as you know, my beloved, in the Balkans there are more ghosts than habitants).
Since long ago, CHORBA has been one of the most common dishes offered by the Balkan kitchen. Every time they cook a delicious CHORBA, Balkan people have a great desire to share it with some special guests, friends, or alter egos across Europe.
For CHORBA is a sort of a mystic dish, therefore it can never be enjoyed in solitude. To prepare a good CHORBA is easy enough; you do not need any special skills, abilities, or technical knowledge. Just put it on a low ﬁre, mix it slowly for several minutes, and soon it will be ready to consume. One should wait though, until it reaches some large, perfect, massive Circles, similar to the Archimedean Circles.
Oh, you know, Archimedes liked Circles. There are even some who say that he perished his own life because of them. Dante Alighieri also liked Circles. A modern human being feels as lucky. Many choices he faces.
He is free to live within the perfect Circles of Archimedes or within those horrible Circles of Dante, or even further, within our sodden CHORBA. There are no reasons for us to complain. All of these Circles are liveable. All nations feel great when being inside them.
And everyone feels as good being into them. The golden rule here is as simple as it can be: just stay in your own Circle. That’s, all folks!
Getting any idea to trample the Circle under foot results in a crazy adventure.
Anyway, I would like to share with you the hypothesis that dwelling inside the Circles of our daily CHORBA makes an amusing and delightful experience far more than when dwelling within the Circles of Archimedes or Dante.
We know that as a matter of fact. We are living witnesses to it. It is indeed a biomeal. With this sort of CHORBA, full of prejudices and injustice, we feed our kids just in the manner that Paul Celan in ‘Todesfuge’ recommends us to drink the black milk of the dayspring –every day, every morning, every evening.
Inside our CHORBA one lives well and quite happy, perfectly matching, like a puzzle’s particle in its proper place, Albanians together with Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins, Vlachos, and all their Romanity. Croatians together with Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, and their Italians. Macedonians together with Albanians, Bulgarians, today Romanians, and their Turkish. Slovene together with Serbs, Croatians, Roma, and their Italians. Greeks together with Albanians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Romanians, and their Russians. Bosnians together with Serbs and their Croatians. Montenegrins together with Serbs, Bosnians, and their Albanians. Serbians together with Hungarians, Roma, and their Bosnians. Turkish together with Kurds, Bosnians, Albanians, and their Georgians. Bulgarians together with Turks and their Romanians. Kosovos together with their Serbs. Romanians together with Moldavians and their Bulgarians too.
God bless us all! We all are excellent citizens. Do you know why? It is because the Circle takes care of us. It protects us from the others and from ourselves. The Circles, indeed, would be our mentors, our Maecenas, or our Muses.
Nevertheless, some day one might come to an epiphany, afterwards asking him some questions. What does it mean to be not such a good man? What does it mean to not be a good Albanian in Croatia, for instance? Or what does it mean not to be a good Greek in Albania, a good Serbian in Kosovo, a good Italian in Slovenia? Furthermore, what does it mean not to be a good Turk in Bulgaria, a good Croatian in Bosnia, a good Hungarian in Serbia, or a good Albanian in Montenegro?
Perhaps, I wonder, Arthur Schopenhauer was right when he argued over the great importance of the opinion one has about himself! The same importance, nonetheless, lies in the others’ opinions over you. So far, we have been inclined to live our lives according to the presumptions we have for others. By the way, do you know what an Albanian in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, or Macedonia is? Think about what the common visualizations would be in this case. An Albanian in Croatia would be a person that lives as an Emperor of Ice-Cream, a Pasha of Sweets, or the craftsman of golden rings and ornaments. At this point we face the opinion of a good Albanian when referring to such ﬁelds. But, what would it be if one day he changes his mind and goes to the university and so study to become, let us say, a lecturer or a judge? Nothing happens. Nothing changes. Of course, he can do it. For we are gentlemen, are we not? Highclass citizens, that is what we are. Although everyone knows inside that the Circles begin to move and shiver and the Emperor of the Ice-Cream misses the Circle and it seems that he is not in his right position.
A Bosnian in Albania, the so-called muhajir, or a Turk in Bulgaria is an excellent fellow citizen, while he keeps digging the ground or works as a carpenter or a blacksmith. But, if one day she/he switches his mind and likes to become a teacher for Albanian or Bulgarian children, than she/he is instantly prejudiced …
Where does all of this come from? Well, from our injured Circles, of course. An Albanian in Ulcinj remains a good fellow as long as he sleeps through winter and sings old pirate songs. Though, if he wants to publish a newspaper or complete an ABC book in the Albanian language, than he has shown us that he cannot be that same nice untroubled good old fellow he used to be. Further on, a Serb in Mitrovica might be as good as a person with whom one might drink a cup of shlivovicaor watch a soccer match on television. Furthermore, we will ﬁnd a concealed, but pleasant smack rhyme among Mitrovica and shlivovica. Although, one should remember that in such situation no words such as independence, war, or Ivo Andrić are to be pronounced. This makes a fair rule which conditions such company.
The same can be said for a Roma that abandons his corner shop and wishes to create a political party or for a Kurdish that wants to open a small souvenir shop in Turkey; for an Albanian girl in Italy that quits being a dressmaker and likes to found her own fashion studio; for a Romanian in Greece who, after being a doulós (servant) for 10 years, wants to open his own shop and so becoming an afendikós (attendant) – for him perhaps the dance of ZORBA will transform into the dance of CHORBA!, directed and orchestrated by Circles.
A Kosovo man in Belgrade who wishes to open a bookstore, does not recognize that this would make him look as funny as an Englishman who prefers to have a tea while surrounded by coffee drinkers. There are several occasions when we haste the Circles for each other, creating the national–ethnic professions.
All of us might respectively come up with thousands of examples, more chilling than mines, of what happens when someone forgets about the Circles. The Circle might be an international one as well. Let me give you one last example. A few years ago, in my country, we used to refer to Chechens as a class of people that were not from Chechnya. These were Albanian people who lived in some rural areas of Albania and who migrated towards the big cities so they could ﬁnd a better living and improve their lifestyle.
In referrence to one of Constantine Cavafy’s poems, they were our “barbarians”. Other than “And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?”, can we live so pure, without “the evil that comes to us from the others”, which could be better or worse than us, but never as we are?
My trouble is that I have more questions than answers. Maybe it is not a basic task of the poet to give answers and explain, because as I believe, the poet is not a huntsman of calamity, who supports wear on land to wiretap ﬂaws on which sprout the grass of his inspiration. (Probably, but hidden deep, probably hidden depth, to the prose writer or a philosopher, such a situation is welcome and it is understandable why.) He can see, hear, feel, and smell himself better, as a part not extraordinary of human ordinary.
At the same time, the man, the modern one and the primitive man inside him, remains symbiosly a builder – constructive and destructive – a self-destructive creature. He is a vanquisher and a punitive being – made as the copy of his God by the Old Holy Testament.
Are ours, are human production, made by heart, soul, hand, the masterpieces of art, the wars, the short peace intervals between conﬂicts, the misunderstandings, the silences and meditations, the shame, the languages and dialects, the despair, the utopias, the dissatisfaction, the love, the personal and planetary loneliness, the major failures, successes interim, contrariness, and self-conﬁdence that makes us ask ourselves that, even after thousands of years as Homo Sapiens and Homo Faber, we feel again in a childish stage of human life.
But any time is our Time, made carefully by the hand of artiﬁciality. Almost half of the twentieth century, before and after the Second World War, went by thinking and experimenting, without knowing what we could ask more from life. But neither the philosophical movements, psychoanalysis, positivism, sociology, existentialism, phenomenology, anthropology, structuralism and poststructuralism, hermeneutics, nor feminism, Western Marxism, criticism, Left and Right, terrorism and antiterrorism, could show us that the world wants a hange, as always: be better through the mistakes.
Made strongly and artiﬁcially or carefully made by hand, any time will remain our Time. The clavier of Time and Life is so spacious and in it a poet only presses his keys, somewhere between the start and the end of the keyboard. The others, those who live in media res, those who undertake to make changes or to save the world, can explain or can do more.
However I am afraid that, to have this sort of dilemma, to have more questions than solutions, is not just a personal one, but for all our modern civilization of today, although this can be explained by the crisis that a man experiences in his forties, as I am.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante wrote these lines in the ﬁrst canto of Inferno. At this point of our life everything oscillates, not falling down. Maybe trees, not temples, are the best example for us and for our civilization. Safety, as it seems and sounds, is a euphemism.
A better and safe life looks like the carrot in front of the rabbit’s nose, which runs in perpetuity to get hold it. Will it be more meaningful perhaps to run than to get the carrot, as well as will it be better that Achilles never to pass the tortoise in Xeno’s paradox?
Now, at this point of our discussion, I want to come back to my argument. But I do not know why over and over again we live in ill feelings towards each other. In my language – Albanian – one of the feelings sounds Mëní (Rage)!
It sounds so old, wild, as a brute who roams freely through the wasteland and meadows of our world, as ancient breathing, as an ancient sigh, as it inﬂows from the Homeric age: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage! After all, let us meet in prayer and let us say: Our Father, that art in Heaven! Don’t give us our daily CHORBA Not today, nor ever! Amin! Амин! Αμήν! Amen!
But you …Stranger! To wise world say, her faithful band here live in piety, enjoying our Chorba, remembering its command…
The word chorba, by etymologic origin, springs from Persia. That word entered the Albanian language through the Turkish language. The ﬁrst meaning of it is soup, broth. The metaphorical meaning is a badly made dish; mishmash (synonym).
Paul Celan in ‘Todesfuge’ (Deathfugue): “Black milk of day-break we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink / we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped / A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes …”
Shlivovica (written form – šlivovica) is a local plum brandy produced in all former Yugoslavian countries.
In his famous poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Cavafy commented on the role that the arrival of the new rulers was supposedly to have: “And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? / Those people were some kind of solution.” The deliberately ﬂat ending parallels with T. S. Eliot’s last words in ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925): ”This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
A burlesque adaptation of a well-known epigram, of Simonides of Ceos in Thermopylae, forwarded to us by Herodotus.
Photo by Roland Tasho