From Budapest to Belgrade is eight hours. You travel along the Pannonian plain; the great plain of Hungary; Transdanubia; the westernmost steppe in Europe; all flatlands and fields, and the heat doesn’t let up in your non-air-conditioned compartment, as you pass by dusty, flyblown villages with sweep-wells in a sea of wheat and cornfields.
At the border to Serbia a burly border guard took my passport.
“No visa,” he said, coldly hostile. “Where is visa?”
“No one told me at the American embassy in Berlin I needed a visa,” I said.
“You will come with me.”
The guard took me off the train and brought me to a sparsely furnished room where a cop with a bristly haircut and red face stuck out his hand, took my passport and rifled through the pages, cigarette in mouth.
“Where you going?” he demanded.
“Belgrade,” I said.
The cop snorted.
“Tourist,” I said.
The cop gave me a long hard stare and snorted again,
I handed him my money. The cop smoked his Drina right down to its flimsy filter, crushed it swiftly in the Bakelite ashtray, and smacked down a rubber stamp on my passport, sliding it towards me as though pushing away something distasteful.
“Welcome in Srbija,” he said.
The train rolled on through the ethnically mixed Vojvodina, home to twenty-six nationalities, so they said. Stand on a pumpkin and you can see all of Vojvodina, they said. Dull, dry and neglected pastel-colored facades adorned with curious decorations and ornaments, crowns and cherubs. Subotica, Novi Sad. Fascist graffiti on the walls. Slogans of football hooligans. The Serbian cross and four Cyrillic s’s meaning Samo Sebe Spase Srbija (only Serbia saves itself), which I would see everywhere in Belgrade, reproduced on flags, T-shirts, displayed on restaurant bills. Another piece of graffiti proclaiming, “Ovde je Srbija”. Here is Serbia.
We traveled ever south through bland, featureless landscape. Shepherds tending sheep along the railway line. Old women burning sticks in a field. A pellucid Balkan light as the limitless space gave way to imminent blue mountains in the distance. The feeling of having traveled long distances by train. A sense of the curvature of the globe. The mighty Danube.
At the time of the Ottoman conquests, the Vojvodina was a morass of marshy wastes and riparian swamps, inhabited by a steadily and drastically declining population. There was little agriculture and most of the inhabitants raised livestock. The Romans had cleared the vast ancient forests. It had always been a backwards region with only a smattering of Roman towns and townships. The kings of Hungary had ignored it. The Turks made no attempt to colonize it.
In 1456 Fatih Sultan Mehmet II stormed up the Danube with his battle- hardened army of veterans, heroes of Constantinople and Sofia. His objective was Belgrade, roughly the midpoint between Istanbul and Vienna, where the main roads from the south to the north met, the key to all Central Europe, named by the Ottomans Dar-ne-jihad, “Battlefield of Holy War’, and known to us as Belgrade, the White City. The army was repulsed and Belgrade didn’t fall to the Turks till 1521. What followed was nearly 300 years of Turkish occupation, during which time Belgrade languished under the green flag as an Ottoman pashalik. To this day, Belgrade, in its food, music, architecture, its shapelessness and confusion, language and vaguely Oriental mentality of its inhabitants bears traces of its former Turkish domination.
Belgrade was the last bastion of Turkey in Europe, warlike, soldierly, caparisoned. As a consequence it had a stern and ferocious air about it. Whenever the Ottoman army approached from the south-east, at least every other year, officers arrived to shut up the wine shops in advance; the soldiery gathered in Zeman, this side of the Sava. Here armies coming from Anatolia met the armies coming up the Danube and forces mustered elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, like the fearsome Tatars of Crimea. Civilians were called to attention in the street; many earned their livelihood from serving the army, sewing, mailing, butchering. Belgrade had a through and through martial demeanor.
During the campaign to take Vienna in 1682 Mehmet IV led the Ottoman army as supreme commander as far as the Danube and at the White Castle of Belgrade ceded authority to the Kara Mustafa, the Grand Vizier, handing him the potent symbol of authority – the holy banner of the Prophet Muhammad. And it was here at Belgrade that the Grand Vizier, after the crushing defeat of Ottoman forces at the gates of Vienna a year later, submitted stoically to Mehmet IV’s death warrant, upon which he was, by decree, strangled painlessly by a silken cord, wielded by two executioners, his head stripped of its skin and stuffed with dry straw, and sent to the sultan, a grisly trophy.
And there it was by and by, looming ahead of me like the Promised Land: Belgrade, the White City, Singidunum, as the Romans called it, rearing up on a bluff, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, a messy conglomeration of grey architecture in the distance, the Battelstar Galactica socialist architecture of Novi Belgrade, weather-stained, some skyscrapers smoke-blackened and bomb damaged from the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. It was, as Serb writer Momo Kapor writes, “that dramatic Belgrade sky that resembles a huge celestial battleground”. “Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world in the most beautiful place,” wrote Le Corbusier. Below it stood the Gypsy shantytown of Gazela along the railway tracks, near the rubbish tip, where naked Gypsy children caked in dust romped among cardboard boxes and stray dogs skirmished in rat-alleys between lean-to shacks banged together with old boards and corrugated metal with car tires on the roofs holding down plastic sheeting, everything huddled there in tentative agreement, and no electricity or water. Around Belgrade there were 153 Roma settlements, many having only two or three hundred people. 96 of these settlements were illegal, literally squatted communities, slums, shanty towns, scenes recalling the favelas of Brazil, out of place in Europe. But then again, this was a different Europe. Hardly Europe. Balkan Europe, the border between East and West, the last stop eastwards towards Asia.
It was Europe and it wasn’t Europe, a place “destined,” wrote the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, St Sava, to be “the East on the West and the West on the East.” Geographically it was Europe, but culturally it was the East. Telling perhaps was that when Serbs said they were embarking on trips to the West, to Berlin, Vienna, or Paris, they said they were “going to Europe”, as though Europe were something else and they were beyond the pale. There were political parties in Serbia that promised to bring Serbia “to Europe” as though plainly Serbia existed outside its confines.
Serbia was still a country withdrawn, distant, separated. Milošević had been removed from power in October 2000, but the country was still balked up by moldy communist structures. A judicial reform had yet to occur; old organized crime networks were still in place, protected by the powers that be; diverse secret service organizations and their loyal armed cadres remained intact and resistant to scrutiny.
Belgrade station at dusk. A faded yellow building, the color of Austro-Hungarian empire. Conscripts in military uniform carrying luggage make their way to busses and waiting cabs. Cab drivers try to hustle and corral travelers. Outside the station a barrage of touts offers to change money. A Gypsy brass band sits on the steps waiting for someone with a wedding to organize. It’s a warm evening. The air is balmy you could kiss it. Prowl cars drive by and policemen stand on corners on the look out for gangsters on the lam. The neon on the rooftops of buildings blinks and flickers and I make my way up the uneven pavement of Balkanska Ulica lugging my rucksack, breathing the poisonous exhaust and looking at Europe with new eyes.