Searching for multicultural El Dorado
by Goran Janev
Since April last year I have a desk in a nice office with huge window overlooking a trimmed lawn and huge old nut tree at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. From this serene place, with all the freedom to decide where to continue my research, I opted for Macedonia again. This time I'm looking at the Old Bazaar in Skopje. Stara Charshija, or Turska Charshija, or the 'Turkish Bazaar' as we used to call it, is one of the largest in the Balkans. During my undergraduate studies my parents had a ceramic studio and gallery in the middle of the Charshija. It was a long before I noticed that I was absorbed by the Charshija, how my feet glided over the slippery cobblestone, how my eyes got used seeing behind corners of the winding streets of this centuries old labyrinth. It was a time of great transition from socialism to capitalism, breaking away from the federation into independent statehood, of starting to use Macedonian denar paper notes instead of Yugoslav dinari, a hard time overall. "It has gotten so bad that it cannot get any worse", was the mantra of hope those days in the Charshija. I am going back there now searching for the multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual environment that existed in the past and could be, in its particular ways, representative of the Macedonian model of cross-cultural communication and mutual adaptability. Or is there another story that the Charshija will tell me?
My quest to find the multicultural El Dorado continuously gets diverted by ethno-nationalist detours. There is a great symbolic reconstruction of the national capital underway. Over the next year, humongous monuments representing the glorious national past of Macedonia - presented to concern ethnic Macedonians only - will plague the public spaces in the central area of the capital. Perhaps the most absurd one is the proposal made by the local government official, the Mayor of the Centar municipality in the City of Skopje, concerning a monument to Alexander the Great. This is rumored to be of gargantuan proportions, to be erected in the middle of a musical fountain that would play the songs of Tose Proeski (the most famous Macedonian pop singer who lost his life in car accident less than two years ago). This compromise solution for a singing Alexander is a reaction to an online survey in which fans of the tragically killed singer provided more votes for a monument to Proeski than for Alexander riding his legendary horse Bucefalus. These blatant manifestations of nationalist politics are juxtaposed with the everyday encounters of Macedonian citizens who still live, or at least remember, mutual respect and cordiality among members of multiple ethnic groups. These patterns are now increasingly replaced with restraint and mistrust.
We know a kind of multicultural El Dorado did exist here - old-timers in the Bazaar certainly still describe it (and other records of the distant and not-so distant past attest that this is not merely nostalgic re-imagination). The hard times are even harder now and the Charshija shows it. "It has never been worse and will hardly get any better" was a newer mantra repeated to me in desperation during my current fieldwork in the Charshija. Hope is worn-out among the older craftsmen, who are fewer and fewer, among ruined and collapsing shops. But there are new arrivals in the bazaar - Macedonians, Turks, Albanians - who bring their own reinterpretations of the Charshija. It remains to be discovered whether and how everyday multiculturalism will still exist under the stones of new nationalist monuments, within the forest of new ethnic-exclusivist policies and the through the blizzard of ethno-political campaigns.