“I think Hannah Arendt did say somewhere in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the thesis of the modern state is: ‘Everyone should die.’” –Suffled How it Gush (pg. 74)
I have joked with my friends that I have a certain amount of angst regarding my future as any sort of “real” academic (read: employed). Mostly it stems from the fact that I often don’t feel my ideas sufficiently “sophisticated.” Since I have begun earnestly researching Balkan and Bosnian politics, in particular, the general tenor of my analysis has been “assholes are ruining it for everyone.” I’m not sure how many journals or publishers consider this an “appropriate” thesis.
My second trip to Cyprus has, in most ways, only confirmed these views, though. The Turkish military still has their daily artillery drills which rattle one’s teeth—a bored, vicarious, perpetual war with an imagined enemy of undetermined identity. The trafficking of women is still a public “secret” in the internationally unrecognized “North”, though it is an issue across the island. And, of course, the elites (the aforementioned assholes) of all the “relevant” parties still go to great lengths to assure one another that reconciliation or even constructive dialogue is impossible, if not in rhetoric then certainly in practice.
Yet an ongoing occupation of the main pedestrian crossing between the two “halves” in the joint-capital of Nicosia (in the UN-administered “buffer zone”) would suggest otherwise. Everyday acts of resistance, of co-operation by average people as a contrast to the official, chauvinist line. History as a repository of gifts for those interested in genuine, organic expressions of “people(s) power” and not history as a holding tank of real and imagined injustices, mobilized to justify, to excuse, to promote murder and robbery. What the established literature calls “state building.”
Tucked under my arm for most of this trip has been a copy of the second edition of Shon Meckfessel’s Suffled How it Gush: A North American Anarchist in the Balkans. It is an enlightening, inspiring, frustrating, hilarious and tragic memoir of a California punker tracing his way through the former Yugoslavia, and several adjoining Balkan states (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania). The somewhat puzzling title itself derives from a bizarre description on a bottle of Albanian mineral water the author comes across: “Suffled how it gush from the source of the woods of Tepelena.” Amongst the piles of tedious, “definitive” “social porn” (pg. vii) which has marked the majority of the literature on the Balkans (frequently invoking ghosts, wars, ancient, hatred and other quasi-mystified jargon in their titles alone) Gush is self-consciously a different book.
Equal parts travel diary, political manifesto, social anthropology and history Gush is an account I first read/inhaled about two years ago, wide eyed, as it was the first text I had encountered which merged my twin interests of anarchism and the Balkans. Meckfessel’s stories are premised on showing a different view of the Balkans; not as the domain of bloodthirsty barbarians, entombed in their own history, but rather as the land of a peoples betrayed by both their own leaders and the international community who then came to “save them”—and their struggles to survive since.
As such, it is a good companion piece to Don’t Mourn: Balkanize! which I have reviewed previously. While Balkanize is much more of a manifesto, in many respects, Gush is an account of the actual lived experience to which the former appeals and makes frequent reference to. The Balkans as a place of incredible radical political potential; the dream of highland bandits, the Balkan Federation, of Yugoslavia, of the anti-fascist struggle and of worker’s self management. An ancient history of cross-cultural pollination, a modern history of revolutionary optimism—and the struggle against the opportunistic chauvinism of tin-pot tyrants.
Meckfessel slips seamlessly from the absurd to the profound, his book is essentially a series of “episodes” more than a coherent narrative, per se. Here he is teaching English to Roma kids in Kosov@ (a name he coins to circumvent the nationalist hair splitting over Kosovo vs. Kosova). Now he is fleeing neo-Nazi skinheads at Zagreb’s first Gay Pride parade. Then debating the merits of NATO’s bombing of Serbia with other anarchists in Belgrade. Now coming to grips with the extent and scale of the mass rape campaign in Bosnia, disputing the historical revisionism of Serb-nationalist apologists in Britain and the US. Then in a mosh pit, a dingy basement, a rave, a bus, a train, a field…
It’s a surreal journey. Meckfessel’s striking references to critical, radical and anti-nationalist voices and authors is only superseded by the comical, inspiring and tragic multitude of local characters he encounters. Self-identified anarchists and radicals are here often frustratingly reactionary in their views, while hardened nationalists often reveal a surprising, conciliatory humanity. Contradictions abound, in a world turned upside down, several times over.
Occasionally the author makes problematic claims—like his assertion that former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović authored a text which advocated “turning Bosnia into an Islamic theocracy” (pg. 6). The Islamic Declaration, the text in questions, makes no such claims, nor does it ever even mention Bosnia, and is instead a fairly straightforward treatise on modernization from an avowedly Muslim perspective. Yet such instances are few and far between and one can forgive them when considering the broader thrust of the book.
More often than not, the author is revealed to be as someone genuinely attempting to make sense of horrors piled high, of hope still defiant and the absurdity of daily life in between. Gush is, in this sense, not merely a good book, but a book for good. What appears at first as, merely, as a trek through the grimy sub-culture of the Balkan punk scene is in time revealed to be a trek through the fertile, albeit difficult, terrain of societies simultaneously collapsing and renewing themselves. These are stories of peoples burdened by myths, by war, by unspeakable crimes. And yet they are also the stories of friendship, of hope and resistance.
For those of us concerned about assholes ruining it for everyone, counter-narratives are especially important; hearing the “everyone” or “everyone else”, rather, speak their piece. Gush is a collection of just such efforts and, as a result, an immensely valuable chronicle. A worthwhile read for punks and non-punks, Balkanistas and non-Balkanistas alike.
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