I think it was because of the comedic value of my writing about football hooligans that Weicker sent me to Belgrade. My pieces on the fan wars between Manchester United and Manchester City for Bonkers —’The Online Pleasure-Dome for Young Men of All Ages’—magazine drew tens of thousands of hits, attracted lots of advertising, which made him all tumescent and giggly. Thus he called me from the head office in Barcelona, Spain and offered me a free trip home to my native land to cover the Derby in December.
“Nah,” I said. “The thing of it is that all that is long ago has been and gone.”
“Well, the thing is, like, all that crazy street fighting shit was sectarian.” He grunted again. “United were a Roman Catholic team with nothing but Catholic players.”
“And you supported them?”
“Right. And we hated Shitteh, who were Pro-Pros.”
“Manchester City. We wear red. They wear sky-blue. Protestant. Catholic. Hate. Sectarian war. You’d give up your life to steal a Shitteh scarf. But,” I say, “that’s all over now.”
And I go on to explain that City (a/k/a Shitteh) are now owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi. The crown jewel of the United Arab Emirates while United are owned by property millionaires from Tampa, who look like a gang of Jewish leprechauns. It’s all about worldwide television property rights and replica shirt sales. I explain how United bought a way past-it Bastian Schweinsteigger for seven million pounds and then flogged 25 million ‘Schweini’ shirts in the next six days. I’m blubbering on about United on the stock market and the club being worth more than the New York Yankees when he interrupts me.
“So isn’t there somewhere where hooligans exist?”
“Yeah,” I say, and I start thinking about Corfu and pulchritudinous German girls topless on the white beaches, “Athens.”
“I don’t like the Greeks.”
”You asked a question. I answered.”
United-versus-Liverpool is pathetic, so you’ve got the Arsenal and Spurs, the knife culture in Istanbul when Galatasaray and Fenerbahce go at it and I can tell gory tales about being stabbed in the right buttock by a screaming Turk with the glimmering green neck of a broken bottle.
Then it hits me. I’m back there, at the Franz Ferdinand hotel on Jetíca, drunk on a wash of sugary Slivovicz out of my mate Slob’s basement, double-vision-staring at bamboo-framed pictures of the Archduke and his bride. The Great War in memory. Thousands of framed photos and rotogravures of Sarajevo as ground zero for the most beautiful loser of all, the failed nation-state of Yugoslavia. The rip-roar of graphite-tipped bullets from snipers’ bullets. It’s very bizarre, but the Bosnians—whatever their ethnic loyalties and bred-in-the-marrow ambivalence— can cite the most obscure trivia on this great historical disaster, whether it’s about Franz-Josef, the Archduke and his ruddy, chipmunk-cheeked bride or the Serb hero/assassin, Gavrilo Principe. Bullets pinging like pinballs. A sense memory so specific and relentless that it’s come back to me in the midst of the sex act or while I’ve been lecturing to journo majors. Something akin to the ghost of an amputated leg, I’m guessing, or lifting a corpse’s dead weight, which I’m not guessing about at all. Sarajevo giving me its siren call.
“Belgrade,” I say, “it’s like Tombstone. Red Star against Partizan. Fights. Stabbings. Maniac cops. Fucking brilliant. And cheap.”
“Really? The woman grow beards there under their arms, right?”
“Sure,” I say. And I can tell he’s going to bite. “Absolutely.”
So, six weeks later. I’m supposed to be in Belgrade, but instead I’m surreptitiously ensconced in the Ottoman section of Sarajevo on the Baskarija, having dinner with my old mucker-cum-lover Slavenka at the Deveri restaurant on the Proke Bakovica, staring up at the stars through the glass-roofed terrace, stuffing my face at Weicker’s expense on Deveri steak, which is this fantastic smoked, thin-rolled veal accompanied by grilled eggplant and cheese. I haven’t seen stars in years. Chicago is too polluted.
Slavenka has the same ol’ same ol’ habits. Gnawing at her cuticles. Her hazel eyes now own dark mini-saddlebags underneath, but her dark Slavic beauty still both arouses me and fills me with an awkward nostalgia, which, a little voice tells me, is not good. Half-Serb/half-Bosnian Moslem, she owns the best shit detector for political and military spin I’ve ever encountered. Willfully unmarried in a macho universe, she still struts around their version of city hall in nine-inch, ankle-strapped stiletto fuck-me shoes and transposes a multiplicity of thespian personas to suit the narcissistic egoismo of whichever frail male ego is the subject of the day. I heard Gwen Ifill say she wears too much makeup, but I say: “When in Sarajevo..” If I hadn’t had her around to wipe my tuchis, box my ears and koegle my overeducated brains out, I’d have starved or been sent home in disgrace, back doing police blotter articles on Friday nights at Cook County.
We finish and walk. Promenade down Obala Kulina band, the old Appel Quay. It’s the broad boulevard that’s the sum parallel to Dealer Plaza. We stop by the Latin Bridge and turn onto Zeleni Okotki and turn right on the very spot where, on June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Principe, shot the Archduke. And just at the moment my lovely Slavenka lets loose a muffled kind of animal moan, before placing all fingers over her ruddy lips.
“Jagic,” she says. “I just saw Jagic.”
And off goes the rolodex in my brain. Milutin Jagic, former goalkeeper for FK Sarajevo and Werder Bremen. Arkan’s favorite. The Butcher of Zvornik. Lantern-jawed, 6’4”. A Bosnian-Serb Clark Kent. I had sat with him once in a tavern on the Drina in a village painted brown, like a miniature Hershey, PA, with a paramilitary commander named Vojislav Seseli and listened to them, as, well oiled with Bushmill’s and Hacker-Pschorr chasers, they boasted about the number of Moslems they had “sent to have a nice chat with Allah!” When another man showed up at our table with three behemoth bodyguards, a Mr.Raznatovic, I was struck by the absence of mouth in all six. Not a lip in sight, just deep-set eyes that looked like somebody had jammed moist dried prunes deep into their oblong craniums. It was I recall, Slobodan Milosevic’s birthday. “Zivjeli, Slobodan!” we toasted. “Zivjeli!”
“Daa li izgledam kao da se glup?” she says, which means something like: ‘Do I look stupid?’
“Well, you all look alike,” I laugh.
Slavenka laughs, too, but I’m thinking of the war. The war here which never leaves me, like the mortar shells, the double-concussion snap of howitzers and sniper fire across the Milijacka. My translator friend Stojko talking Heine with me as we dodged through the streets, close to the walls, like a pair of rats. Sprinting across the Voijvode Putnika accompanied the familiar rattle of automatic splat from AK-47s. Winded, we light up our Drina cigarettes. I am guessing, but I think it was the zippo lighter that the sniper zeroed in on. All I remember, simultaneously, was a keening noise from Stojko and a wet explosion as his brains flew into my eyes and splattered bloody wet all over my face.
“It was Arkan we had dinner with. Zeljko Ratnatovic.” Even his watch was cammy, I remembered. The two of us, poisoned by nostalgia. Still too close for comfort to be anything healing or comedic.
“The United Nations has a ten million euro price on his head.” she says.
So we walked back to the hotel with our hands clutched tight. The white noise of memory and depression. The béte noir’s teeth are sharp.