The wit virus

“We should put a wit virus into the established system of ethnic, religious, language, and any other kind of exclusivism. This virus should empasize the little and seemingly irrelevant things, as opposed to the things that seem great, essential, historic.” Macedonian author Pajo Avirovic on how a joke goes along way in a society riven by ethnic tension.

“I like Bitola more than I like Skopje!” cried my wife, otherwise a foreigner in this country of ours, during our first visit together to the town below the Pelister national park. Now, I am not some conservative from Skopje. In all truth, being more beautiful than Skopje is not really a special recommendation for any town, least of all Bitola. Still, I demanded an explanation. The answer confused me and it got me thinking: “In Bitola there’s a mosque on the main street.”

This episode took me back some twenty odd years, when my decision to study orientalism in Sarajevo was welcomed with a barrage of questions from my friends and family. I didn’t have a logical answer then, and nor do I have it now. However, it is not really a question of logic, but of feeling, an innate feeling of curiosity that, ever since I was a small child, has forced me to poke around, to sense the horizons of the others, to make brief excursions into their worlds, to encounter different beliefs, fears, and hopes. I am a spiritual voyeur, but I’m not ashamed of this well-intended trespassing, which harms no one. It gives me the feeling of perpetual enrichment without possessing, perpetual giving without disfiguring.

I don’t know how the world would look with only nation, religion, or language, but I do know that I couldn’t live in such a world.

By the way, I met my wife of today during these studies, and when I look at it from this perspective, Bitola does indeed seem more beautiful than Skopje. Between you and me, studying orientalism was well worth my while for that reason alone.

I picked up some other useful things from orientalism. The Arab proverbs, for example. He who seeks shall find. It’s not exactly a great wisdom, is it? But how many of us are actually seeking? And if we are not seeking at all, what are we expecting to find? Do we know how to seek? Or are we waiting for someone else to serve us up our experience of the Other, like a sour dish that gives us stomachache?

I went to the town of Debar for the first time in my life in my mature years, upon the invitation of a colleague. A local Albanian, he had insisted more than once that he would like me as his guest. I kept finding excuses, and they were, more or less, good ones – any excuse not to go to Debar is a good excuse. Then I received an invitation I couldn’t refuse: “I am taking you to an Albanian wedding.” And there it was, that little mischief-maker in me, the one who has spent a lifetime roaming through the gardens of other people’s identities, trying to hit with a slingshot that little old man suffocating in the depths of indifference that is necessarily begotten in the puddle of familiarity. Yes, I went to Debar, to an Albanian wedding. I was the only Other there, the only one with a different name who spoke a different language.

How was it? What can I tell you? I felt really uncomfortable the whole evening. There seemed to be a competition going on to please me; my glass and my plate were always full, and, what’s more, people that until then had been speaking their own language, a language I did not understand, started speaking in my language.

The Bedouins are right: He who seeks shall find.

Still, life is something completely different, says the old little man in me, sitting in front of the television with legs outstretched, counting, like rosaries, the news programmes on the national television channels. But what exactly is life, the boy asks: is it predetermined, or do we have a choice? An open path or a closed circle?

It’s said that experience begets wisdom. I’m more inclined to believe in the naiveté of children. I refuse to become experienced. I want to stay naive.

Perhaps the child in me leads me to think that there is some secret connection between the words dusha and dushman. I know from university that dushman is of Persian origin and means foe. In my spiritual world, the word dusha (soul) is connected to the greatest human value: love. You can love yourself, but true love is love for someone else. The foe first exists in our soul, and only later in the neighbourhood. We need to throw out the foe from our soul in order for the neighbour to become what he or she is: a good, familiar face who may speak or pray in a different way, but who laughs and cries the same.

We all share the identical and undivided space of human insignificance and transience. The only comfort, and perhaps the only point in being, is rising above that space and roving in the spheres of the spiritual. There are no borders there. Nobody invades the space of the other, because spirituality is not something to be conquered or defended with weapons. On its peaks, nobody’s flag can be flown and nobody’s monument can be built. Visas are not required, nor is anyone interested in the name on an ID card. The spiritual is beyond time and space; that is why it is eternal.

In Turkish, the verb dushmek means “to fall”. That is yet another thing I remember from orientalism. The word dushmek has no etymological connection with the word dushman (foe), but in my world of analogies and associations it determines the latter’s very essence. Being somebody’s foe means to fall, to come crushing down, to vanish in the mire of listlessness.

The salvation lies within the soul. Where there is a soul, there are no foes and there is no dushmek, no falling.

How can we escape the foe within us, not to fall in the trap of bigotry, at a time when the issue of different identities is a planetary one? How can we save our souls from the foe lurking in each us?

I think that one of the greatest ways of rising above this mire of antagonism and into the heights of spirituality is through wit.

It’s simple really. We should put a wit virus into the established system of ethnic, religious, language, and any other kind of exclusivism. This virus should emphasize the little and seemingly irrelevant things, as opposed to the things that seem great, essential, historic.

In other words: Come on people, make jokes about differences, which are natural, although there are those who want, artificially, to turn them into a space where antagonism reigns. Is there anything more natural than wit, even where the “deadly seriousness” of these questions is concerned?

I recall an example from Sarajevo before the war, at a time when stressing differences between people who had lived together for centuries inevitably led to confrontation. One day, graffiti appeared on the main post office: This is Serbia.

The next day, somebody sprayed over the graffiti and below it wrote: This is Croatia. That graffiti suffered the destiny of its forerunner and the next day had been replaced by a new slogan, proudly standing there: This is Bosnia.

On the fourth day that graffiti was also erased. Below it, somebody with a red spray wrote: You fools… this is a post office!

This time it was not erased by anybody.

That is what I am talking about: the wit virus that destroys antagonism and opens up the soul. I recognized a child in the author of that last graffiti, perhaps even a grown-up, but still a child that tells the big, grumpy, and deadly serious old men (and a couple of old ladies too), watching the news, to bury the foe within themselves and to save their souls, before it is too late.

For deadly serious questions between different identities lead seriously to death.

The last graffiti, with its naivety, did not prevent the war, you will say. And you will be right! However, that does not mean that the wit virus was not a good thing, just that there weren’t sufficient quantities of it. If every citizen produced at least one tiny wit virus, the system comprised of bound spirals of exclusivity would fall apart all of its own accord.

Let me finish where I started from: our stroll along Shirok Sokak, the main street in Bitola. After the elation my wife felt about the multiculturalism in the town, she stood in front of the clock tower for a moment.

“This is a clock-tower?” she asked me, wondering.
“As you can see.”
“Wait a minute, the clock-tower is a monument of Islamic architecture”, she said, even more
baffled than before.
“I learnt that much from my studies.”
“Well, why is there a cross on the top?”

I was expecting this but I didn’t know what to say. I thought for a moment, and then said:

“To be higher and even more superb.”

The wit virus cannot get along with stupidity, but it can portray it in its real light. And that is enough to begin with.

Published 13 July 2007
Original in Macedonian
First published by Roots 21-22 (2007)

Contributed by Roots © Pajo Avirovic/Roots Eurozine

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