Natalia Holtzman[paper]It’s wartime in Yugoslavia and Haso is searching through a local village. He goes into one of the houses and finds an old lamp. Just as he wraps a hand around this lamp, a ghost emerges from it. The ghost says, Haso, you’ve given me my freedom, so I’ll make one of your wishes come true. Haso says, I thought you were supposed to give me three wishes. Haso, the ghost says, it’s wartime, what do you want from me. Ok, Haso says. My wish is that you stop the war. Here is a map of Yugoslavia: divide it fairly and stop the war. The ghost says, Oh, no, no, that’s too much; that’s a job for a politician, not for a ghost. Well, Haso says, in that case, make my Fata beautiful. The ghost says ok. So the ghost summons Fata and looks her over, and looks her over some more, and looks her over from a different angle, and so on. Finally the ghost says, Haso, my brother, bring me that map one more time!
A tableful of Serbs and a few Americans are sitting around telling jokes after dinner.
Ljilja says, A Dalmatian is sitting on the beach by the shore—A what? Joe says. On the beach, Ljilja says. A Dalmatian, Branka says. A person from Dalmatia, Joe says. Not a dog? Jim says. You know Dalmatians, Branka says, they live by the Adriatic. To us it’s not the dogs, Ljilja says, to us it’s the people. No, it’s a man, Branka says. Yes, Ljilja says. So he’s sitting there, and he sees a man swimming in the Adriatic. All of a sudden this man starts drowning—And saying ‘Help! Help!’ Branka says—He’s saying in English, Ljilja says, ‘Help! Help!’ And the Dalmatian is looking at him, and looking, and finally he says, ‘You should have learned how to swim before you learned to speak English!’
Nena, Ljilja says, are you taking pictures?
She’s filming us, Branka says. She’s making a video.
Why are you filming us?
You should see Nikki, Branka says. I call her at college and she puts me on speaker so all her roommates can hear and they make fun of my accent.
Ljilja says, You’ve got to translate this. Jelena, Ljilja says, you’ve got to translate this. Why do I, Jelena says, you’re the official translator. You’re better, Ljilja says, and I’m not, I’m not, it’s your turn. Ok, Jelena says, so a husband and wife are sitting in the theatre. The husband is having gas and he says to his wife, ‘Is it ok if I let out a little dove?’ And the wife says, ‘Yeah, ok.’ So they watch the play some more and then he says, ‘Is it ok if I let out another little dove?’ And the wife says, ‘Yeah, ok.’ A few minutes later he starts to open his mouth and the guy sitting behind them says, ‘You let out another little dove and I’m going to kick you right in the dove-house.’
I don’t think we can do this one, Ljilja says. This is hard. Some jokes—Try it, Jeff says. Oh god, Ljilja says. An American, a Russian, and a Serb get together. The American says, Well, we have radios with four… Lens, Branka says, lens. They are old fashioned radios, Mića explains. Tubes? Jeff says. Yes, Jelena says, with four tubes. A radio with four tubes, Ljilja says, and it gets the whole world. And then the Russian says, Well, we Russians have radios with three tubes, and they get the whole world. And the Serb says, Well, at Miloš’s kafana, we have a radio with one tube, and when the electricity goes out and the radio dies, it catches everyone in sight. Everyone can catch everyone in sight, Jelena says. It doesn’t translate well, Jelena says. No, it doesn’t translate, Ljilja says. Look, they’re all quiet.
Mujo’s been in a car accident and he’s staying at the hospital. Fata goes to visit him every day, and she always takes the same taxi. She gets to know the taxi driver and she tells him all about Mujo’s accident. One day she forgets her wallet, so she says to the taxi driver, I forgot my wallet, I can’t pay you today. The taxi driver says, That’s ok, Fata; instead of paying, you can either sing me a song or we can screw in the backseat. So Fata gets to the hospital and she’s telling Mujo the story and Mujo says, Ok, Fata, so which song did you sing to him? And she says, Do you think I felt like singing at a time like this?
This one you can’t translate, Ljilja says. Yes you can, Branka says. Ok, go ahead, Ljilja says. You’re the interpreter. Ok, Branka says, they go to a, how do you say it…A parachute school, Jelena says. They go to a parachute school, Branka says, and the teacher says, Ok, the only thing you have to remember is you count ‘One, two, three,’ and you pull the…you pull the thing and the parachute will open, and you’ll be safe, you’ll be ok. So then they have a practice run. They go jump out of the airplane. And one guy gets stuck in the mud up to here—Branka draws a line at her neck—or to here?—she draws a line across her breasts, looks at Mića, laughs, laughs. Up to here, she says, and the teacher says, What happened to you? and he says, Well, by the time I went o-o-o-o-o-o-one, t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-two, t-t-t-thr-r-r-r-r-ree, I was stuck up to here, Branka’s laughing, laughing. He’s stuttering. He’s a stutterer.
Ok, Nena, Ljilja says, don’t show this to any stutterers. Add that to your list.
Branka says, By the time he stuttered it out…
It’s quiet for a minute and Nena says, Sorry, do you want me to stop?
How do you translate this? Ljilja says. Ok, she says. It’s Lala and Sosa. So the neighbor comes over and he’s talking to Lala and he says, ‘Do you want the long version or the short version?’ Lala says, ‘Oh, just give me the short version, I don’t want to listen forever.’ ‘Someone is fooling around with our Sosa.’ Ljilja says, Would that be the right translation? Yes, Jelena says. Yes, Branka says. But it wouldn’t be the same, Ljilja says—Yes it is, Branka says—because it implies, Ljilja says, that she’s already fooling around with the neighbor. He’s fooling, Branka says—She’s fooling around with the neighbor, yes, Jelena says. So she’s fooling, Ljilja says, she belongs to—The neighbor and to her husband, Branka says, and now he’s saying, ‘Somebody’s fooling around with our Sosa.’ A third person, Jelena says. Like our woman, Branka says. It’s just kind of, Branka says, what? A grammatical joke. Yes, subtlety, Ljilja says.
Mića says, They are silent again.
You can’t translate some things, Ljilja says. You have to know the entire history of the people.
Yeah, yeah, Mića says.
Who says that? Jeff says.
Could you give us that, now? Joe says.
So a Bosnian woman is talking to her Bosnian husband, Branka says. Fata is talking to Mujo, in other words, Ljilja says. No, Branka says, well, not this time, it doesn’t say Fata or Mujo, it’s a Bosnian, so you get the picture, right, it’s a Bosnian. Anyway, the wife goes, You and I have to talk now. Your clothes are all over the house, all over everywhere, all over the floor. You need to pick it up, or else—now. You need to pick it up now, or else. And the Bosnian is listening: ‘Blah blah blah, you and I. Blah blah blah, no clothes. Blah blah blah, now.’ Ljilja says, Like a dog! Is that the whole joke? Nena says. That’s how he registers, Branka says. That’s what he hears.
I know one, Ljilja says, I just remembered this one. A Montenegrin deda—he’s getting old—he decides to test his sons, because, Ljilja explains, Montenegrins are very proud of their traditions. They have costumes and all of this stuff. When they die, Branka says—When they die, Ljilja says, they want to be buried—some of them—in full…Regalia, Joe says. Regalia, Ljilja says. You know, she says, in old…in old costumes. So Deda, he has five sons, he wants to see if they will honor him, you know, by buying this expensive outfit. When he’s dead, Branka says. So, Ljilja says, he pretends he’s dead, and they put him on the table and the five sons come together—And they’re crying, Branka says—crying, crying, Ljilja says, and then they say, ‘So what are we going to bury him in?’ And they say, ‘You know, to hell with the outfit, we don’t want to spend all the money on him.’ And this was right around the time when the Olympic games were in Sarajevo. So they said, ‘You know, let’s go buy the cheapest thing we can find.’ So they go, and they buy running pants, Ljilja’s laughing—And running shoes, Branka says—and running shoes, Ljilja says. And so then, she says, in Montenegro they cry and cry, and all the women are crying—Wailing, Jelena says—Wailing, Ljilja says. They have to wail, Branka says, that’s like showing your love. So the baba comes, and she’s wailing, and she’s saying, ‘Ohhhh, where did you go, my dove, ohhhh, where did you go,’ and Deda’s listening, listening, and finally he sits up and he says, ‘To the fucking Olympic games!’
He wanted to go up into the sky, Ljilja says, with all the Montenegrin warriors.
You stink at telling jokes, Branka says.
Ok, this is a good one, Ljilja says. Montenegrins are known for being really slow, and so lazy you wouldn’t believe, but they’re really smart, they’re educated. Do you want me to translate, she says to Tetka Mina, or do you want to translate. Ok, a son goes to his father—They take forever to finish, Jelena says. To finish anything, Branka says. Yes, Ljilja says. So he goes to his father and he says, ‘You know, Tata, I’m just done with college, I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to drop out.’ And the father says, ‘Son, you do what you have to do, but neither Deda nor I are giving up yet.’ Laughing, laughing: They’re still in college! Ljilja says. ‘You do what you have to do!’ Branka says. ‘We’re not giving up!’
You have to hear this one, Ljilja says. A Bosnian goes to Germany and he stops at a café to refresh himself. So the waitress says, ‘So, sir, how are you? Where are you from?’ and he says, ‘Well, I’m from Yugoslavia’—there was still Yugoslavia, Ljilja says—and she says, ‘Oh, what part of Yugoslavia, I know the area, you wouldn’t happen to be Montenegrin, would you?’ He says, ‘Oh, no, noooo,’—He says, Branka says, ‘I heard Montenegrins are…’—No, Ljilja says, he says, ‘I am not Montenegrin, they are so lazy. I’m a Bosnian. We’re the stupid ones.’
Ljilja says, You know how the Montenegrins say, ‘Us and Russians, 300 million. Without the Russians, three buses.’
There are like, what? Ljilja says. A hundred thousand Montenegrins. But they always say, Us and Russians.
And only three buses of them, Branka says.
Tell me one more, Nena says. Ok, Ljilja says. It’s the height of war in Bosnia. Three guys are sitting in the mountains and they’re talking about what is the happiest moment of their lives. Do you remember this one? I don’t think I’ve heard it, Nena says. It’s an American, a Frenchman, and a Bosnian sitting there, Ljilja says. So the American says that the happiest moment of his life was when he became a billionaire, the richest man in the world, you know, he had all this wealth. And the Frenchman says, well, the happiest moment in his life was when the most beautiful woman fell in love with him. Nena’s laughing. They turn to the Bosnian and they say, ‘So, what is the happiest moment in your life?’ He says, ‘Ok, there I am: It is the coldest, iciest, bitterest night on top of the Romanija mountain. The wind is howling outside, snow is falling, ice is falling, it’s the middle of the night, bullets are flying everywhere you look. It’s scary, it’s cold—it’s the worst night you could ever imagine. The sergeant comes into the barrack and he says “Haso! It’s your turn to go and stand guard.” And my name is not Haso.’[/paper]
Natalia Holtzman is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared in B O D Y and in Grist. She is originally from Ann Arbor, MI.
You’ll find biographies for all contributors to Phoebe 43.2 here.
I’ve been immersed in Slavic culture my whole life, and have always been fascinated (if that is the right word) with my research of the Balkan Wars. It is a complicated region, a complicated culture, and I can’t say enough how well Natalia Holtzman captures its essence in this piece.