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Interviews

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Sebahata Šerifović

Mrs.  Šerifović requested that she not be videotaped.

 "(On Vasilica) When my mother was alive, she did all the cooking for us. We had a large table, made of wood, with our dinner on it, and we had our friends- Albanians, Turks, Jews, Serbs and Roma- come over to eat and drink on that day. My father would sing the song of Sveti Vasilia."

Gracanica

Sebahata asked me to locate her mother’s grave, on Gazi Mestan in Kosovo Polje. Gazi Mestan is the site of the 1389 battle that saw the Serbs and the Albanians, both Christian, all brothers, unite with forces from as far afield as Bosnia , Hungary and Poland to stop the Ottoman Turkish advance into Southeastern Europe . The armies fought each other to a standstill; the Serb empire died 70 years later. The Albanians converted to Islam; the Roma did as well. The Serbs didn’t- or if they did, they weren’t called Serbs anymore.  

“They deface things,” the Norwegian said, shivering and listening to my voice, looking for any trace of an Albanian accent. “Some of them use the tower as a bathroom.” The tower- a monument to the Serb dead- was once the pilgrimage site of a virulently nationalist, anti-Albanian movement. Now it was only a pile of brick- an outhouse.

The graves in the small Muslim cemeteries dotted around Gazi Mestan’s Turbe have been swept by brush fires for years. Some of the richer Muslims left enough money for proper gravestones; the poorer ones used wood, and the poorest got nothing. Sebahata didn’t remember exactly where her mother was buried, nor who she was buried near, and her tombstone was made of wood. Sometime in the 20 years since she died, the fires in spring ate her marker, and now she’s under the dirt with no indication of where she lies, on that old, windswept battlefield. I knew that one of the raised mounds was hers. I thought of shooting a picture, to make Sebahata feel better. I didn’t.

Sebahata & Grandson: March 2003

Gazi Mestan’s not as bad as the Serb cemeteries. Their dead were called to answer for the actions of a minority of their living, and their graveyards were smashed.  

Sebahata & her Husband, circa 1960s

Sebahata took the news with a fatalistic shrug. The next day she asked me to drive her to the Moravska Mahala in Pristina. Sebahata was born and raised there; she kicked about, worked and played in that ghetto until she was married off to a Gracanica man.

I’d walked through Moravska, or what’s left of it; I’d kicked my way through the rubble of dynamited homes, counted the bullet holes in the walls, looked out the smashed windows, and slipped in a puddle by a broken toilet that still jetted water three and a half years after some faceless man smashed it to bits. I could still see where Roma had, in a vain effort to save their homes from the burning, spray-painted Albanian names on their homes before they fled.  

Despite the destruction, real estate is still real estate, and the Moravska Mahala’s an Albanian neighborhood now. The destruction is being deconstructed. Kids play football on the road. Mothers push their strollers through a neighborhood that was blood and smoke before.  

I refused to drive Sebahata there. She’s got high blood pressure already. Her son thanked me.

Sebahata has two daughters, Sofija (9) and Selda (12); they always ask us to drive them to school. They like their friends seeing them in a truck. Sebahata has other daughters; one lives in Bujanovac, Southern Serbia , but because of the violence there, the family often comes on extended vacations to the family home in Gracanica.

Sebahata’s always good for a joke and a cup of Turkish coffee. She’s a Roma wife, and a mother of many, and her work never ends.  

The Moravska Mahala- destroyed bin 1999
Sebahata's Home: Gracanica

SS: My name is Sebahata. I’m 48 years old.

Do you remember any of your mother’s stories?

SS: I remember her life, and the problems she had before…

What was your mother’s name?

SS: My mother’s name was Dzulja, and my father’s, Zumber.

What kind of work was your father doing?  

SS: My father helped people with different things. He left his real job because he drank a lot.

My mother worked in Pristina, for Jewish and Turkish people, so that how we lived.  

I know that my mother was a baby when my father finished the army, but my father was very beautiful. mp3  

My mother was a housekeeper for Albanians, Turk and Jews. Many Jewish people lived in Pristina then.

After some time, she found a real job- in Kosovo Polje. The job was making handbags. She worked very hard to help us, sometimes in the mornings, and sometimes she worked all night. mp3

I know that she never had a clock; she always got to work late. She woke up one night at midnight ; she thought she was late for work, and she started running.

Sebahata's daughter's wedding, circa 1986

On one (Pristina) street someone once threw a rock at her. She thought that her cigarettes had fallen from her pocket; she started searching for them but found nothing. Sometimes in Pristina, different thing happen on different streets, and people saw many strange things. Vampires- she was very afraid of them, and sometimes she’d just smoke cigarettes because vampires were afraid of the lights. It was a very hard time for my mother.

My mother stopped working (in Kosovo Polje) because it was very hard for her. She worked again for Albanians. Then she found a job in the ‘Path’ factory.

When I was growing up, we sometimes went with her to work and helped her clean up.

A woman died in the Pristina Mahala; and a black dog* began to follow my mother whenever she went out. My mother knew that something was going on. She tried to give the black dog bread to eat; the dog wouldn’t eat it. My mother went to buy meat from a store. She put it on the ground but the dog wouldn’t eat it. The meat just sat on the sidewalk.

(*This tale- of the soul of a loved one inhabiting a black dog, which follows a relative for months on end- is common in Roma folklore, but is not restricted only to them; Armenians have the same legends. This story emerged, with slight variations, in several interviews.)

Did your mother know the woman that died?

SS: Yes, she was my mother’s cousin.

And when my mother went to work the dog followed her. People asked her about it: ‘What is that dog doing with you?’ and ‘That dog is always behind you.’ My mother answered that she didn’t know, but she knew why that dog followed her; that dog was her dead cousin.

The dog followed my mother for months. One day my mother returned home from work, with the dog behind her, and a car hit it. No blood came from the dog. My mother heard, from the dog’s mouth, the voice of her dead cousin.  

Did your mother go to school?  

SS: She didn’t even know how to write her own name. She worked very hard, and was respected by many. mp3

I have another story, from my own family-

We had no electricity because my father drank a lot; everyone had electricity except for my family. We only had candles; and my mother still worked very hard. mp3

My brothers grew up. My older brother worked very hard. I remember my brother going to Grmija* and chopping down trees, for firewood. He would carry the wood home on his back. He’d sell the firewood, and he also worked for others- cleaning their garbage. He worked so hard; he made money, and our family got electricity. From his hard work we bought a Radio- a “Nikola Tesla.”

Sebahata & Son

(* Grmija is a large, wooded area on Pristina’s eastern outskirts.)  

But still my father drank too much, and after my brother was married, my father died. My mother no longer worked; she developed bronchitis, from working outdoors in the cold.

She was 60 years old when she died.

There was a man (in Pristina) who worked as a shoeshine boy. He had nine children. His wife worked very hard to feed her babies, because they didn’t have enough money. The work wasn’t good.

Soon Serbs hired the man to clean their store. He was a very honest man. But soon they accused him of stealing money from the shop. But he never did that. He was honest, he had honest children, and his wife was respected by all: Jews, Albanians and Serbs always hired her to work in their homes. There were never any problems. She would never steal anything.

The man didn’t know what to do; he tried to kill himself, but his son found him and saved him. He worked so hard to be honest, and he feared that when his children grew up people would tell them that he stole. mp3

Sebahata's Daughters & Grandchild: Gracanica, March 2003

Did you know any Ashkalija in Pristina?

SS: I knew Ashkalija. They had their own Mahala in Pristina.* I had Ashkalija friends; they all spoke Romanes.

(*Pristina’s Ashkalija lived in the Vranjevac neighborhood. After a significant drop in population after the end of the 1999 war, Vranjevac’s Ashkalija are slowly returning; UNHCR has facilitated the return of 15 families as of May 2003.)

Did you know any Egyptians?

SS: I never heard of them before. They only started to exist recently.

What Roma holidays do you follow?

SS: Djurdjevdan- (Herdeljez), Vasilica and Christmas, but we mostly paid attention to Vasilica.  

Before Vasilica we spent all night baking bread and cookies. We’d bake a coin into the bread.  We sacrificed plenty of chickens and goats on Vasilica.

When my mother was alive, she did all the cooking for us. We had a large table, made of wood, with the dinner on it, and we had our friends- Albanians, Turks, Jews, Serbs and Roma- come over to eat and drink on that day. My father would sing the song of Sveti Vasilia.mp3

On Vasilica, my father would choose a very good tree that had lots of apples on it. He’d bring one apple in the house, and this made good sense of everything.

His eldest son would begin singing a song, and the youngest son would finish it.

What song would they sing?

SS: The song of Sveti Vasilia.

Can you tell us about the famous Roma singers in your time?

SS: There were two: Nijat and Magbulja.

Nijat was a poor boy; he lived in a small, dilapidated house. His mother loved to sing and dance. She bought a piano for Nijat, and she told him:

‘Now, my son, you will play the piano and I will dance.’ 

If Nijat made a mistake, his mother would beat him with a stick. ‘You can’t play the song that way!’

And she kicked him too. Soon he became famous and sang in public. mp3

On Weddings:

SS: Before, (during the wedding) men and women would be segregated in different areas to have their fun. We’d have the weddings in tents. And only the women would dance before, but now, everyone does.  

Sebahata & Husband, Circa 1970's

The bride’s parents would put all her clothes in a trunk; all those clothes have to be ready before the mother-in-law comes, to take it to her house. The bride’s parents now buy new gold earrings and bracelets for her.

How much was the dowry before?

SS: The bride price is twice as much as it used to be. And we didn’t have to buy nice clothes, like we must do now. The best clothes are dimije* (Romanes: kumasi ), and the dimije must be blue or white.

(* Dimije are traditional women’s baggy pants. The Turks introduced Dimije to the Balkans after they conquered the region in the 14th- 15th centuries.)

How much did you ask for your oldest daughter’s dowry?

SS: 12,000 Deutschmarks.

Did the groom’s family comment upon the price?

SS: No, they said nothing.

My father-in-law worked in Kišnica*; he was a manager, and he told people what they had to do and when they had to finish. He was old; he couldn’t see so well, because he worked in the dark all the time. He worked all day, and all night; when he was very young his mother died. He was very poor. He also worked for Serbs, as a shepherd; this is what he told me.

(*Kišnica is a mining complex outside of Gracanica.)

He knew to play the Duduk* and Frula*, and he was a very good musician. He was once on a Serbian television show. One Sunday I watched him on TV, in the home of my Albanian friend.

(*Duduk- an ancient woodwind instrument likely inherited from the Armenians: Duduk is an Armenian word. The Duduk is similar to the Central Asian Balaban and the Chinese Guan.)

(*Frula- “pipe” in Serbian- is a smaller wind instrument.)

 

A Serb woman came to my home, and brought us apples. She saw my father-in-law, and she told me that he was so amazing, because he knew how to play every kind of music- Albanian and Serbian. He could sing as well.

Do you have any recordings of him?

SS: Yes.

(We received a single old cassette of music that SS’s father-in-law had performed in the late 1960’s. It was the only copy, the tape ribbon was in terrible shape, and the sound interference was difficult, but deep under the noise, we could hear the man’s mournful, beautiful voice.)

Hear an Audio excerpt of Riza Serifovic singing.

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Nadire Kurlaku

This interview was conducted in the Albanian language.

Watch a Video excerpt of the interview (1).

Watch a Video excerpt of the interview (2).

“My father died during the Second World War; when the Germans came, he died as a soldier dies. I was orphaned, without a mother or father. My father was a guerilla, moving from place to place to bring freedom to our land. There were no cars; they walked, sometimes with shoes, sometimes without. They won the war, but my father died.”  

Prizren

Were you born in Prizren?

NK: Yes, we were born here, and now we grow old here, in this Mahala, Dzut Mahala. My father and grandfather lived here and I was married in this Mahala. mp3

What was your father’s name?

NK: Iljiaz.  

And what was your mother’s name?

NK: Nedjmije.  

Your grandparents?

NK: Nuredina, and my grandmother, Alten.

Were they always here?

NK: Yes, my family always lived in Prizren, in this Mahala. My father and my grandfather were field workers. We had much land; in this Mahala, we were very rich. There were only two rich families here.  

How old are you?

NK: I was born in 1940; I’m 63 years old.

Can you tell us about the other cousins? (*This is a direct translation of a common colloquialism-cousinsrefers to the other inhabitants of the Dzut Mahala) What kind of work did they have?

NK: In our Mahala many Roma worked as Hamaldjija*. When the summer came, the women worked in the gardens and in the fields. We always had our women working in the gardens.

(Hamali/ Amalija/ Hamaldjija. Serbian: Nosač. English: porter. Hamaldjija is from the Turkish word Hamal; Hamal is also a Turkish insult.)

Is Albanian your first language?

NK: Yes. My mother was from Gjakovë (Serbian: Djakovica), and my father was from Prizren. I finished primary school, and wanted to continue, but could not. In that time we were afraid of the Turks. They loitered in the streets, and my school was far from the Mahala. In Dzut only three of us attended school. The Turkish kids would make trouble with us, and in that time I was afraid. And the school that I was attending, I could have learned to be a teacher. mp3

Are you Ashkalija? * (Albanian as a first language is usually a sign that the interviewee is Ashkalija)

NK: No, I am Roma. The father of my grandfather was Roma. Even if we were rich, our name was still Madjup* or Cigan*. mp3

(*Madjup/ Maxhup- is a pejorative word for Roma that originated in Djakovica/ Gjakovë.)

(*Serbian: Cigan, pronounced Tsigan- is another pejorative term for Roma. Cigan is a corruption of the word Persian word for shoemaker (Cingarije) - a common trade among the first Roma who entered southeastern Europe .)

Have you heard of Roma Egyptians?  

NK: No, we didn’t know before about Egyptians or Ashkalija, we were all just Roma*. mp3 When we attended school the other kids called us all Madjupi; they were just children, and we were older than them, but we were still afraid.

(* Prizren’s Roma define themselves in simpler ways than Roma in the rest of Kosovo: their security and freedom of movement is good, at least in Prizren municipality, and they do not feel the pressure to align themselves to the Albanian side by adopting different ethnicities to differentiate themselves from Roma. Prizren’s Roma were earlier subjected to the same terror as Roma throughout Kosovo in the immediate aftermath of the Kosovo conflict. Please refer to Roma in the Kosovo Conflict; European Roma Rights Center Published Materials 1999 http://www.errc.org )

How old were you when you were married?

NK: I was 20 years old.

Did you have a choice?

NK: No. My husband’s family came to ask my father for my hand. I didn’t have a boyfriend like today; if my father or mother ever saw me together with another boy, even if it was my future husband… that would be a great shame.  mp3 I was engaged, and after one year I married.

Did you know your betrothed before the marriage?  

NK: Yes, I knew him from around Dzut Mahala- but he was not my boyfriend. When I was engaged, during holidays such as Bajram, my future mother-in-law brought me cakes and nice, new clothes; I sent my future husband new clothes as well. When Herdeljez arrived, my mother-in-law brought a sacrificial sheep and cookies; she would come with music. It was a great shame to not celebrate these things on Herdeljez, because our neighbors would note this and say bad things about us.

We celebrated these things as the Turks celebrated; Turks would buy two sheep for this day. Our Mahala did the same as the Turks.

On Herdeljez we cleaned our homes, and before the holiday we bought our children new clothes and visited the Turbe*. After the Turbe we walked home; we collected flowers while the women sang. We danced and picked flowers, and we decorated our homes with them- the doors, all the rooms, even under the beds.  

Mrs. Kurlaku's neighborhood: Dzut 2003

Herdeljez falls on a month when the leaves bloom from the trees. We Roma aren’t the only ones celebrating; the whole of Europe celebrates, when our eyes enjoy the new flowers and trees. mp3 On Herdeljez we prepared the sheep for slaughter, we baked bread and cakes in the afternoon, we ate lunch and drank and played music, and we danced in our new clothes. mp3 On the day before Herdeljez- I forgot to mention this- all the people who returned from the Turbe built fires in front of their homes. We drank and played music until dawn. When Herdeljez came we killed the sheep and played music. The night before and all the older women from the Mahala would bring out an iron cauldron; all the families would bring things to place in it, how much depending on the size of the family. They brought silver wear and cups, other things. On Herdeljez we sat around the cauldron, and one betrothed (but still unmarried) girl covered herself with a veil and recited poetry.

I came from a village down to the city

And one black bird flew around me

Don’t do that. I am a gypsy girl.

mp3

You bought sheep to kill (every Herdeljez)?  

NK: Yes, those who had money would. Those who had no money didn’t. We bought and killed the sheep for the children, to bless them, to make them happy. For families that had no money to buy sheep, the children were shamed and sad. There were many poor people then.

What about your other holidays?

NK: We celebrate the month of Ramadan.

Do you celebrate Vasilica, like Gracanica’s Roma?

NK: No, but I’ve heard of that.

Where were you during the bombing?

NK: We stayed at home.

You didn’t flee?

NK: We stayed here, together with our neighbors.

On that night I stayed with my son, his wife and my two grandchildren. My husband was not with us; he was with his sister because her husband was very sick.

I talked to the children and then I slept, and God saved me. I didn’t sleep by the windows. One airplane flew overhead all night. When the bombs came down all of the windows in my home shattered and the power went dead; a bomb had fallen thirty meters from my home. I got up and wanted to go to a shelter, but I could see nothing. We had no lights; it was all darkness. God helped us: shrapnel flew everywhere, it fell to the ground, but we were lucky. Shrapnel came down in our yard but not in our house. There was a large hole in our yard.

We ran outside, but we could see nothing; we couldn’t open the shelter door. It was blocked. We sat in the street, terrified. Later I heard that four people in the Mahala were killed.

Were they Albanian or…?

NK: No, they were Roma; the bomb landed inside the Mahala. The family that died was very poor. The homes moved- like an earthquake. mp3

My father died during the Second World War; when the Germans came, he died as a soldier dies. I was orphaned, without a mother or father. My father was a guerilla, moving from place to place to bring freedom to our land. There were no cars; they walked, sometimes with shoes, sometimes without; my uncle was with him. They won the war, but my father died. mp3

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