Letter from Monastiri

Do you happen to know where the Peloganija Valley lies? No? Then perhaps where Mount Pelister is? What? Never heard of the Dragor River or the Baba Mountain either? Well, those are all locations around picturesque Bitola, or legendary Monastiri as it is still better known to Greeks – and to Albanians. If the foreseeable future is not nuclear, I would strongly suggest a trip there. The second-largest city in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Greek border, north of Florina. Bitola, which had a flourishing Greek community until the mid-20th century, was the Turkish local capital during the Ottoman Empire. This was the spot where Greece, Romania and the Great Powers had all their conspiring consulates during the disintegration of Turkey’s European holdings. Now a university city of some 100,000 inhabitants, Bitola has been transformed into a city of culture. It is a municipality which hosts one of the oldest and most prestigious theaters in the whole Balkan region, dating from the beginning of the 20th century. Last Friday, at the closing ceremony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the mainly classical musical festival Interfest Bitola, I witnessed a most remarkable performance of Shakespeare’ s mix of mirth and melancholy: Love’s Labor’s Lost, as directed by Ljupco Gjorgievski. Now, Love’s Labor’s Lost has always been regarded as one of the most enigmatic of Shakespeare’s plays. It takes guts to perform it in modern times, therefore hardly any theater group attempts it. We produce around 10 plays a year, Blagoj Stefanovski, general director of Bitola’s National Theater (410 seats) and a third generation actor, told me. How big is your budget? I ventured. Around 1 million deutschmarks (something like 170 million drachmas) a year. I calculated, silently, that many of the artistically mediocre productions in our national theaters cost more than that amount each! Director Gjorgievski has done a European-level job, as we in the Balkans used to say, of staging this production. The presentation was fluid and kept the atmosphere light and full of fancy. Blagoj Mitsevski’s costumes were exquisite, enhancing the abstract construction established by scenic designer Valentin Svetozarev. Yet the best part of the production was the radiant talent of a dozen young actors: Most of them fresh graduates just out of the Drama Academy in Skopje, Blagoj Stefanovski told me. He added that At this very moment we have some 30 young people of Bitola studying at the dramatic art faculties all over Europe. This theater is providing itself with a future. And that coming from a rather poor country! He went on: You know, for more than a hundred years, Bitola, this small town in the heart of the Balkans, has been the last train stop. Now, after our extended tours abroad, we hear experts saying to us that ours is a town where great theater takes place. Indeed! Incidentally, Balkans Is Not Dead, an important contemporary play by the most celebrated young Slav-Macedonian playwright, Dejan Dukovski (his play Powder Keg was shown at the Amore Theater in Athens some years ago), which opened yesterday in Centar in Skopje, was first performed here in Bitola. As are so many other modern plays. (Returning to Thessaloniki, I heard of some obscure Balkan Theater Meeting taking place last weekend in town. If anyone had been invited to it with honors, it should have been the Bitola National Theater, which – of course – was completely ignored. So much for wannabe Thessaloniki, Capital of the Balkans.) Bitola’s production of Medea (based on Cavafy’s What can we do without Barbarians, they were a kind of a solution) of a few years ago, as staged by Vladimir Milcin, as well as last summer’s Bacchae, by Euripides, directed (not suddenly, I presume) by Sasho Milenkovski, are both productions that would greatly interest a Greek audience. Nevertheless, there was Greek participation at the Bitola musical Interfest, efficiently organized by violinist Militsa Sperovits-Ribarski. The organizers have invited acclaimed soloist Domna Evnouchidou, who last Wednesday gave a rapturous piano recital with works of Bach, Beethoven, Hadjidakis and Konstantinidis. Yet in this time of strife and terrorism, the great world fact is not just the imminent internal collapse of Afghanistan, and the question about who could pick up the pieces, there or anywhere. With mounting horror, our neighboring country is plagued by terrorism. It has been almost seven months since crowds of Slav-Macedonians ransacked and smashed, during two consecutive nights, Albanian-owned shops, cafes and pastry shops in the center of Bitola. The incident followed the funerals of four local policemen, killed along with four soldiers in an ambush by Albanian insurgents a few days earlier in the Sar Mountains in the northwestern part of the country. This event was played up by the Western media against us, a local, Greek-speaking shopowner told me. The people who attacked were brothers, sisters, and friends of the four murdered policemen joined later by others they met in the streets, in the early hours of May 1. They weren’t carrying anything other than stones to break glass. They just turned things upside down. Nothing else. According to the 1994 census, Albanians today make up only 2,000 of Bitola’s population, or just over 2 percent. An additional 2,600 live in the surrounding villages. But the main ethnic Albanian political party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, estimates the Albanian population is nearly double the census figure. Referring to the May incidents, another Slav-Macedonian adds: It was just a warning. Our reaction rose up in response to the deaths of innocent soldiers, and as a warning to the Albanians who are in Bitola, not that we are going to kill people, but that we are going to draw the line. The town, in which during the late Ottoman period Kemal Ataturk received his military education, is revered by Albanians as the place where, in 1908 and 1909, they adopted a standardized alphabet for the Albanian language using Latin letters, ending the practice by some of using the Greek alphabet and by others of using Arabic script to write in Albanian. While in Bitola, I heard President Boris Trajkovski on TV offering his complete and unqualified support and approval to the United States of America for its military strikes on targets in Afghanistan. Welcoming American actions as the first in a series of actions to strike terrorists and their supporters wherever they may be, the president concluded by cunningly allowing NATO troops currently in Macedonia to return to their homes so that they can fight the war on terrorism from there.

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