I couldn’t write in Belgrade. I was given a one-month writing residency in a cute little apartment along with a monthly stipend and I wrote nothing. I had applied for Sarajevo, but couldn’t get it as a Bosnian. They told me I had to go to a foreign country, and offered Serbia, which was about as foreign to me as my own bedroom. I did my MA course in Belgrade and lived there for ten months. My parents are Serbian, so are my siblings. My sister has lived in Belgrade for ten years and even her accent has changed over the years. This year I finally got Serbian citizenship, so the whole foreign country thing became even more ridiculous. Still, at the time I applied, I was technically a foreigner in Belgrade. So I got Belgrade. The ‘white city’ with sick lungs. I had to give up on my beloved Sarajevo, at least for the time being.
What was I doing at a writer’s residency? I couldn’t write and I couldn’t sleep. My insomnia was back big time. When I did sleep, I had either excruciating nightmares or sleep paralysis. I dreamed of bears chasing me through the woods, of buildings crashing down on me, of drowning. My eyes would wake up before my body and I would hallucinate a dark figure in the room, walking towards me. I would wake up screaming.
I have suffered from sleep-related problems my whole life. When I was little, I sometimes sleepwalked and would wake up in the middle of the night on the floor, fully dressed for school. Even in my sleep I was anxious to leave. But in those last years in Barcelona, when I received the invitation to the residency in Belgrade, my sleep patterns had improved significantly and I no longer saw the dark man in my room. It puzzled me why he was suddenly back now, in this little apartment in Belgrade. Somehow the city had triggered my sleep problems again and I was scared to go to bed, worried that night terrors would return.
Around five-six a.m. I would give up sleeping altogether and get out of the apartment.
The city was still asleep at that time. It seemed empty, abandoned, like after an apocalypse. I liked it best without people, when its tired brutalist beauty would reveal itself fully. The scars were there, too. All the bombs, all the myths. It’s like the city was telling me: Look how much madness I’ve been through and I still stand. There were moments when I felt we were equals, because we had both suffered under other people’s delusions. Other times I just saw the city as a language I would never learn, as if those streets and trams and buses and sidewalks were an unnecessarily difficult grammar.
Still, I liked to walk and read the graffiti. Sometimes they told stories of broken hearts and lost hopes. Other times they venerated war criminals. It was as if the face of the city echoed its citizens’ thoughts and dreams and fears. Their best and their worst. The marks said: There is a great sorrow here. They also said: But people are still people. They will love and hate and want and not have. They will write on the walls. One graffiti read I cry in the rain so my tears wouldn’t show. Another one read: Ratko Mladić - our hero. Another one read: We were happy, regardless. Another one read: Kosovo is Serbia. Another one read: Do you ever think of me when you read this? Another one read: A new Balkan federation of socialist republics! Another one read: No woman no cry. There was a portrait of Bob Dylan. There was a portrait of Radovan Karadžić. And so on.
Belgrade’s difficult sorrow found its way into me. I read a famous poem about it where the writer compared it to a swan. I kept looking for the beautiful wings described in those verses, but all I saw was an old and tired bird chasing its cygnets away. I would get on the wrong bus. I would spend too much money on food. I would walk around parked cars, everywhere, mourning Belgrade’s stolen sidewalks. I would cough - in the supermarkets, in the restaurants, in the parks, in the libraries. I would cough and cough and cough, and Belgrade would laugh at my unprepared Mediterranean lungs. Smoke was everywhere I went: cars made it, people made it, buildings made it, all of them eager to vent it out, push it into the streets. Sometimes I thought they needed all the smoke to hide the scars. But mostly I coughed and the smoke got in together with the sorrow.
On those quiet mornings I would walk all the way through the Kalemegdan and to the place where the rivers meet. The Sava rushed towards the Danube, with all the painful stories she had collected over the decades - stories from my own country, told by smaller rivers: Drina and Una and Bosna and Vrbas. Stories too dark to be repeated. The Sava river swallowed them all up and pushed them restlessly towards the great Danube, the only one that could take it because it has already seen it all. It made me think of how they’re becoming one thing while remaining separate at the same time, their water molecules mixing up and pushing forwards, losing all identity before they reach the faraway Black Sea. It made me think of the words we put on land and water, and how land becomes heavy with them, closed off by borders and soaked with blood, whereas water bears witness and moves on - it flows away and becomes something else entirely.
I couldn’t be in the apartment for too long because it only reminded me of the fact that I wasn’t writing. I would cook something quick, answer my emails, check in with my friends abroad, and then go back to walking. I liked to go to the National Library to read or pretend to read, surrounded by anxious university students and their heavy textbooks. I liked the silence of young people learning. I liked how we were partaking of this silence together and how at the same time, inside our heads, different worlds were being unfurled. One of those students, I thought, is going to be a doctor and what he or she is learning today, right now, this very minute, might save someone else’s life. One of them is going to be a lawyer and what he or she is learning today, right now, this very minute, will help a guilty man get acquitted. One of them will have no use for what he or she is learning today and will perhaps go on to become a writer. Many will be average. Many will think they’re not. Some will fail. Some will move away to Germany. Some will develop cancer or diabetes or simply die in their sleep. Every time I left the library building, it felt like I had entered a pocket of time different from the rest of the world. Sometimes it felt like only a few minutes had passed on the outside while I had read for hours, surrounded by those students.
Tourists gathered by the Library to take photos of the Church of Saint Sava, an Orthodox temple remotely resembling the Hagia Sophia. The temple looms large over the Library and people cross themselves when they walk past it or drive by. And so, while some were silently learning facts in the smaller building, others were praying to a higher deity in the church. I thought how sad it was that nobody blessed themselves when they walked past the library and how a single book could become more important and earn a bigger temple than a hundred thousand others. In that quiet dichotomy of the Karađorđe’s park, I thought how all writers are somehow competing against that one book, a single myth, constantly losing to it, failing, and starting again. And there I was - at a writing residency - not even trying.