Today is my father’s 80th birthday. This is a milestone birthday that no one else in our family has reached, so far as we know (because in the early part of the 20th century there were no written records kept where they lived). He was born into a hard working peasant family in the village of Čaglavica in Kosovo, and he learned at an early age that you are valued for what you contribute to this world and not for what you take from it. He acquired, both through his genes and his environment, the skill of relying on nothing more than your wits and Serbian tenacity, or inat, to survive brutalities imposed on you by others, because, more often than not, everything else would be taken away from you anyway.
Recently my dad has suffered from a very serious and debilitating illness, but his inat keeps him going. He still looks ahead, he still makes plans for the future like a 30 year old. The fact that he’s made it to this birthday indicates that he might yet have a few more. The same qualities that his people possessed, which enabled them to survive one invader after another, now get him through each day. The Serbs didn’t give themselves over to their Turkish conquerors and even after 500 years of being dominated by them, and, despite being severely pressured by the Turks to do so, they never entirely assimilated into Turkish life and culture. At last the Serbs found themselves able to overthrow the Turks and they took their country back. But not long after that, during World War II, they had new self-imposed "masters" -- German/Italian-aligned Albanians -- lording it over them in Kosovo. When these fascists had finally been sent packing, it was Tito’s communists who stepped into the conquerors' vacuum and mercilessly subjugated peasants all around
During World War II, my dad was a young adolescent whose regular job, when he wasn't away at school in Priština, was to get the sheep to a grazing field several kilometers from the village. This was something he enjoyed – he would take in the scenery and think for hours about this and that as he watched the sheep and the reliable family dog, Karaman. This suited him as he was an introspective kid and was happy with his own company and time to dream. Every day his mother, my dear nana, packed him a lunch of traditional foods made by her and various daughters and daughters-in-law in their extended family village compound: bread and kajmak, maybe some pršut, possibly some šljive or jabuke picked in their orchards. He spent all day in the field, giving the sheep plenty of time to graze, seeing hardly a soul, except an occasional person walking in the distance. With Karaman’s help he would herd the sheep home toward the end of the day, and always before darkness approached.
One particular day, after the war had started, the boy was a little down in the mouth because all the schools had been closed, the reason given was that if they were closed they wouldn't be full of children and teachers if they were bombed. Sitting on the grass with Karaman nearby and watching the sheep scattered all around as they lazily chomped the greenery, the boy's thoughts were on the war and an uncertain future. This child, perhaps not yet 14 years old, sensed someone coming toward him. Sure enough, a man was walking in his direction, someone who looked to be in his early twenties. Although he was a stranger to him, the boy recognized the man as an Albanian. The boy’s family had many Albanian friends and business acquaintances in this part of
Soon the man came very near the boy, who waved slightly and said, “Hello.”
“I’m hungry – you got anything to eat?”, responded the man.
“Oh, sure. It’s almost noon -- you’re welcome to share my lunch with me.” And the boy gave the man half his food.
From his sitting position on his rug on the grass, the boy turned to check on the sheep when suddenly he keeled over. Standing over him, the man had taken the boy’s shepherd staff in both hands and cracked it against his head with enough force to kill him, enough force to break the staff. He must have been satisfied that he had killed him because he left him as he lay, there on the ground, and finished the business that had brought him there. Later, people who had been walking on the nearby road said that on that day, at about that time, they had seen a young Albanian man walking with a lamb over his shoulders; however, because Albanian fascists ruled Kosovo at that time, there was no investigation, and while his child victim lay in a coma, near death, this potential murderer was left undisturbed to lick his fingers as he ate his lamb kebabs, without so much as a slap on the wrist.
When the boy came to, he saw only darkness. It took him a few moments to realize that his head was covered in blood, and for an instant it occurred to him that he must have been blinded, but, no -- it was dusk. He tried to feel his way around with his hands, to crawl away from there, but soon he fell into unconsciousness again. When he next awoke it was very dark, but he heard voices in the distance calling his name. When he didn’t show up at home, his family and a number of other villagers came looking for him. He vaguely felt them lift his limp body into the bed of a horse-drawn wagon and he spent the ride home drifting in and out of consciousness, catching an occasional word as one person or another wondered, astonished, who could have done this.
In Kosovo during the war years Serbs were not allowed to be treated by Serbian doctors. Only Albanian doctors could be called. Not only that, but Albanian “officials” felt free to impose themselves on Serbian homes at will and to demand whatever they wanted – under pain of death. One such Albanian especially liked my grandfather's farm and would show up every so often from his office in Priština to enjoy long weekends of eating their tasty food while he languished about the place however and wherever he liked.
It was important that it be seen that an Albanian doctor had examined his son, so one was called, or their situation would have been even more dangerous, but my grandfather often sneaked the family’s Serbian doctor into their house during the night. The trauma to his brain put the boy into a coma for a month. Of course, in those days there were no MRIs, and certainly no fancy equipment or techniques for saving someone from such a severe brain trauma, even less the possibility of finding out exactly what damage had been done. And, yet, the family was satisfied -- although the Albanian doctor had immediately given the boy up as a terminal case, the Serbian doctor pulled him through. He lived, which was more than the family had dared to hope. He came out of his coma with deficits, unable to walk, speak, or read and write, but his inat hadn’t left him, and the boy relearned those things over time, so well that no one could tell he had once been unable to do those ordinary things.
It was only very late in his life that my father got medical confirmation of why he had been so over-sensitive, so obsessive-compulsive and often overly focused, why he has found it difficult, almost impossible, to trust others, and why life has generally been such a struggle for him. It was not due only to the traumatic effects of growing up in wartime, living in constant fear for yourself and your family, and subsequently, during Tito’s regime, enduring his family’s persecution and the pain of losing a dear older brother who was murdered by the communists. As though that wasn't enough, that thief had permanently damaged his brain – at the back, toward the left of the head, a very important area for normal functioning. Effectively, my dad has had to function like a sprinter who has a broken leg, but continues to run; therefore, very imperfectly. And all his life, after that brutal attack by someone who had no qualms about taking a boy’s life so he could steal one of his sheep, all his life after that, my dad’s inat helped him to overcome, however he could, the disability imposed on him by this Albanian “neighbor.” My dad's ways didn’t always endear him to others, but he survived the only way he knew how, by hyperfocusing, and all along the way, amazingly, he maintained his integrity.
The great irony in this story is that, had the man told the boy that he had no food at home, had he simply asked for a lamb, the boy would more than likely have invited him to help himself, because that was how my grandfather had brought him up – to share what you have with those who have less; that to give is much nobler than to receive.
Many people have tried to exterminate the Serbs, but, as
Many enemies have threatened to annihilate Serbs, including my father's ancestors and his immediate family members, and have tried to do it. Many expected my father to die – that Albanian thief left him lying in the pasture, convinced that he was dead. More recently, my father’s doctors thought he would be gone by now and are amazed at how well he has been doing despite all their dire predictions. During that time he has celebrated 2 more birthdays, and this, his 80th is very noteworthy.
There is a lot to be said for inat – when it’s part of your makeup there isn’t much that can keep you down. I am exceedingly proud to possess my own inat.
Happy birthday to my father!