Apr 14, 2013

Balkan Ghosts: A Lost Gay World


When I was a kid in the 1960s, teachers and textbooks never mentioned the Balkans, except for a few guarded references to the Soviet Bloc.  So in my earliest childhood, my information was scattered and spotty, dreamlike, whispering that the countries of the Balkan Peninsula -- especially Yugoslavia -- constituted a "good place."

1. My Village in Yugoslavia (1957), one of the Sonia and Tim Village Booksabout a shepherd boy named Marco, from the mountains of Macedonia, who had muscles and hugged his best buddy with joyful abandon.

2. A Cold War tv commercial displayed a boy with a rusty iron cage around his head, while the narrator intoned a list of countries enslaved by evil: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and finally Yugoslavia!  I ignored the message to concentrate on the enslaved boy, his dreamy angelic face and the promise of a muscular physique.

3. A Serbian folktale about a young prince who stumbles across a secret room in the castle, and inside a naked man, Bash Tchelik ("True Steel") bound with chains.  Bas Celik begs for water, and when the prince accidentally spills it on the chains, he breaks loose, develops enormous muscles, and flies away.  He turns out to be the villain of the story, but I was busy thinking about a naked man with enormous muscles.

4. A Serbian story about a boy named Biberice, who remains very small while his peers grow big, but when his village needs him, develops superhuman strength (picture is from a Serbian comic book).

5. One summer at a music festival at a small Lutheran college in Iowa, I came across a book of Serbo-Croatian poems in English translation. One depicted the ache of desire the poet felt as he accidentally watched a beautiful youth, or maybe a nature spirit, swimming at night, his body glowing in the moonlight. I never found the book again, and I don't remember the poet's name.



 6. Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, who fought for freedom from the Turks, is commemorated in this beefcake-heavy statue in Debar, Macedonia.















7. Le Feu aux Poudres (The Day the Earth Shook), by Jacqueline Cervon (1969). Four French cousins, vacationing in Yugoslavia, offer the Macedonian Filip a ride to Skopje.  Tragedy strikes when Filip is bitten by a snake, and Eric offers first aid.  Then an earthquake strikes, and Eric goes missing.  Filip goes off in search of his "breath brother."  They finally find each other and fade out into each other's arms.

This was before I moved to West Hollywood and dated the insanely jealous Bulgarian bodybuilder, before discussions of Bosnia and Kosovo became commonplace, before we learned of the war and terrorism and genocide, and the staunch homophobia of the Balkan governments.  When boys with muscles could still hug their best friends, and poets could still write about the ache of same-sex desire.