March 11, 2002Share this story by E-mail
So you think you've seen it all, been everywhere, done everything...?
For those of us jaded by the plethora of destinations, by a too-wide choice of places to wander wearing the traditional checked shorts and large dark glasses of the American tourist, The New York Times appears to have added something new -- destinations for the cynical traveler.
First, a small digression. Let me take you back to the spring of 1999. In April of that year, Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times (NYT) columnist, was campaigning loudly on behalf of the NATO war in Yugoslavia. One of his more infamous passages now survives only on a number of lest-we-forget Internet sites. "Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around," he wrote in early April. "Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance." In another column, maybe a week after those words, came the overt threat to Serbia's civilian population, the words that took one's breath away: "Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too." (1)
Back in the Vietnam era, which is where the "bomb them back into the stone age" comment originated (originally said by a man described as a "ferocious retired general," Curtis LeMay) such sentiments were considered repulsive, a sort of moral recidivism, a fall-back to an extremism worthy of Nazi Germany. But at the tail end of the 20th century, writer Edward Herman says, Friedman was urging putting Serbia back into the stone age by escalating the bombing campaign -- "although, of course, the choice lies with the victims, who are always free to surrender" (2) Back in 1999 such sentiments were entirely in tune with the "moral imperative" that was being established by the powers that be and the various incarnations of mainstream media which obediently toed their allocated lines. Between Then and Now, much of this type of wartime heated rhetoric, based on flawed or outright false information fed to the media nicely pre-chewed and partly pre-digested, has been shown to be so much hot air. No more, in fact, than wartime propaganda (for the "sin" of which, let us recall, the TV stations in Belgrade and Novi Sad were reduced to rubble by NATO planes).
Barely three years after publishing Friedman's venom, The New York Times travel section presents the Balkan perambulations of one Neil Strauss, the NYT's "cultural correspondent" in Los Angeles. (3) Mr. Strauss, to his credit, understands what he doesn't understand ("... as anyone who has studied the complex politics of the region or read Rebecca West's complex and wonderful 1,100-page-plus Yugoslav travelogue "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" knows, we don't really understand," he says). Few Westerners, let alone journalists assigned to the area of the Balkans, have bothered to study the complex politics of the region, or have even heard of Rebecca West's book. Perhaps Mr. Strauss's acquaintance with both stems from having a Serbian friend, Marko, with whom he travels to Serbia on this trip. Those would-be visitors from the West who lack such a companion would probably also lack even the remotest sense that they did not understand the region at all.
What fascinates the casual reader here, though, is the apparent surprise of Mr. Strauss at finding culture, a shabby old-world elegance, wit, courtesy, music and celebration, and even a vibrant nightlife in the Belgrade of the grim fairy tales which the Western media have been putting out for so long. He does manage to glimpse a little of the life behind the scenes - the fact that even schoolchildren talk of nothing but politics these days (NATO has stolen a generation's childhood away), and that their elders, despite the gaiety and the revelry, often had just enough money to pay for one or maybe two drinks and nursed those all night. There is still a poignant defiance visible on the streets, where "Serbia by night" postcards depicting flaming skylines, photos of shattered and bombed out Belgrade buildings, boys scampering around twisted wreckage (labeled "playground designed by NATO") and the downed F-117A spy plane bearing the caption "Sorry, we didn't know it was invisible. Greetings from Serbia" are sold at street kiosks. But Strauss also catches a glimpse at a screensaver which scrolls the words "What has happened to the world we once knew?" across a computer screen. This is a wounded land. The city's official population, Strauss mentions in a passing footnote, is two million people -- which does not take into account a "substantial community" of war refugees (whose actual numbers and origins are, in this pleasant travelogue, naturally not mentioned).
Despite the lack of a State Department advisory concerning possible bodily harm to visiting Americans, there are other constraints -- Americans, inhabitants of a nation used to financial plastic, are apt to find it disconcerting that the local economy, from hotels to banks and cash machines, does not recognize American bank and credit cards. Yugoslavia has been living on credit for a long time, but it's always been a sort of informal IOU credit exchanges. Nobody in Yugoslavia -- at least not the ordinary folk -- can afford American Express.
Being "An American in Belgrade," Strauss points out, is particularly strange in the wake of 9/11. Before that date, American visitors were apt to be shown destroyed buildings or bridges or institutions and asked -- with remarkably little hostility -- why America was so unrelentingly hostile to this small nation. Nowadays, post-September 2001, Americans are far more likely to be greeted with, "NOW you understand." The pity of it is that so few understand, even now. And it is doubtful that someone like Thomas Friedman, given his articles of three years ago, will ever understand.
However, I await with anticipation the next Cynical Traveler destination. So far we've returned to the embattled Balkans.
Next year, the Kasbahs of Kabul?
1. http://www.fair.org/media-beat/020221.html (back)
2. http://kosovo.rootmedia.org/otg/herman.htm (back)
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/24/travel/BELGRA.html (back)
Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2002. All rights reserved.
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