A Walk in Old Tetovo

Posted July 28, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

So tomorrow is my last day in Tetovo.  Yesterday my fellow teacher Besa took me on a walk around the old town of Tetovo.  We went to several places that I had visited in the past, most importantly for me, the Colored Mosque.  There are so many beautiful old buildings in Tetovo, including the Turkish tekke or Muslim monastery that I have also written about, associated with the Bektashi sect, one of the ancient mystical sects of Islam.  The first mosque on this site was probably guild in 1495, but this is the Balkans and land has slipped back and forth during wars. In 1833 the mosque was rebuilt by Abdurrahman Pasha, the son of Rexhep Pasha.  Now maybe you are asking what is a Pasha and the answer is a Pasha is a title for landlords and generals in the Ottoman Empire.  This Mosque was build next to the Shkuma river, where there were other buildings of Islamic origin including a bath that is now open as an art gallery.

The eight-sided mausoleum to two sisters, Hurshide and Mensure, is in excellent condition and reminded me of the rather emptier tombs of Arthur and Gweneviere at Glastonbery. Upstairs there was a woman with spectacles on teaching children to read the Koran. The walls were clearly influenced by the French Rococo movement. That’s right. The interior of this Ottoman Mosque was painted with swirling baskets of flowers The amazing mixture of French painting style, including the domed ceiling’s miniature buildings and towns, was such a message of the fact that this town, like the Balkans in general, has been a synthesis of so many cultures, both European and Eastern.  The geometrical and floral elements are meant to convey the notion of wealth and luxury, while the smallness of the mosque convey a very different message, of coziness, like a dollhouse at Versailles. The Mihrab, whre the Iman leads the prayer, was particularly beautifully carved.  Work was going forward on the parterres of the courtyard, yet another combination of European cultures.

The single classical minaret allows one to see the Colored Mosque in Tetovo from all over the city.  I am so glad that I visited it again as I wondered where Abdurrahman Pasha, son of Rexhep Pasha, got the ideas for his amazing interior with its yellow and red flower baskets cascading off the walls of this beautiful and welcoming sacred place.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans
[photo of Colored Mosque from balkantravellers.com]

More from Macedonia

Posted July 22, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

We just finished doing four plays this morning with the younger kids and two plays this afternoon, including a Vampire Summer Vacation, featuring a trip to the Castle of  Dracula.  Rather than start on my rant about Twilight, the novel, I will tell you that the plays were wonderful, even the Vampire play as we are close enough to Romania and the sources of the Vampire that the students have many original as well as historical ideas about Vlad.  Indeed the student who played Vlad was named Vlad.  (What are the odds,  even  this close to Bulgaria?)   The plays were wonderful.  The children and their parents were justifiably proud of the great work  that they have done, the anthologies are almost ready, and there was general agreement that Creative Writing Camp was a fabulous experience for all.  Now there may be a couple of librarians who have to work this weekend who may need to put their feet up on Sunday morning and even call for breakfast in bed.  I intend to sleep in  tomorrow morning and then walk up the hill is Stip to the 6th century Byzantine Church that I have been looking at every morning from my hotel room and wondering when and if I would be able to rise early enough to beat the heat and take a trek up the hill to see it, water bottle and picnic lunch in hand. But tomorrow  is my day as Sunday morning  early I take off to Skopje and then to Tetova and my friends at the American Corners there.

So I move away from Eastern Macedonia and its Roman and Byzantine ruins to the hills of Tetova where I can see the mountains of Bosnia.  Remember, Balkans is  just a word for “Mountains.”

Merrilee Cunningham,

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

WITS International: The Return of the Macedonian Express

Posted July 21, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Who knew that when I bid a sad farewell to what I thought was my last entry in the Macedonian Express it would not be my last entry at all.  I left Macedonia last year hoping that the Creative Writing Workshops would continue, unaware that I would be invited back to the second year of the program.  But during the winter, the folks who  had the original idea for the Creative Writing Summer Camp won an award for working with children, a grant was written, and Writers in the Schools (WITS) in Houston was contacted.  Thus a second year of the partnership between the Department of State and WITS began.  It is a real lesson in the power of partnership as well as the momentum of success, but making and maintaining creative partnerships has always been what WITS  has been about as one can see from the partnerships between WITS and HISD, The Menil Collection, Inprint, The Orange Show (which I finally visited this summer) and many other groups.  When WITS asked me to go back to Macedonia again, I was thrilled.

It is not our goal to make this program as good as it was last year:  rather, our goal is to make it so much better than last year.  Thus the curriculum has been extensively updated, taking the best of what we did last year and adding to it lessons such as “The Magic Box” and other lessons available in the WITS publications which help writers like me select the very best curriculum available to us for stimulating creative writing (and before that, creative problem solving and thinking).  For the next two weeks, I’m going to be blogging about our summer writing camp — how our plans are working (or how they are not working) and what results we get from these programs, originally designed for Houston children, from the Balkan kids in the beautiful country of Macedonia.

I am very sensitive to the fact that this is a beautiful country as I just traveled from Skopje to Bitola by car.  I was truly astounded by the physical beauty of this country.  In July, the road from Skopje to Bitola is through green mountains dotted with ancient villages and monasteries that still offer cold mountain water from fountains that eventually end in the river where the cloistered life is lived away from most of their fellow human beings — so different from the megalopolae that many of us attempt to thrive in.  Perhaps the cold, clean water that the brothers offer the travelers represents a purity that is foreign to us, as we hold that water in our hands rather than in the plastic bottles marked Perrier or Utopia.    Perhaps it is a symbol for the inner peace no doubt valued in the cloister.  And it was a bit of inner peace that I was after as I traveled inside my amazing car over the green hills and thought about what gives the soul the ability to recover and the spirit its path toward healing.  I was thinking about friends and esteemed colleagues and healing, partly because I had just read an article from the New York Times about the renewed popularity of Ashrams given the economic downturn.  I thought about the history of both Christian and Muslim communities.  I thought of the rural environment and giving oneself time in that green world to experience the regeneration that is available in the City of God, even as one retreats from some Augustian concept of City of Man.  Not my usual stance, but today I am satisfied with stabilizing that binarial view.

So it was in that frame of mind that I arrived in Bitola just in time to experience an earthquake.  In the rare moment of my searching for peace in nature, nature rewarded me with an earthquake.  At first I just felt a little strangeness in the car.  Then I saw that people had come out of their houses and stores and were talking to each other in front yards.  But I just thought that maybe in the early evening that it was the custom in Southern Macedonia to visit with friends before dinner and after work.  Quickly, I saw that this was simply too many people to be a mere testimony to their neighborliness.  And one of my teachers in Bitola, who was riding with me, announced that they were protecting themselves from the possible aftershocks of the earthquake.  Notice my timing here.  I consider, surely for the first time in years, the healing powers of nature and nature answers my affections for the possibilities of healing and order within the green world.  It is nice to know how in sync I am with other earth mothers.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

WITS Travel Journal: Belgrade

Posted June 17, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Belgrade is called the white city, probably because of the whiteness of the Ottoman Empire fortifications against Bulgars, Hungarians, early Serbians and others who would have liked to control and tax the trade at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. I have been here for three days, and they have been more than busy. I have given two workshops in creative writing for children at the libraries associated with the embassy American Corners program. Along with that were four interviews for cultural features in magazines and newspapers. One of the best questions that I was asked is “Can you really teach creative writing?” I was surprised at how passionate a response I had for the reporter, stressing how important it is to teach creative writing in a way that will actually achieve both writing and creativity.

In my first lesson with the children, we used brown paper bags. (I have a small suitcase with my clothes in it and a large suitcase with my colored paper, bags, note cards, pencils and other supplies.) My writers (there were about 30) were very happy to be writing, and in this paper bag project, they wrote about something that they would like to get rid of. The youngest of my writers had a list of carrots, pears, bugs, and teachers that he would like gone from his life, at least over the summer.

Yesterday at noon was my scariest audience. I gave an hour lecture to the Faculty of English and Creative Writing at the University of Belgrade. Though I was a little nervous, and had spent the entire night working on my lecture and getting no sleep, they were all very generous about what I said and friendly. They would like to establish a relationship with Writers in the Schools Houston. Afterward, I was invited to lunch with several of their writers and I want to discuss more about that meeting with Serbian authors in the future. I have about 7 novels by Serbian authors and as soon as I have read more than one, I will blog on the state of great modern Serbian authors.

Today the embassy attache is coming to take me in an embassy armored car to the south of Serbia where I will meet with public school teachers and their creative writing students this afternoon and tomorrow. You might be wondering about the armored car. On February 28th or so of this year the American embassy was set afire about recognizing the independence of Kosovo and later Montenegro. Yesterday marked the official independence of that state so things are very tense here concerning both these events and the ambiguity of the recent elections.

Tomorrow evening I hook up with Amy Storrow, and we begin our simulacra of the WITS Summer Writing Camp in Macedonia. Amy has prepared, to say the least, an ambitious schedule, but I have every intention of keeping up with her and it. Once a WITS Writer, always a WITS writer, I say.

I will keep you in the know about what is going on here. Belgrade is fascinating, often beautiful, always interesting, with book stores everywhere. People are very serious about what they are reading. I look forward to my drive south through the green countryside of what was once part of the Byzantine empire. More anon.


Merrilee, WITS Writer in the Balkans

[photos of Belgrade by Akcjia / Katarina 2553 on flickr]