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]

The Macedonian Express and the Best-So-Far Awards

Posted July 26, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Today was the first day of the WITS Creative Writing Camp in Tetova on the border of Bosnia.  The camp was huge with 25 students here this afternoon and four “Best-So-Far” Awards for each group — the morning kids and the afternoon kids.  I am not really sure how these “Best-So-Far” Awards got started, but they have come to have a life of their own.  They all culminate on the Fridays of the Camp with a “Best of the Best” Award in nine different categories, most of which are actually related to our writing, as in Best Haiku, Best Extended Poem, Best Play, Best Vignette, Best Short Story, Best Piece of Descriptive Realism, but also including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director of the plays that are presented the last day, usually in front of a representative sent by the embassy in Skopje.

Every afternoon, after hours with the kids, sit down together and review the writing that went on in the camp and select the best pieces “so far.”  It is an interesting experience, but what is equally fun is to see the campers come in the next morning and the smiles on their faces when they have won one of the awards and they know exactly what they won it for.  Then, the third day of the camp, we begin awarding campers for the “Best Body of Work So Far.”

I guess life doesn’t really give such awards, but it would be convenient to get a kind of check-up like this from time to time in life itself.  It also let’s the teachers know, if there is no award for example, that we may need to see what we are doing and make changes.  That has never happened, but it is possible.  Hope that you are having a “Best-So-Far” Day yourself.

From Tetova, this is WITS Writer Merrilee Cunningham having a good day.

Our Indiana Jones and the Macedonian Hamburgers

Posted August 6, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Mere technology interrupted my transmittals from Macedonia. It seems that I was in line for a new computer at my university, and I knew that IT was going to take this time to get rid of my XP-powered bulky computer and arm me with my beloved Microsoft 2009 with all its many charms, templates, and  almost apple-like advantages.  Little did I know that getting rid of my literal machine would interrupt the flow of the Macedonia Express. But there is time now to catch up and my new machine, I trust, is awaiting me in my little office at the university, a better fate than Indiana Jones would have had in his handsome office at the University of Chicago. Yet there has been an Indiana Jones quality of this adventure. Five earthquakes, however small, in Bitola, a trip to Heraclea’s amazing mosaics, and a look at the on-going archeological work there, a wonderful ride from Bitola on the mountain rode to Tetovo, and we were ready for the second round of writing workshops.The anthology from Bitola was amazing. The children outdid themselves, and the staff, Elena and Bijana, worked so hard to make the anthology happen and make sure that the students revised well, and their work was not in vain. When I left Bitola for my sojourn on a narrow road through the beautiful mountains on Macedonia, past Lake Ohrid, where the Roman amphitheater is and where the amazing golden mask, that looks a bit like the Mask of Agamemnon, was found. I will write more about that mask tomorrow as it is one of the images of our Ekphrasis assignment.

Today I want to write about our adventures in Tetovo.  I was, once again, fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and able staff of teachers and students who were more than  ready to work.  The walls hung with Leslie Gauna’s “found poetry” assignment as well placed words in Albanian as well as English on the walls. By now, we have a cache of words in Macedonian, Albanian, and English for the students to select from.

After the workshop, my colleagues took me to an amazing natural spring in the mountains where people came who wanted to both bathe in the waters and drink the spring waters for their health. As this site is an ancient Ottoman Empire site, the very center of the spring is circled by white material for the use of the women who want to bathe and enjoy the waters, while the men enjoyed the waters outside the very large white circle where they could not enter. The mystery of inside that forbidden place was almost more than I could stand as I watched women go in and out of the large white, covered center.  After we bathed and collected water from the spring, offered us in used Coca-Cola bottles, we were off to have a Macedonian hamburger (the less said about this the better).

I was then off in my car to Skopje and the final week of workshops at the American Corners Center there. Tomorrow, more about the recent archeological discovery at Lake Orhid. And, not  a single earthquake I hope.

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

A Party at the Embassy

Posted June 29, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

After both classes of creative writing students and our adventure up to the Kale or fortification and discussions with the archeologists, I returned to Skopje yesterday evening for an embassy party.  There I met many senior embassy officials and rode into town with the director of the Tetova Theatre.  We had such interesting conversations about his early years starting the Tetova Theatre immediately after the political conflicts in this country and his continuing work both at the theatre and at the university. Tetova is becoming an international university town, and he discussed how exciting it has been to see this take place.

At the party there were many professors on Fulbrights, a second year law student who had originally been scheduled to go to Burma (Myanmar) and Macedonian intellectuals who were scheduled to come to the United States for cultural exchanges. The level of cultural exchange was very impressive, and I had to think about what a huge amount of work went into the programs that were sponsored by the United States Embassy.

The party honored a senior diplomat who was fresh from a meeting with the president of Macedonia.  This diplomat had very impressive scholarly and diplomatic credentials, and it occurred to me that some people select both the contemplative and the active life. That choice can make a huge difference in both your own life and the lives and welfare of others. Her career also made me realize how much we need to work on language acquisition and second language acquisition in our country if we are to continue to function diplomatically in this global village of ours.

Tomorrow is a travel day for me. The embassy will send a car for me, and I will leave this beautiful mountain city and head for Bitola and my final four-day workshops in the Balkans. I will miss Tetova in a way that I have only experienced missing Sicily.  Its mountains and children and intellectuals somehow enter your heart, as you see how hard they work to further their culture, how earnestly the children attempt to succeed at the assignments, and how committed the staff at the American Corner in Tetova is to the programs they provide. It was also good, as an old Peace Corp volunteer myself, to see Melissa, the hardworking Peace Corp volunteer who did so much for our project with her amazing experience in teaching. Finally, we put together a great team here in Tetova, just as we had done in Skopje.

Now let’s see how the Macedonian Express does in Bitola, just a half an hour’s walk from Philip of Macedonian’s Heracula. Wherever Hercules was worshipped in the ancient world in classical times, difficult physical tasks were admired such as agricultural feats so I look forward to discovering if Philip named this city because of the flourishing agricultural community to be found around there.  Much of Heracula has not yet been archeologically uncovered, I have been told, but I will still take the hike out there the first chance I get and report on the city of the father of Alexander the Great.

Until Monday then, this is the Macedonian Express, on the way out of my beloved Tetova and on southward towards Bitola.

More Anon,  Merrilee, WITS Writer in the Balkans