Death and Reconciliation in the Age of Listenomics

What We Can Learn From Reactions Online to the Passing of an Albanian Kosovar Actor

By Published on .

Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
My friend's father died the other day.

He was actually a very famous man, at least in Europe. His name was Bekim Fehmiu, one of the greatest Yugoslav actors of his, or any, generation. He was often called Yugoslavia's Marlon Brando, although the comparison disserves both men. Google him. It's a revelation.

I knew Bekim only after he had long since retired from stage and screen, but I have seen his film work and can say it was a breathtaking synthesis of power, poetry and Eros. Oh, and you've seen him, too. He did some lesser work in Hollywood, the last as the terrorist mastermind in "Black Sunday."

Bekim Fehmiu's death brought rare accord in online comments.
Bekim Fehmiu's death brought rare accord in online comments.
Bekim is my subject here, however, not for his contributions to the art and science of cinema. He's my subject for his posthumous contribution to the art and science of Listenomics. His death, because it happened in the internet age, could literally have historic consequences. His passing has already led to an unprecedented interlude of reconciliation -- manifesting itself almost entirely online -- in a conflict dating back centuries.

Bekim was an Albanian Kosovar, hailing from Pristina but living his adult life in Belgrade. Even in the days of Tito's Yugoslavia, when ethnic passions were officially subordinated to Yugosolidarity, this made him an outsider and a living paradox. He was simultaneously a heroic figure and a schiptar, which when uttered by Orthodox Serbs is an ugly ethnic slur for Muslim Albanians. For the most part, fame trumped bigotry, but suspicion always lurked. In that sense, he was less the Yugoslavian Marlon Brando than the Yugoslavian Sammy Davis Jr.

Then came the collapse of Yugoslavia, the resurrection of ethnic hatreds, the re-Balkanization of the Balkans, genocide and war. Whereupon Marlon Brando Sammy Davis Fehmiu became Greta Garbo. Bekim, largely in protest against Serbian aggression, vanished from public life; in the ashes of the Yugo miracle, he wished to be left alone. He was proud, aloof, in profound despair -- and, as a Kosovar living in Belgrade -- an Other in two societies.

In Kosovo, the Albanian separatists made life ever more miserable and dangerous for the minority Serbs. In Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic and his paramilitary proxies, having slaughtered Muslims in Bosnia, unleashed their ethnic-cleansing tactics on the Albanians. NATO attacked Serbia. The stage was set for the unthinkable: the separation of Serbia and Kosovo, where in 1389 the Turks had defeated the outnumbered Serbs and made Kosovo–like a 14th-century Alamo–reside forever in the soul of the vanquished. In 2008, Kosovo declared itself an independent republic.

What history has put asunder, let no man presume to join.

Yet, in his passing, Bekim Fehmiu may have initiated that very process. Surrounding the news of his death, which has dominated ex-Yugoslavia for the past week, something quite extraordinary has happened. The news-site comments sections, typically the playgrounds of polemicists, trolls, morons and other malicious purveyors of unconstrained id, have been awash in thoughtful condolences.

The first thing that jumps out is the outpouring of sympathy, on Belgrade news sites and Pristina ones, voicing nearly identical sentiments. "Let us spread along all meridians of the world his noble spirit," one commenter wrote in Albanian. And this, in Serbian: "You will be a star in the sky that will shine everlasting." The sainted figure, who in failing health and failing spirit took his own life at the age of 74, was somehow declared a patriot by Albanians and Serbs both.

As one commenter put it, "I'm trying to think of another man, of whom the Serbs and Albanians cannot complain."

Of course, some did complain; the online reaction wasn't entirely uncontaminated by the usual political posturing. A commenter named Mihali wrote on Belgrade's b92 website, "For all Albanians, who suffered so much during Yugoslavia ... this man's success and assimilation into the city of those who persecuted us is a spit in our face." Another asserted that Bekim had been murdered by the Serbs. From the other direction, a handful of Serbs denounced him for criticizing the country that became his home. These rebukes, however, were drowned out by the voices of loss, of regret and -- notably -- of shame.

From Serbs:

  • I've lost a piece of my heart. I'm sorry that we were so stupid and naïve in the past 20 years.
  • I live abroad and come to Belgrade in the summer. On some walls I see the label 'Death to Schiptari.' Imagine what it's like to be Albanian and pass that every day."
  • As a Serb from Belgrade , and as someone who grew up with his movies. ... I would send condolences to the family , and the Albanian people from whom he originated.
  • Dear Bekim, sorry we did not penetrate the wall of your silence. I'm sorry that you have not been cultivated and nurtured as a natural bridge between our two feuding and troubled nations. Sorry for all the sufferings that you have to endure in those crazy years when the Albanians had windows broken in their shops just because they are Albanian. Sorry you are now remembered only when your scream penetrated to the very heavens. I'm sorry for everything.
  • And from Albanians:

  • Why was he abandoned by his own people? ... WHY WHY?
  • Hatred in each other has brought us to this miserable situation wherever we chopped and divided in many states.
  • Shame, shame.
  • That last comment was directed particularly at Albanian state TV, for boycotting Bekim's films for years, and at the Kosovo Parliamentary President Jakup Krasniqi, for pointedly declining to officially recognize Bekim's death.

    "Woe," wrote one commenter on the Pristina website, "in who governs us."

    Death, of course, is nearly always the occasion for plaudits, for generosity, for forgiveness, for self-examination, for at least temporarily casting aside differences in order to honor the memory of the deceased. It would be naïve bordering on absurd to impute, from a few bouquets of eulogy, some sort of gathering consensus between enemies for eternal understanding, peace and goodwill. "Kumbaya" is a song, not a foreign policy. But here's the thing about Listenomics: If you pay close attention to the chatter you can often divine genuine meaning.

    It is not just that a few grieving ex-Yugoslavs were mutually mourning a tragic icon of their happier youths and took the trouble to express their sense of loss. This is the internet we're talking about. Hundreds wrote. Thousands upon thousands, using the "like" or "dislike" option, weighed in, too. Expressions of sadness and guilt were validated exponentially in a chorus of e-assent. Expressions of hatred and division were drowned out in a hail of e-boos. And perhaps it was this very e-consensus that emboldened both Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu and Serbian President Boris Tadic to appear at memorials in their respective capitals.

    And perhaps that presages a momentous embrace, not tug of war, over common history. Here again, I don't wish to seem like a Pollyanna or a naïf. But should these peoples indeed edge closer together in the next months and years, let the record reflect that Listenomics saw it coming.

    On the other hand, attentive readers this past week also encountered a particularly trenchant nugget of e-truth in the b92 comments section, this one utterly disdaining the sudden wave of weepy introspection:

    "Now you're all smart, you hypocrites. So where were you when the man was alive?"

    Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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