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
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.
- I've lost a piece of my
heart. I'm sorry that we were so stupid and na?ve in the past 20
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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 Koha.net, "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 na?ve 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 na?f. 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
"Now you're all smart, you hypocrites. So where were you when
the man was alive?"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising,
marketing and media for 28 years.