A Journey in the Heart of Macedonia

Writes Sayed Gouda


9 September in Hong Kong.


About the Festival:

Struga Poetry Evenings (SPE) is considered one of the oldest and most prestigious poetry festivals in Europe. It started in 1962 with readings by Macedonian poets on the honour of the two brothers Konstantin and Dimitar Miladinov who were writers born in Struga at the beginning of 19th century. Konstantin Miladinov is considered to be the establisher of modern Macedonian poetry. The festival is opened every year officially with the reading of his poem ‘Longing for the South’, which became a symbol of the festival, and which he wrote during his years of study in Moscow.

            The ‘Brothers Miladinov’ award was established in 1963 for the best book of poetry published in Macedonia between two festivals as poets from all over Yugoslavia started to participate. SPE turned to an international event in 1966 and there was an international award called ‘The Golden Wreath’ given to a living international poet for his contribution and poetry achievement. SPE established a strong cooperation with the UNISCO in 2003. Together they started a new award called ‘Struga Bridges’ to the best first book of poetry of a young poet from any part of the world.

            In spite of all the difficulties that faced the SPE like the fall of Yugoslavia, the war on Bosnia, Kosovo crisis, the ethnic and political conflicts in Macedonia, the terrorist problems after the attack of September 11, the political and economical embargo on the region, SPE remained successful and became one of the most important poetry festival in the world today.

            The opening ceremony which called ‘The Meridian Readings’ and held at the ‘House of Poetry’, and the closing ceremony which called ‘Struga Bridges’ and held on ‘Drim’ Bridge, meaning Dream bridge, are considered the most popular readings and attended by a huge number of the Macedonian people who love poetry and come to welcome the poets and enjoy listening to them. SPE festival organizes readings mixing poetry with picture and music called ‘Poetry without Punctuation’ which starts at midnight with no certain hour to finish. There is also a symposium to discuss a literary topic a day before the opening ceremony. This year’s topic is ‘Poetry and Music’. Throughout its history SPE festival invited about four thousand poets, translators, writers, and critics from 95 countries.

            Every year SPE festival publishes a series of poetry books of foreign poets translated in Macedonian. A thematic selection of contemporary Macedonian poetry is also published translated into English.  ‘Pleiades’ Series, which is a group of stars called after the names of the daughters of Atlas, and as the Greek mythology goes, they were turned into stars by the gods, this series publishes seven books of poetry every year for worldwide famous poets. SPE festival established the International Library of Poetry containing books of all the participant poets. The poetry archive has books, manuscripts, photos, films of poets and poetry readings. All these are available to researchers and poetry lovers. Therefore, SPE festival asks all the participant poets to present to the library some of their books. Among the most popular publications of SPE is the publication of selections of contemporary poetry for a different country each year. This series started in 1971 and published selections of contemporary poetry for Italy, Soviet Union, Poland, Chile, Finland, Algeria, Palestine, Germany, USA, Hungary, Greece, Austria, Venezuela, Egypt, China, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland, Denmark, Albania, Korea, Spain, Bulgaria, Russia, Portugal, Tunis, India, Caribbean, Turkey, Ukraine, and Norway! Not only this, SPE also publishes a bulky book containing poems and biographies of all the participant poets of the year with a translation of the poems into Macedonian and either English or French.

            The winner of ‘Golden Wreath’ award this year is the Slovenian poet Tomas Salamun, while the ‘Struga Bridges’ award goes to the young Senegal poet Ousmane Sarr (Sarrous), and the winner of ‘Miladinov Brothers’ award is the Macedonian poet Vesna Acevska. Among the winners of ‘Golden Wreath’ award Pablo Neruda 1971, Eugene Guillevic 1976, Tim Hughes 1994, Adonis 1997, Seamus Heaney 2001, Mahmoud Darwish 2007 and other poets.

            The Director of the SPE is Mr. Danilo Kocevski. The festival board has Mr.

Slave Gjorgjo Dimoski as a president, and a number of poets and critics: Branko Cvetkovski, Xemi Hajredini, Razme Kumbarovski, Ljavdrim Elmazi as members. The secretary of SPE is Miss
Jasmina Tosevska.


The Journey and the Festival:

It was the longest trip I ever travelled in my life when I travelled on 18 August for thirteen hours covering the distance of 9289 Km from Hong Kong to Zurich. Then I flew from Zurich to Vienna then from Vienna to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, to participate in the 48th Struga Poetry Evenings. I arrived to Skopje at 5 p.m. The weather was fine and the city seemed quiet, not crowded. The population of Macedonia is not more than two millions. I knew from a driver of Albanian origin at the airport that one quarter of the Macedonian population were Albanian Muslims with some Turkish minorities and mainly lived in Struga. He told me that I would see a lot of Mosques in Struga. The staff sent by SPE festival took me from the airport to a youth hostel fifteen minutes of drive away from the airport.  He told me that there would be a bus to take me to Struga at 10 p.m. and that there would be a girl called Maria would come at 8 p.m. to accompany me until the time of departure to Struga. It was 6 p.m. I went to a small grocery shop nearby and bought fresh milk and some sweet dessert similar to our Katayef. The lady vendor could hardly say the price in English. She was blonde with western features but I felt her eastern spirit. That was what I felt towards the Macedonian people in general.

            Knocks on my door. Someone told me that there was a girl waiting for me at the lobby. It was 8 p.m. I went down to see a girl in her twenties who told me that Maria could not come because she had another job to do and that she would replace her in accompanying me in a tour in the city. She had a Macedonian name so I could not remember it. She was a good talker. She asked me if I would like to drink coffee and I did not mind. We walked for ten minutes until we arrived to a square with a lot of restaurants and cafeterias. I felt I was in a cafeteria in Egypt. The girl told me that she was a translator, that she loved translation and could not imagine a day passing without doing any translation. She said there were more than two thousand translators who worked day and night for the SPE festival and to translate the European Union Laws into the Macedonian language. I knew from her that originally she was from Serbia and that she majored in the Serbian language at university. She told me that Skopje was totally different from Struga. While the latter got an eastern style, the capital got a western style more. I asked her about the political sensitivity between Macedonia and Greece and she said that she had visited Greece with her sister the last weekend. Though she tried to conceal her nationality from the waiter, he knew and said to her, ‘You don’t have to hide your Macedonian nationality. Here, we don’t care about political differences. You’re here for sightseeing and to spend your money. So, you’re welcome. This is what interests us!’

            We returned to the youth hostel at 10 p.m. to find a microbus waiting with five poets just arrived. Our journey to Struga started. The streets in Skopje reminded me of those in Heliopolis of Cairo. How similar the two cities! We arrived to Struga after three hours of driving in the mountains. I managed to sleep most of the three hours. I did not talk to anyone until we arrived then we introduced ourselves. There was a poet from Austria called Anja Utler and her husband, two poets from France one of which originally from Taiwan called Maurus Young, the president of the World Congress of Poets, and there was a poet from Sweden. We checked in a hotel called ‘Drim’ meaning ‘dream’. My room number was 100. That number made me feel optimistic.

            Poets gathered the next day (Thursday 20 August) in the morning in a park nearby the hotel to plant the tree of poetry in the name of the winner poet of this year’s award – a tradition practiced by the festival every year. Tomaz Salamun, the winner of this year’s award, delivered a short speech talking about his father and how he loved agriculture and that he would be proud of what we were doing if he were with us.

            The opening ceremony, which called ‘Poetic Meridians’, started in the evening. It was attended by the former president and the Minister of Culture. The ceremony started with some folklore dance in the yard of the ‘House of Poetry’ next to Drim River. The presenters of the programme were Macedonian actor and actress: he was to read in Macedonian and she was to read in English. Their recitation was a pleasure to the listeners. After they recited ‘Longing for the South’, a poem by Konstantin Miladinov, we all entered the ‘House of Poetry’. After opening speeches by the director of SPE festival and the Minister of Culture there was a piano performance by the Macedonian international pianist Simon Trpcheski for half an hour. It was accompanied in the end by a violin performance which was indeed a world class performance that I wished it never ended! The poetry reading lasted for more than an hour. Among the poets who read, the Syrian poet Maram Al-Masry who read a poem called ‘I killed my father’ and she recited it well.

            My friend, Trajan Petrovski, who translated my book of poetry last year, told me that he would like to take me in a tour to see his village ‘Arbinov’ which was 30 km away from Struga. We agreed that I wait for him the next day at 10 o’clock in the morning with the Mongolian poet Mend-Ooyo and his secretary Miss Mugi. Trajan arrived on Friday morning (21 Augst) with his wife Ms Verka and we left the hotel together. We arrived to the village after almost 30 minutes. It was a small and quiet village. I was surprised when he told me that the population of the village was not more than thirty inhabitants because many Macedonians lived abroad. The village was on the top of a mountain. The view from up there was beautiful overlooking a range of green mountains and stretched out meadows. The green colour around us was a cheerful scenery. We sat at a pavilion in the garden that reminded of those in China. Ms. Verka prepared some dishes of feta cheese, chicken, some snacks, and wine. After a while, our friend, the Macedonian poet Branko Cvetkovski joined us together with his wife. After having our snack, we walked on foot to visit the younger brother of Trajan Petrovski. Trajan told me that it was the family house where he was born. I was astonished to see him turning the house into a museum keeping all the tools used previously by his father and grandfather with a sticker carried the name of the tool posted on each one. Family photos decorated the walls. An idea proved how much these people were attached to their land and history. A poet who was a former ambassador of his country returned to his small village away from the capital to live where he was born and raised. He told me that the gardens surrounding their house belonged to them. On our way back, his brother plucked some branches of fruit and presented them to us. We ate some fruit of plum and apricot to our content. I said to Ms. Verka, joking, ‘We are in Paradise! We are walking with fruit near us eating them as we wish!’

            We drove the car heading to the peak which was 1700 m high over the sea level. On the way Trajan Petrovski had a doubt that one of the car’s tires needed more air. He preferred to return to do so instead of taking a risk. He asked for a help from his neighbour, Mr. Pancha who filled the tire with air and invited us to drink tea. He was a hunter and had in his yard chickens, pigeons, hunting dogs, and sheep. He planted Jasmine, Carnation, and Sun Flowers in his garden and around the fence of his house. He was a kind man. He showed me some photos of what he hunted of foxes, deers, hawks, and giant fishes. He decorated the walls with a fox, two hawks, deer’s horns, and some hunting rifles. We took photos for memory and continued our journey to the peak. Trajan Petrovski told me that the Yugoslavian army used to camp on these mountain during the WWII. The trees were so high and dense and provided a secure shelter to those who hid among them. I said that to him and he agreed. He added that Tito used to camp with the army and fight with them side by side. That was why he was popular and remained so after he became the president of the country.

            He took us to visit a friend of his, a farmer called Mr. Rossea who met us with a smile that seldom left his face. His young wife prepared some feta cheese, milk, and hot bread. I saw a room that was like a storehouse, with a lot of cheese containers. Mr. Rossea told me that they made cheese and bread at home. I said to him that living on a mountain, breathing fresh air, eating such a healthy food guaranteed a good health for the mountain inhabitants. I added that he could overcome ten of those city inhabitants. He laughed and did not comment. When I shook hand with his wife, her hand was strong and tough from cutting the trees trunks with axe to make a fire every evening to ward off the wolves. Trajan Petrovski told me that Mr. Rossea had almost 300 sheep and that they were in the meadow. Mr. Rossea would bring them back every evening to protect them from hungry wolves and bears that fight ferociously against the dogs of Mr. Rossea. He invited me to stay overnight to watch the fight. I liked the idea and wanted to stay but Trajan Petrovski told me that there was a poetry reading the next day morning. Maybe he was afraid something bad would happen to me. There was a running water spring nearby the house. They told me that it came from Lake Ohrid. I tasted it and it was sweet and cold. I saw bottles of water buried in the mud under the stream. I touched one of them only to find it so cold as though it was just taken out of a fridge. I was surprised especially it was still August! Before we left, Mr. Rossea presented to me horns of a small deer he hunted himself. I was happy with the present like a child. We continued driving up to the peak. There was a soldiers’ monument. We saw the herd of sheep afar. There were two huge dogs to protect the herd. One of them approached us, for he saw Trajan Petrovski before. Gently, I patted it with caution. It was a huge, frightening dog. No wonder it fights wolves and bears every night. On our way back we stopped several times to pluck some fruit of blackberry, mulberry, and plum.

            We gathered on Saturday morning (22 August) in the hotel lobby to go to a yard called ‘Poetry Mill’ among the houses and near the river for the poetry reading. Trajan Petrovski read an introduction to the ten poetry books translated from the Macedonian language into English and the three poetry books translated into the Macedonian language. One of those three books was a book for Maram Al-Masry who read the same poem she read at the opening ceremony. Then we went by bus to the Monastery of Our Lady in Kalishta for another poetry reading. The Moroccan poet Fatima Zahra Bennis recited a poem called ‘A Woman of Fantacy’. She recited well, too. After the reading, we returned to the hotel for lunch and to take rest. We gathered in the afternoon to go to the presidential palace to meet Mr. George Ivanov, the President of Macedonia who met us in the palace garden and shook hands with us a poet after another. When it was my turn and I introduced myself as a poet from Egypt, he looked pleased and told me that he majored in political history and that he wrote a book about political history with a chapter on the political history of Egypt. I presented to him a copy of my English novel ‘Once Upon a Time in Cairo’. He pointed to the presidential palace and said that Tito used to live there and that Nasser often visited him there. He told me that Mohammed Ali was Macedonian. I said he was of Albanian origin. He replied that Mohammed Ali was born on the mountains between Macedonia and Albania. He was simple, gentle, cultured, and spoke with no formalities. I knew later that he was a scholar before he turned to politics and became the president of the republic.

            In the evening we headed to Cathedral Church of St. Sophia in the historical Ohrid. It was built in 11th century. The frescos on the walls and the ceilings dated back to the middle ages. A poetry reading for Tomaz Salamun started and it was attended by the current and former presidents.

            We went for a sea trip on Sunday morning (23 August) across Lake Ohrid, the biggest lake in Europe, to visit the Monastery of St. Naum. The monastery situated on a rocky height overlooking the southeast of Lake Ohrid, near the borders with Albania, where Lake Ohrid connected with Drim River and its pure springs that branched from the lake. As for Lake Ohrid, its water was translucent, its depth clear, colours of blue and green mixed in a beautiful harmony that was a pleasure to the eye. The purity of the water had reflections like it were a bright mirror! The frescos on the walls and ceilings of the monastery dated to 16th and 17th centuries. Other frescos dated to the Byzantine time. The monastery had a huge fire on the second and the third nights of February 1875. A great part of its compounds was destroyed. Excavation works after the WWII discovered only the foundation and some walls of the church. It was not known when the church was destroyed but it happened before the Turk’s rule. During the Ottoman’s rule the current church was built in 16th century on the old foundation in two phases. When I visited the Monastery of Archangel which was built by St. Naum years before his death in 910, I entered the room where he was buried. The coffin was on the left hand side of the room door. Visitors stood in lines to listen to the saint’s heart that was still beating! When it was my turn I bent down sticking my ear against the coffin listening attentively that I may hear something. To my surprise, I clearly heard the beats of a living heart! I blocked my other ear with my finger and listened attentively again. The sound of the heartbeats was clear and it was beating aloud in my ear! I left the room speechless. The voice of the Indian poet ‘Rukmini Bhaya Nair’ awoke me, ‘What we heard was the sound of our own heartbeats returning from the coffin’s wood to our ears!’

            After visiting the monastery we had our lunch in a nearby restaurant close to the source of Drim River. Trees branches lowered themselves to the water as though it were a kiss from a lover to his beloved. The purity of the water reflected the images of the branches to the extent that the branches and their reflections on the water mixed in a way that it was hard to tell where the separating line between the thing and its image was!

            We returned to Struga to get ready for the closing ceremony which was called ‘Struga Bridges’. It would be broadcasted live by the TV of Macedonia. The ceremony would be held on Drim Bridge overlooking the river. When it was the time to start, the view was amazing: a stage was set on the bridge which was closed from both sides; fountains of water gushed from under the bridge to the river; the stage lights glowed against Struga‘s night and reflected on the water; children were playfully swimming in the river; a huge crowd of Struga’s people lined up on both sides to welcome the poets and to listen to their readings. Tonight, Struga turned into a beautiful bride to be wed to poetry. The poets were only the witnesses to that wedding! The ceremony started at 8:30 p.m. and lasted for almost two hours. Among the poets who read was the Moroccan poet Benaissa Bouhmala who read a poem dedicating it to our friend, the Belgium poet, Germain Droogenbroodt. Before my own reading, I saluted that poetry loving audience. I recited my poem ‘The Thing’ in English and Arabic. The programme presenter closed the ceremony by reading the Macedonian translation.

            We travelled on Monday morning (24 August) to Skopje, the capital, to get ready to leave Macedonia. After we had arrived, I went out for a walk with Benaissa and Germain Droogenbroodt as Germain suggested to visit an antique market called ‘Pit Bazaar’. I told them that the streets reminded me of those of Nasser City of Cairo. Benaissa agreed with me. When we arrived to the market, which was very similar to Khan El-Khalily, I saw two restaurants called ‘Luxor Restaurant’ and ‘Cairo Fast Food’. I exclaimed, ‘Didn’t I tell you that I felt I was in Cairo?!’

             We went on Tuesday forenoon (25 August) to Matka Park in Sova Mountain, which was 17 km away from the city, for a poetry reading starting at 12 noon at St. Andrea Monastery. The mayor delivered a speech welcoming the guest poets. Then the poetry reading started. How beautiful to read poetry in a garden, in the heart of high mountains, overlooking Lake Matka whose pure water looked like a jewel! I recited two poems, ‘Wave’ and ‘Under the Cross of Spartacus’. And it was time to leave to the airport with the Uruguayan poet, Jorge Palma. I bade farewell to that garden, that city, that country which was a great model in her organizing the festival, and in her hospitality towards us, in the kindness of her people whom I felt I knew for long time. I left Macedonia carrying in my heart not just one thing from her but things!


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