Storytelling: Tetovo

Sons of the Soil Setting Stories: Real Place, Real People, Real Story

This is the SECOND installment of a 1,000 words or less story-telling series related to my newly released novel, Sons of the Soil.  I will tell a story about the places in the book that I actually visited so that the reader may have a deeper understanding about the world I created and the people to which I gave a voice.  This installment is all about the city of Tetovo, North Macedonia.  It is a 90% Albanian city in the northwest of the country and the place I lived for four years.

Tetovo, North Macedonia

Then We Blow Up His House

One question that I frequently hear from readers is, “How do you just create a whole story?  Is it all from your imagination?”  The answer I usually give is that my writing may be fiction, but it is always, in some way, based on reality.  I hope this story provides some insight into my process and how my life is reflected in my work.  First I will provide a small excerpt from the book and then the story behind that scene.   

“Gypsies.  The eternal outcasts of all Balkan Tribes…As MacGregor walked towards his destination, he could feel the gypsies’ eyes on him.  Women peeked out from behind tent flaps.  Filthy babies were hushed by their mother’s dirty hands.  Men moved from the main road and disappeared into the shadows, their skin so dark it blended with the black of the unlit alleys.  Starving dogs jumped and barked at the intruders.”

Fiction?  Yes.  A mirror of my life in Tetovo?  Absolutely.  The scene described above was inspired by actual events that were ridiculous and jaw-dropping, even by Tetovo standards.  Our story begins with my badass, marathon running wife, so, here we go…

My wife is an amazing runner who, at the time of this story, was determined to achieve one of her lifetime goals: to run a marathon.  Of course, knowing her, it couldn’t be just any marathon.  It had to be THE marathon, like the one from Marathon, Greece into the Olympic stadium in Athens.  Preparation for this great event was difficult in Tetovo, a 90% Muslim town that is quite conservative.  The sight of a very fit woman in stretch pants jogging around the city and surrounding villages was quite shocking.  People stared, children hollered, and the roads were a minefield because no one respected her space to run.  But that didn’t stop my wife.  She was determined and she endured.  Like I said, a badass.

Every once in a while she would come home dejected by the way she had been treated, or a little scared by the danger, but she kept running.  Except one day it was different.  One day she came home and things weren’t right.  

I was preparing dinner (meaning I was sitting on the couch thinking of an excuse to go out to eat) when she came home.  The look on her face told me something had happened, but she didn’t want to tell me.  She said everything was ok.  Don’t worry.  I’m fine and so on and so forth, but I kept pushing.  Finally, she relented.  

She had been running her normal route, which passed by the river near the Roma (gypsy) camp.  Normally the kids just yelled and chased her a bit, but that day was different.  Someone had become physical.  As she was running, one of the Romas had reached out and grabbed her.  This was an obvious violation of her personal space and a borderline assault.  As a husband, I was outraged and wanted retribution, which of course is why my wife didn’t want to tell me.  She knew, deep down, as wives often do, that it would end up badly for everyone, but I could not be dissuaded (as often happens with husbands).  My wife had been assaulted and I would hold the offender accountable.

The first thing I did was call my best friend in the city.  He was an Albanian man who, let’s just say, knew his way around situations that could result in physical harm.  I told him over the phone what had happened and before I could hang up he was on his way over.  

When he arrived, my wife told her story.  He listened with a grave look on his face and apologized profusely to my wife for the way she had been treated.  Then he turned to me and asked what I wanted to do.  I told him we had to go find this guy and hold him accountable.  The consequences would be what they would be, we would worry about that later.  My friend, who is absolutely no joke, nodded his head and we got in the car.

As we drove to the Roma encampment, my friend asked that he do all the talking.  I agreed, we parked, and my friend and I walked toward the shanty town.  This is where the line between fiction and reality begins to blur.  What happened next was the inspiration for the book excerpt from the beginning of this post.  As we entered the outer ring of the tents, the children took off running to tell the adults that an outsider had come in.  Dogs were jumping and barking.  There was a huge tire fire near the entrance.  The smoke curled up and spread out, creating a wall we had to pass through in pursuit of the Roma elder to which my friend wanted to speak.  As we passed the tire fire, all the young adult males began to gather.  They slowly formed a circle around us and pressed in.  My friend knew some of them, so he chatted and tried to keep the conversation light while we waited, but the mood was tense.  I felt like an intruder and suddenly far away from anybody who could help if I cried out.  Finally (thankfully), the elder arrived.

He and my friend exchanged pleasantries before getting down to business, all in Albanian but heavy Tetovarian dialect, so I could understand some but not all of what was said.  The elder looked angry and embarrassed.  He apologized for the behavior of this individual and asked his people to bring out the offender, who was somehow already known to the group.  I was fuming inside while we waited.  My friend could tell I was ready to erupt.  He put his hand on my shoulder and told me to keep calm and let him do the talking.  I could see the person beginning to emerge from the crowd, my pulse sprinted, but I pushed back my instincts and remained still.  

Once the crowd had parted and I got a good look at him, I let out a breath that I had been holding for quite some time.  It was just a kid, maybe thirteen years-old.  At first glance he looked much older, which is why my wife thought it was a young adult, but there was no doubt he was just a kid.  He admitted to it and the elder cuffed him roughly, sending him away with a litany of curses.  Then the elder turned to us and told us where to find the child’s father.  My friend said a few more words and we walked out of the Roma camp without an incident.  

As we walked to the car I told my friend that it was ok now, that we didn’t have to see the father.  He was just a kid.  In response, my friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was not over and we were obligated to see the boy’s father.  It was at this point that I realized I was in some deep Balkan shit.

My friend explained we had no choice but to address the situation with the boy’s father.  We had entered the Roma community, addressed the elder, and been told to resolve the problem directly with the father.  I, of course, was a little hesitant.  I wondered out loud what would happen if the boy’s father rejected us and refused to take responsibility.  I mean, sometimes parents refuse to accept that their kid did something stupid.  I will never forget what my friend said in response to my naive musing.  He looked at me, face devoid of emotion, but serious in a way that caught my breath, “If he refuses us, then we bomb his home.  Immediately we bomb.  There is no other way.  He will come for us if we don’t.”  

“What the fuck?  Bomb?  Dude, I don’t want that.  Let’s just leave it.   He was just a kid.”  

“No, you wanted to confront, so we confront.  Now we must go to the end.  No matter what.”

You can imagine how insane all this sounded to me.  In the States we have laws people follow, police officers that are not irredeemably corrupt, and a social system that does not value pride and honor over safety, but I was not in the States.  This was the Balkans.  More importantly, this was Tetovo.  I had to see it through.  I had to go to the end.  So we went to see the father.

We found him drinking at a dark, terrible place that had three dirty tables and a few silent drunks.  He was sitting alone, hunched over a glass of rakia (moonshine).  

Note to Reader: Confronting a man who is silently getting drunk in the dim light of a flophouse is something to avoid.  No charge for the free advice. 

We sat down and introduced ourselves.  My friend laid it out plain and simple.  The man listened and sipped his drink.  The low light cast shadows over his eyes as the news of his son’s behavior contorted his face.  He was slowly building towards a boil.  I defied my friend’s instructions and told the man that I understood his son was a kid, that retribution was not necessary, if only the father would talk to his son, tell the boy to be respectful.  He looked at me as though I didn’t exist.  The boy’s father sat quietly for a moment before speaking.  His words came out heavy, “I will bury my son tonight.”  

I quickly pleaded with the father that such drastic action was not necessary, but my friend told me to be quiet.  The man then apologized to my wife on behalf of his family and it was done.  A few short words to excuse ourselves and we walked away.

I was beside myself once we were out of the bar, “Dude, no!  We can’t leave it like that.  I don’t want that.  Was he serious?  Can he be se-”

“It’s done.  What happens now is his business.”

Finished.  It was either that or bomb his house.  I could not believe what had happened.  I did not sleep for days after that and neither did my wife.  We were terrified for the Roma boy.  There was no going to the police, they did not meddle in Roma business and would (sadly) laugh us out of the station.  I asked my friend to make sure the Roma boy was still alive, and after a few days my friend told me that the boy had been seen.  

This experience was one of many introductions to a world, some would say the real world, that we Americans cannot comprehend.  The world is a very severe, violent, and unforgiving place, and until you have seen that version, the version lived by the majority of humanity, you are uninitiated.  

My experience walking into the Roma community was seismic and forced me to re-consider who I was and my place in this world.  As a writer, this was one of many experiences, some just as dramatic, that shaped my work and fueled the creation of my novel.  Sons of the Soil is a deeply personal book that is a reflection of my experience and the introspection triggered by such life-altering experiences, and Tetovo was the incubator.

Note: I totally went WAY over 1,000 words.  I beg for your forgiveness.  

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