A beautiful dance in Yugoslavia

War in Croatia, dancing in socialism, “Wind of Change” as your favourite song: author Saša Stanišić describes his life as a teenager.

About Mr Stanišić

Saša Stanišić, winner of the German Book Prize 2019, is one of the most celebrated writers of his generation. Born in Višegrad in 1978, he fled to Germany during the Bosnian war in 1992. He has received several awards, most recently landing a bestseller with “Origin” (“Herkunft”).

The war in Croatia started in 1991. I was thirteen years old, lived five hundred kilometres away from the gunfire and even when the news and every conversation were full of the war, I couldn’t believe that it was really true. I couldn’t believe that neighbours and colleagues would attack each other and that Yugoslavia would fall apart. More than anything, I couldn’t believe that Tito didn’t immediately rise up from his grave to put things right in Croatia with a zombie army made up of former party officials.

Something else that I couldn’t believe was that Nataša wanted to dance with the other Saša, the one with the quiff hairstyle, instead of me, during our anti-war festival in the “Garden” Restaurant. Otherwise the festival was a complete success, even though it didn’t lead to peace as hoped, and the first shots were fired in Bosnia a few months later. We, a dozen of us eight to fourteen-year olds decorated the tables with the red star and hung Yugoslavian flags and wreaths made of pine branches on the walls. The wreaths were meant to symbolise peace, but really they looked as if Father Frost was about to walk through the door.

We recited poems of praise: about Yugoslavia. About our camaraderie, our childhoods, about love. I recited verses especially about love and looked at Nataša sitting in the audience who didn’t return my gaze. One person sang a partisan song, somebody else sang an American pop song. There was a children's talk show with guests who talked about things like “dinosaurs” and “anti-fascism”. My grandmother organised the raffle and won it herself.

What a nice yet totally ineffectual endeavour. As the country took its final breaths, we celebrated Yugoslavia just as naively and fantastically and futilely as Yugoslavia had been as an idea: a world of equals, not separated by origin or religion, where everyone had the same rights. With healthy socialism, with the freedom to travel and express opinions – unless you took the freedom of expression too literally, then your freedom to travel quickly came to an end.

Music played in the evening. “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions was my favourite song at the time and it was to this song that Nataša danced with Saša, the one with the quiff hairstyle.

Almost exactly one year after the festival, a Serbian mercenary asked my grandmother how she could allow her son to marry a “Turkish woman”. The houses of the Muslim population had already been burned down.

“Racists are generally rude people,” my grandfather supposedlyonce said. For a long time, it was good to be against racism and fascism in Yugoslavia. Which only makes the air of presumption exuded by the racists who marched in Belgrade, Zagreb, Vukovar and Višegrad in the nineties all the more outrageous. Worlds vanish if you don't early and decisively stand in the way of those who want them to vanish.

It took until 2018 before I saw Nataša again. The war put us on widely divergent paths. We talked for a long time, reminisced about our peace festival, about our carefree youth where so many things seemed possible for so many and then so many things became impossible for so many.

I told Nataša that I would have liked to have danced with her that evening. She was surprised, said we had danced, she even remembered the song – “Wind of Change”.

“Was it nice?” I asked. “Did we have a nice dance in Yugoslavia?”

She laughed because the question was incredibly funny, but then she said with all seriousness: “Yes, we had a beautiful dance in Yugoslavia.”

Published on KfW Stories: 4 October 2019