A Balkan Whisperer in Darkness
by Stephen Schwartz
People who take delight in such incidents as I will here describe call it "getting Fisked," after the infamous British leftist writer Robert Fisk, who was beaten up by a Muslim crowd in Pakistan, on which he was reporting sympathetically, in 2001. I wasn't beaten up and what happened may have had less significance than I thought, but here goes:
On the night of Tuesday, July 11, I boarded an overnight bus in Prishtina, capital of Kosova, heading for the Montenegrin coastal resort of Ulcinj. The trip was to consume nine steamy hours on winding roads, but I had done it before and was inured to the basic hardship of a long, slow ride. I was accompanied by a Saudi Sufi, Muhammad, who soon fell asleep.
A man behind me began speaking almost immediately and without stopping, in Albanian – which I understand – after the bus pulled out of its terminal. I paid no attention except to notice that his voice possessed a certain rhetorical intensity. I was too tired to follow what he said. Like my friend Muhammad, I drifted into and out of sleep. But Muhammad cannot speak Albanian and had successfully tuned out all the ambient noise of the bus.
Muhammad's lack of local skills was exposed when we arrived at the border of the newly-independent republic of Montenegro, which has a Slav Christian majority. A Slav guard looked startled by Muhammad's passport and then appeared even more surprised when it was clear we were traveling together. Saudis are typically objects of suspicion in the Balkans, with good reason; except that my friend is a pillar of liberal opposition to Wahhabism, the radical ideology the desert fanatics have fostered through the Sunni Muslim world. The Slav guard fired questions at us about how long we would be in Montenegro. I answered in Serbian, which I also speak, that we would be in the country briefly and would go on to Bosnia-Hercegovina within a day.
Muhammad soon went back to sleep, and I tried to get some real rest. But the voice behind me had begun again, and now it was insistently focused on the nature of God (a favorite subject for Islamic fundamentalists), the nefarious influence of Sufis who thought they could reinterpret the faith, the evil intentions of Americans, Iraq, and bloodshed. I was startled because it is rare to hear Albanians, after the rescue of Kosova, badmouth Americans.
But I am known in the Balkans as an opponent of radical Islam, and had recently appeared on Albanian television in a climactic program that provoked debate throughout the Albanian-speaking lands. I had repeatedly been recognized during this trip on the streets and in mosques in Albania and Kosova, and was previously warmly greeted.
It was about 11 p.m. Tuesday night and we still had five hours ahead of us. I tried to go to sleep but the voice kept on and on, God is one, who are these people like this American who come and try to tell us how to be Muslims? What about Iraq? Why is this American here with his friend?
I was never frightened. I am a mature man and am ready to face whatever fate awaits me. I kept looking back, rather sharply, when the voice mentioned America, but it seemed impossible to distinguish which person possessed the manic voice, and the experience remained disquieting.
The bus stopped for a food and rest break at Bijelo Polje, a small Montenegrin town with a Muslim Slav majority. It is not the garden spot of the universe. It has a restaurant with a common bathroom for use by men and women, on the obvious presumption that travelers will not complain. There were half a dozen buses parked in front of the inn, such as it was, and the place was alive with people.
I had only previously been in Bijelo Polje during the day, and did not remember or recognize it. I did not find out where I was until I asked a waiter in the restaurant, because none of the Albanians crowded in the back with me and my Sufi companion and the whisperer in darkness would speak civilly to me.
When I asked one man, in Albanian, the name of the town, he answered in Serbian: "ne znam," "I don't know." Another said it was the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica (it wasn't). And finally a thin punk who could not have been over 20, and who, I soon realized, had been encouraging the voice behind me, said in perfect English, "I don't understand English." At the end of the rest period all three people filed back into the bus and avoided looking at me.
Muhammad woke up and asked me what was going on. I told him, "Someone back here is making Wahhabi speeches." He grinned as if in disbelief, but said, "I'm not surprised."
After four more hours of dark roads and threatening discourse, in which I felt a dream-like serenity, we arrived at the seacoast with dawn breaking. Montenegro's leading Sufi, a brave and steadfast friend of America, was there to fetch us in his car.
I will not forget the low, continuous, unfaltering stream of the diatribe on the bus: God is great, only God. Sufis are not Muslims. What is this American doing here? Who is his friend? Look at Iraq. Blood. Blood is what they want.
But blood will be answered with truth. As the poet Archibald Macleish wrote, at the beginning of World War II, "How shall freedom be defended? By arms when it is attacked by arms; by truth when it is attacked by lies; by democratic faith when it is attacked by authoritarian dogma. Always and in the final act, by determination and faith." The frontline today extends from America to Israel to Saudi Arabia, and still includes the Balkans.