Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait #84: The Serbian Nuns

Everywhere I go, I now carry with me a most inspiring journal. It's an exquisite hardbound volume that's about the size of the palm of my hand. The maroon-coloured binding has three flowers inscribed along the spine. Most of the cover is a bland burnt-brown colour, but it also has intricate flowers etched into the front corners, and one simple flower on the back. On the front cover, the maroon binding and the brown cover are separated by a thin ribbon and a strip of pale pink lace. The pages are made of thick unbleached parchment paper.

This journal is small and slight, and holding it feels like holding a poem. It whispers urgently to the person holding it that someone put a lot of intimate love and care into its creation.

It was crafted by a nun in a monastery in Gracanica, the largest Serbian town in Kosovo. In this town, the writing on signs is Cyrillic (instead of the Latin script used elsewhere in Kosovo), the prices are all in Serbian Dinar (as opposed to Euros), cars have Serbian tags or no tags at all (except for the occasional visitor's Kosovar tags). It's a ten-minute drive from Kosovo's capital, but entering this town means crossing a symbolic national border.

Right in the heart of Gracanica is a compound which houses a church and monastery. It is surrounded by a tall brick wall, and guarded by a squadron of Finnish soldiers. Only foreigners have the gall to enter this fortress to tour the historical Orthodox building, but local townspeople continue to pray regularly in the church.

Living in the monastery are 19 nuns and 3 priests. We met 2 of the nuns, both of whom were born and raised in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and a six-hour drive from Gracanica. They now serve their God in the heart of an unending political stand-off, between Kosovar Albanian (everything surrounding Gracanica) and Serbian hegemony.

But these women cared nothing for politics. They both had perfectly deep blue eyes, spoke pristine English, and dressed modestly in all black, including headscarves and long skirts. They spoke with big smiles and soft voices. As my friend and I explored their tiny shop full of precious wares, they told us that they felt like rebels in their Orthodox order of nuns because they went against the will of the older nuns to sell their homemade books, as well as honey and needlework and home-brewed wine, to tourists visiting the monastery, to raise money for a soup kitchen in a nearby city.

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