Dedication for this work goes to SOFREP sister Ms. Suzanne Dixon
The Jewish bastard lived in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He certainly lived there just after the fall of the former country of Yugoslavia. It was in the year 1996, and it actually rings odd to me nowadays to hear the word “Yugoslavia” anymore. Back in the day, it was just another country. Today it’s really just a horrid memory for so many unfortunates.
The Jewish bastard, I promise you, lived in Sarajevo. At least he did in 1996 when I last saw him there. I can’t say with certainty where he went after I left there but if you ask me he is still there in that same spot, that same 40-foot by 40-foot plot of land, one with an outcrop to the south that I thought at one time be a restroom of sorts.
Bosnia in those years was a land that time, unfortunately, didn’t forget. Rather it remembered the region in the most despicable way, in a way with murder and more murder and heinous murder nearing genocide.
Time remembered all the people of Bosnia, some more than others. Time felt most of the people of Srebrenica were close, so close that time felt they should all be buried together in the same grave for an eternity. Time’s savvy that way you see. Time knows what’s best for you more so than you do.
At the time I was crossing over a quaint arch of a bridge that spanned a canal that trickled through the northern part of the great city. That canal was marred, broken and fractured by the many Serbian gunners who rained shells on the Sarajevan parade. Any water that found its way into that canal was soon laterally dispersed by the many tangential tributaries wrought by the war and the shelling.
Under that bridge, I thought I knew there to be an ad-hoc daily market. I schemed to go there on this day, to engage in the nihilistic search for cheese that was not Gouda, and not from Germany. Good luck with that, I bade myself! If not the cheese then the Slivovitz, the plum brandy, I would buy. It would wash away the tarn of war from this city, or at least the part that stained my memory. At least for one night, it would.
Toward the far end of the bridge, I craned my neck over the side to spy the market. I saw nothing of the sort, no market of any kind … but I did see him, the Jewish bastard that’s who. There he sat, he, on a pile of stones, I thought. No, those were actually masonry blocks, the kind 99% of all buildings in Sarajevo were built of.
“Look at that Jewish bastard,” I muttered to myself or to anyone who cared to listen, “just sitting there. This isn’t even the Jewish sector of town!” There was one you know, a Jewish sector of town. It was on the high ground on up above Sarajevo proper. I passed it everyday coming and going to the safe house where I lived.
The Jewish sector, in my tactical and fundamentally aloof opinion, had received a notably healthier dose of shelling by the Serb gunners than most any other part of the city, so much so that I had come to describe the area as “melting from shell impacts, splinters, and shrapnel.” It put me in mind of Dresden, the way that the center of the city had berthed the vortex of the firestorm there and melted the city center like a candle, dripping down and running through the streets of itself favoring toward low ground.
The Jewish bastard, I came to notice, was surrounded by the boxed ruins of a former structure, one that had housed the man in the marvelous years before time remembered it and brought it the war. Now it was a box of rubble 40-feet by 40-feet, with a small outcropping on the south side that put me in mind of a water closet.
There were a few areas in his debris pile that were cleared out flat, cleared piece by piece by hand by the Jewish bastard himself. He sat in one of the cleared out areas, one that used to be his kitchen before time caught up with it. Even a silly kitchen thought it could hide from time.
“Geez, the Angel of Death failed to pass over that guy’s house,” joked I in a hue of color that was off the gamut by a Mogadishu Mile.
Then it occurred to me that this Jewish bastard was waving to me, motioning to me that I should descend from the bridge for a visit. I guess that was his intent. He was sitting on his rubble stool, clad in a long black robe that was afoul with dust and dirt, the kind you get on your clothes when you live in a rubble house. In front of him, a small cooking fire smoldered over which a kettle hung.
“Ok,” I reckoned; I’ll go down there and have a tête-a-tête with that poor fellow. Who knows, maybe he’s got something other than Gouda cheese in his … house …”
Rewind: shortly after the war, when the infrastructure of the country was huffing and puffing and trying to be productive again, typically there was just one of everything; that is, one type of building block, one brand of cigarettes, one make of radio, one bake of bread… and one ferment of cheese—Gouda cheese, from Germany!
I searched high and low for any type of cheese that was not Gouda. But it was Gouda this, Gouda that, GOUDA! I recall my exhilaration the day I happened upon a large roadside market of products just in from other parts of Europe. I hustled in and searched until I found various blocks of cheese.
Fearing it all to be Gouda, I asked the gent who tended the wares: “Is this Gouda?”
“Yes,” he said.
“How about this; is this Gouda too?”
“… and this??”
“Yes, is good-a; all is good-a. Very, very good-a.”
I lay the block with a groan and left.
As I approached the man’s box of ruins he stood and waited with his hands clasped behind his back. He grinned at me through a long white beard, at least I think that he did. He shook my hand and bid me “Dobro Doshli” and motioned that I might sit on a stack of brick he had piled next to his just while I descended the bridge.
“Dobar dan, gospodine. Govorite li Engleski, moj prijatelju?” (good day, sir. Do you speak English?), I began, as I set foot in his roofless house. He shook his head and raised his shoulders in a typical Bosnian sort of penguin-esque shrug. I wouldn’t fault him for that, not one bit. He tugged my arm downward in a beckon to sit as he sat on his “seat” and began to stoke the fire.
(I’m skipping all the Bosnian language entries to expedite the story. No English was spoken.)
“You’re American; I know this. I know an American when I see one. Let’s have some tea; what do you think?”
“I don’t want to impose. Maybe I can just dash out first and pick up some tidbits to go along with the tea?”
“Nonsense. You’re my guest. It won’t take long at all and we’ll have a hot tea.”
“My name is George, by the way. You know, Dzordz.”
“Of course, Dzordz. Like Svijeti Dzordzavich, and me, Ivan.”
“Please to excuse?”
“John, John is the English equivalent name for Ivan. Dzon!”
“Ah, yes. Ok, then Dzon it is.”
“Or Jack. Dzack is another name for Dzon …” I rambled.
“Dzack?” He asked, pausing briefly. “If is all same for you I am just Ivan. Thank you.”
“So, Ivan is an unusual name for a Jewish man. Isn’t it?”
“Why do you assume I’m Jewish?”
“There’s a grave marker in your yard that reveals it.”
Ivan turned his head toward the debris that was in the direction of the tombstone I had seen from the bridge.
“My Misses. The war you know. It’s not good, no good,” he shook his head, letting it hang after.
“I’m really sorry that happened to your wife. I’m so sorry for the war here. Really I am, Ivan.”
“You came all the way to Bosnia from United States to tell me you are sorry for our war?”
“Well, no … it’s just that I …”
“You came to carve your piece of pie like rest of United Nations, isn’t it right?”
“Well, no. No … Well fuck it, man, you really want to talk politics — yebi ga, Ivane!”
He dismissed my remarks by rising up and rummaging through some random debris. I waffled between feeling sorry for him and wanting to bash his mug. I thought of the French at the Airport, the Brits at the Crystal Palace, the Norwegians at Ilizda, the Swedes, the German, the Spanish … Was America really here to claim its slice of failed Yugoslavian pie?
Ivan rustled up a pair of tin cups. He shook them upside down to rid them of incidental schmutz, then wiped them out with the tail of his dusty robe. I was fine with that; those were actually two extra steps I wouldn’t have taken with those cups myself. He poured two cups of tea, and it was tea only because he said so. My doubt continued with each sip though I gestured a specious nod of approval.
“Ah, the good life Ivane — l’chaim, zum Wohl!” I bid him raising the pewter cup. Ivan raised his but said nothing. When he did speak again he told me how he had built the house in whose ruins we sat, but ironically had had plans to demolish the outcrop on the southern end to add an additional living space. Those grapes were certainly sour.
“So this is the house that Dzack built. It seems your house has seen better days, Ivane.”
“The house that Dzack built? Better days yes; any days are better days than these days. But my house is really all still here. I just have to put it back together. This is God’s way to tell me that time has come to rebuild and put add an additional room, finally. God is great that way, you know Dzorgze*? Well … shit me, I say it’s all God’s will!”
Not quite as exuberant as Ivan, I sat quietly and watched a mouse sneak near, grabbing a grain then it nibbled as it remained. “This is the mouse who ate the malt that lay in the house that Dzack built,” I could not help but think.
“The Serbs,” I began finally again, “they are the enemy, eh? They are the war criminals, right?” I pontificated on the basis that Sarajevo was sieged from the highlands by Ethnic Bosnian Serbs. My, didn’t I sound important in the house that Dzack built?
“The Srbi [Serbians]? The Hrvati [Croats]? The Muslimi? Who is not criminal? Come, bring pickets and build giant fence around entire of Bosnia because we are everyone criminal; who can say who is criminal and who is not, huh? I ask you, Dzordze!”
Well, for the love of almighty Svijeti Dzordzavich, Ivan had purely nailed it home and hard. I couldn’t count the number of times I sat in the embassy cafeteria and had that same who’s-who-in-Bosnia argument with different personalities. Hell, even other Delta guys who were on missions in other parts of the country had different ideas than I did about who was the guilty party. And here, after all this time was this Jewish bastard with all the answers.
My, my; I do testify: all the king’s horses and men can’t put Ivan’s house back together again, but damned if he isn’t the smartest man in all of the seven Balkan States … and me having tea (or so he says) with him! And the masses shuffled and stammered and muttered amongst themselves: “Who is that man having tea with our Ivan?”
A dog rooted through the garbage just “outside”. Some of the garbage lay across his wife’s grave. A solitary cat sat stone-like on a cinder block staring at the dog. “What could be more perfect,” I thought: “This is the dog that worried the cat, that killed the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Dzack built.”
“Is good, eh, Dzordze? This tea she is good, yes?”
I chuckled, “If you say so, Ivane,”
“What, you don’t think she is good tea?”
“Oh, she is good. I just don’t think she is tea,” and we both laughed the laugh that you laugh when neither of you knows why the hell you are laughing. It was all good, as it beat the awkward silent staring contest that was the alternative. What, just what was I supposed to say to this guy who had been through so much and who had lost so very much?
“Ivane, I want to come back tomorrow and bring you some things.”
“What things, Dzordze?”
“You know, some things … Some food, maybe some cookware and hell, socks. I don’t know.”
“Why, why these things, Dzordze?
“Ok, how about some Deutsch Marks to help you out?” and I held out a fold of bills.
“Oh, shit me. Goddamn … Dzordze, you see this?” and he held up my map of Sarajevo that we had been looking at, the one with the UN sectors marked off in colored lines, slapping it.
“This, this is politics! And do you see this?” gesturing to the ruins of his home that surrounded us.
“This is diplomacy, Dzordze, diplomacy!”
Then he pointed to the Marks in my extended hand:
“But this … this is pity, Dzordze. Just pity, is all!”
I was suddenly overcome by a vision, a vision of a really fat American man with a farmer’s tan at a monster truck rally in Arkansas. In this vision the man wore Bermuda shorts, sandals with black socks pulled up to his knees. He wore a Hawaiian mu-mu with a bolo tie, a mullet and neoprene brace on only one knee. On his head was perched a supportive plastic scaffold that bore a six-pack of Blue Ribbon beer and a tube that fed down to his mouth. All the while he was yelling: “Hey gosh dangit, cain’t all y’all upfront sit-down. I cain’t see!”
But didn’t we all have it all so good in America?
Here was a man, a Jewish bastard. He had lost everything: he lost his wife in the most violent of fashion. He lost his home in the most crushing of impact. He lost his life, his whole life, his 40-feet by 40-feet with a modest outcrop on the southern end of his whole life.
Why then would this man who had lost everything, who had nothing to live for, why would he want to share his last few leaves of tea (of questionable authenticity) with me? And then it came to me. It came to me like Christmas came to the Grinch, when it made his heart swell up ten times its normal size and broke that heart-size-measuring bracket thingy.
He did it because he had not lost one of the few things that the most deplorable conditions of war can take from a person; he had not lost his pride and human dignity. Sharing his hot tea made him feel like a giant of a man, so much more alive and relevant than if he had drunk it lukewarm and alone. Don’t ya see, Dzordze. It’s not always about what you have, what you do, and who you do it with or to. It’s about who you are.
And I thought to myself: “I yam what I yam; by the Gods I am … Popeye …”
The next time I visited Ivan the Jewish bastard, right on time in accordance to his invitation, I was just from the market that I had finally found thanks to my multi-colored United Nations post-war dream map. I had failed to manage my time effectively and ran too short to drop off my purchases before tea at the Ivan hovel.
I let my ponderous shopping bags crash to the floor just inside the gape that represented where Ivan’s front door used to be.
“Oh shit me, Ivane. What a day I had — I’m beat, brother!”
“Yes, you have shopping day, I see that Dzordze. Good show old boy!”
And I spent yet another evening with the wretched old nondescript Jewish bastard, boasts of this and that, swearing oaths on what-not. Just guy talk mind you. When it came time to leave I plunged a doleful gaze at my heavy shopping bags and said:
“Hey, you know Ivane … I’ve had a long day and really am dreadfully tired. Would it be absurd of me to leave my bags here just until morning when I can return with a jeep?” I requested with spineless pleading eyes.
“Yes. Sure, sure. Why nots Dzordze. S’ok.”
After a hearty handshake and an awkward bro hug, I headed up the slope to the base of the bridge to catch a cab. I took what I knew to be my last glance back at the Jewish bastard sitting there on his cinder block seat, his smoldering hearth teasing a lukewarm kettle of apocryphal tea, all the while surrounded by his 40-foot by 40-foot with a modest outcropping on the south end of his entire life. L’chiam, Ivane!
I hoped silently that Ivan would be smart enough to tally the extent of my absence before the perishables went bad, but at least there was no known recorded shelf life on Moroccan mint tea leaves. It was the sharp cheddar all the way from the Bordeaux region of France that concerned me most. Yes, I had finally found cheese, cheese that was very good-a, yet not Gouda at all.
by God and with honor,
This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
*My name Dzordz here, is in the form of the nominal prepositional case. The form Dzordze is the vocational prepositional case (a case not present in English) that is used when addressing a person and takes the addition of a final “e” at the end of a masculine noun. Therefore:
“This is Dzordz.”
“Hello there, Dzordze!”
Addressing Ivan would be: “Hey, Ivane!”
Me, I’m just the messenger.
Featured Image Courtesy of Walter Crane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons