A letter to my co-citizens


I was born in the city called Zagreb, in the republic of Croatia, in the country called Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. In the eighties, upon meeting my husband Goran who was studying in Belgrade, the capital of the republic of Serbia as well as the federal capital, I tried to live my life between these two cities.
For many years I was a member of the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb. I performed in theater, film and TV all over Yugoslavia, including Belgrade. Just before the war started in our country, I found myself in a play in Belgrade. While we were rehearsing our version of Corneille’s “Theatrical Illusion”, creating a production with a clear and strong anti-war message, furious war propaganda on all sides was diligently doing its job, trying to turn people against each other, passionately searching for internal enemies, in order to homogenize masses against the enemy.
But who exactly was the enemy? My fellow actors in the Belgrade theatre? My Serbian neighbors in Zagreb? My own husband who – so they told me – was of Serbian descent? I couldn’t grasp it. I was unable and unwilling to accept the new rules: ethnicity as the main and most important element in our lives; the simple, random fact of belonging to a certain ethnic group as the key to all our loyalties, to all our choices, to our whole existence. That “inability” cost me my job and my career. I wrote this open letter before packing my four suitcases (and my whole life) and leaving all that I knew for the absolute unknown. A couple of weeks after publishing this letter, Goran and I landed in New York and began a new life.
Mira Furlan October 2012

Letter to my co-citizens

I hereby wish to thank my co-citizens who have joined so unreservedly in this small, marginal, and apparently not particularly significant campaign against me. Although marginal, it will change and mark my whole life. Which is, of course, totally irrelevant in the context of the death, destruction, devastation, and blood-chilling crimes within which our life now goes on.

This is happening, however, to the one and only life I have. It seems that I’ve been chosen for some reason to be the filthy rag everyone uses to wipe the mud off their shoes. I am far too desperate to embark on a series of public polemics in the papers. I do, however, feel that I owe myself and my city at least a few words. Like at the end of some clumsy, painful love story, when you keep wanting, wrongly, to explain something more, even though you know at the bottom of your heart that words are wasted; there is no one left to hear them. It is over.

Listening to my answering machine, to the incredible quantities of indescribably disgusting messages from my co-citizens, I longed to hear at least one message from a friend. Or not even a friend, a mere acquaintance, a colleague. But there was none. Not a single familiar voice, not a single friend. Nevertheless, I am grateful to them, to those noble patriots who kindly promise me a “massacre the Serbian way”; and to those colleagues, friends, and acquaintances who, by remaining silent, are letting me know that I cannot count on them any more.

I am grateful also to all my colleagues in the theatre with whom I played Drzic, Moliere, Turgenev, and Shaw, I am grateful to them for their silence, I am grateful to them for not even trying to understand, let alone attempting to vindicate, my statement concerning my appearance at the BITEF Festival in Belgrade, the statement in which I tried to explain that taking part in that production at that moment was for me a defense of our profession which must not and cannot put itself in the service of any political or national ideas, which must not and cannot be bound by political or national limits because it is simply against its nature, which must, even at the worst of times, establish bridges and ties. In its very essence it is a vocation which knows no boundaries.

I know that all this talk about the cosmopolitanism of art seems inappropriate at a moment like this. I know that it may seem out of place to swear to pacifism, to swear to love and to the brotherhood of all peoples while people are dying, while children are dying, while young men are returning home crippled and mangled forever.

How can I say anything which won’t sound like an ill-fitted nonsense at the moment when, for absolutely unfathomable reasons, Dubrovnik is being threatened, the city where I played my favorite role, Gloria?
But I have no other way of thinking. I cannot accept war as the only solution, I cannot force myself to hate, I cannot believe that weapons, killing, revenge, hatred, that such an accumulation of evil will ever solve anything. Each individual who personally accepts the war is in fact an accessory to the crime; must he not then take a part of the guilt for the war, a part of the responsibility?

In any case, I think, I know and I feel that it is my duty, the duty of our profession, to build bridges. To never give up on cooperation and community. Not the national community. The professional community.

The human community. And even when things are at their very worst, as they are now, we must insist to our last breath on building and sustaining bonds between people. This is how we pledge to the future.

And one day it will come. For my part, until recently I was willing to endure all manner of problems in transportation, communication, and finances to trek the 20 hours across Austria and Hungary between Zagreb and Belgrade. I was willing to use risky, even dangerous modes of travel, just to keep holding my performances in the two warring cities, to appear at precisely 7:30 on stage with my Zagreb or Belgrade colleagues and to alternate Corneille and Turgenev for the sake of professional continuity, for the sake of something that would outlive this war and this hatred which is so foreign to me. Time and time again I was willing to make my life a symbol of a pledge to the future which must be waiting for us, until that day when some ardent patriot finally does slaughter me as so many have promised to do.

I was willing and I would still be willing to undertake all and any efforts, if the hatred hadn’t suddenly overwhelmed me with its horrendous ferocity, hatred welling from the city I was born in. I am appalled by the force and magnitude of that hatred, by its perfect unanimity, by the fact that there was absolutely nobody who could see my gesture as my defense of the integrity of the profession, as my attempt to defend at least one excellent theatre performance. I had no intention of acting further in performances outside the BITEF Festival, as I stated in my letter. BITEF as an international theatre event attended by the English, Russians, French, Belgians, and even one Slovene seemed to me worth participating in, especially because any decision not to participate would have meant betraying a performance I had worked on under the most difficult circumstances during the March 9th Belgrade tanks, daily threats of a military coup, etc., etc.

It is terribly sad when one is forced to justification without having done anything wrong. There is nothing but despair, nausea, and horror.

I no longer have any decisions to make. Others have decided for me.

They have decided I must shut up, give up, vanish; they have abolished my right to do my job the way I feel it should be done, they have abolished my right to come home to my own city, they have abolished my right to return to my theatre and act in my performances. Someone decided that I should be fired from my job. Thank you, Croatian National Theatre; thank you, my colleague Dragan Milivojevic, who signed my dismissal slip. I know that lots of people are losing jobs, that I am just one of many, simply part of a surplus work force. I constantly ask myself whether I have any right, at this moment of communal horror, to make any demands of my own. One thing seems certain: I plan for quite some time (how long?) not to perform on any stage in this crumbling, mangled land. Perhaps they needn’t have hurried so in firing me. Perhaps this would have simply taken care of itself. With more decency. And dignity. Not so crudely. Of course, this is not a moment for tenderness. But won’t someone out there have to be ashamed of this? And will this someone necessarily be me, as my fellow actors try to convince me in their orthodox interviews? Can the horror of war be used as a justification for every single nasty bit of filth we commit against our fellow man? Are we allowed to remain silent in the face of injustice done to a friend or a colleague and justify our silence by the importance of the great bright national objective? I ask my friends in Zagreb, who are now silent, while at the same time they condemn Belgrade for its silence.

It is hard to write without bitterness. I would like to be able to do that, because we should “Love Our Enemy.” I wish we all could. Herein perhaps lies the solution for all of us. But I fear that we are very far from the ways of the Lord. His is the way of love. Not hatred.

To whom am I addressing this letter? Who will read it? Who will even care to read it? Everyone is so caught up by the great cause that small personal fates are not important any more. How many friends do you have to betray to keep from committing the only socially acknowledged betrayal, the betrayal of the nation? How many petty treacheries, how many pathetic little dirty tricks must one do to remain “clean in the eyes of the nation?”

I am sorry, my system of values is different. For me there have always existed, and always will exist, only human beings, individual people, and those human beings (God, how few of them there are !) will always be excepted from generalizations of any kind, regardless of events, however catastrophic. I, unfortunately, shall never be able to “hate all Serbs,” nor even understand what that really means. I shall always, perhaps until the moment the kind threats on the phone are finally carried out, hold my hand out to an anonymous person on the “other side,” a person who is as desperate and lost as I am, who is as sad, bewildered, and frightened. There are such people in this city where I write my letter, the city my love took me to, a feeling it seems almost indecent to mention these days. Nothing can provide an excuse any more, everything that does not directly serve the great objective has been trampled upon and appears despicable, and with it what love, what marriage, what friendship, what theatre performances!

I reject, I refuse to accept such a crippling of myself and my own life. I played those last performances in Belgrade for those anguished people who were not “Serbs”; but human beings, human beings like me, human beings who recoil before this monstrous Grand Guignol farce in which dead heads are flying. It is to these people, both here and there, that I am addressing my words. Perhaps someone will hear me.

The punishment meted me by my city, my only city and my theatre, my only theatre, the only theatre I felt was mine, is a punishment I feel I do not deserve. I was working in the way I have always felt I had to work, believing in people and our vocation which is supposed to bring people together, not tear them apart. I will never “give up my Belgrade friends”; as some of my colleagues have, because I do not feel that these friends have in any way brought about this catastrophe which has afflicted us, just as I will not turn my back on my Zagreb friends, not even those who have turned their backs on me. I will try in every way possible to understand their panic, their fear, their bitterness, even their hatred, but I plead for the same dose of understanding for me, that is, for a story which is different than many others, for a life which has deviated, due to the so-called destiny, from the expected and customary. Why must everything be the same, so frighteningly uniform, leveled, standardized? Haven’t we had enough of that? I know this is the time of uniforms and they are all the same, but I am no soldier and cannot be one. I haven’t got it in me to be a soldier, soldiering just isn’t my calling.

Regardless of whether we will be living in one, or five, or fifty states, let us not forget the people, each individual, regardless of which side of this Wall of ours the person happens to be on. We were born here by accident, we are this or that by accident, so there must be more than that, mustn’t there?

I am sending this letter into a void, into darkness, without an inkling of who will read it and how, or in how many different ways it will be misused or abused. Chances are it will serve as food for the eternally hungry propaganda beast. Perhaps someone with a pure heart will read it after all.

I will be grateful to that someone.

Mira Furlan,
From Belgrade and Zagreb, November 1, 1991.