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Shahin & Sepehr

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Beautiful Belgrade
Friendships amid the Yugoslav civil wars

Written and photographed by Jahanshah Javid
April 12, 1999
The Iranian

Fall, 1992

I looked at the address I had written down from the Manhattan Yellow Pages and the skyscraper in front of me. Was this the right place? It was not the most fashionable section of New York's south-side but I thought I'd give it a shot.

The modeling agency was just two rooms; the reception area and the manager's office. I sat and judged the handful of people waiting for their turn: mmmaybe, forget it, you're kidding right?, Yes!, not bad...

- "Jeehanishe... Yavid?"
- "That's me."
- "You're next. Go on in."

As soon as I stepped in, the manager took one glance and said, "Too industrial. You're not the type we're looking for. NEXT!"

- "Wait, wait, wait... I'm not looking for a modeling job. I'm here on behalf of a friend."

The manager grabbed the photo album from my hand and started flipping the pages quickly, at first.

- "Bring her in."
- "Well, she's not here."
- "Get her here. I might have something for her."
- "She's in Yugoslavia."
- "Where?"
- "Yugoslavia."
- "Listen, I'm very busy. Get her over here and I'll see what I can do."
- "She can't just come here. She needs a job offer - something to apply for a visa with."
- "I couldn't promise her a job even if she was standing right here. She has to do test runs, learn a few skills in the business and get a real agent. Are you her boyfriend or what?"
- "I'm just a friend trying to help."
- "Well, what can I say... good luck."

I went back home and wrote to Natasha and told her this was the best I could do. She had a good chance of becoming a model but she had to find a way to get here. I felt bad that I couldn't do more. The news out of Yugoslavia was not good. There was unrest in Bosnia, violent demonstrations in Croatia and pro-democracy rallies in Belgrade. I looked at her pictures and thought, what a waste:

Summer, 1989

I was in Belgrade covering the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit for the Iranian news agency. Back then, Yugoslavia was very much a unified, vibrant and well-respected country.

Leaders of developing countries had gathered in Yugoslavia's capital to discuss regional and international issues following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, this was to be last meaningful gathering of countries who at least claimed they wanted to be independent from the East and West, even though almost all of them had close ties with Washington or Moscow. The Yugoslavs were enjoying the spotlight.

The Iraqis were there, in a bad mood, as usual. The Saudis, who did not care much about NAM's often anti-Western rhetoric, kept a low profile. On the other hand, that very same rhetoric made the Cubans feel at home. Arafat loved it: Israel was not a member of NAM and pro-Palestinian resolutions always got ratified without any objection.

African leaders were seen as champions of anti-colonialist and anti-apartheid movements. Central Americans were cheered for their struggle against oppressive military regimes. India was considered a model non-aligned nation. And the Iranians saw NAM as the perfect venue to preach their "Neither East nor West" doctrine.

But all the NAM business aside, this was a chance for Yugoslavia to present itself as one of the most developed of the developing states - and not just economically, but politically as well.

The Yugoslav federation was made up of six republics with an ethnically diverse population. Belgrade was confident it could maintain national unity without a charismatic leader like its World War II hero Marshal Tito. It was not worried about the demise of socialism as a unifying ideology. This was the official line and no one had any reason to dispute it. Despite some minor rumblings among Muslims in Bosnia, the Serb-dominated Belgrade government seemed in control.

Natasha was a guide at the NAM conference. As much as she was friendly and helpful, my Iranian friend and I were uncomfortable and cautious. We were worried that members of the Iranian delegation would see us talking to a stunning young foreign woman for more than thirty seconds.

We asked Natasha to join us for dinner in the center of town later that night. She accepted and gave us a mini tour of Belgrade. We saw fancy shops, had an incredibly delicious ice cream, passed well-stocked delicatessens and grocery stores, and heard stories about Serbia's past as we walked by historic monuments. And there was a little fountain: You would make a wish and the coins and bills would be collected for the Red Cross.

Belgrade looked like a prosperous capital, be it an Eastern European one. Even the gypsy boys begging for money and the homeless man in the park did not seem to indicate a serious social problem. If there were any signs of an impending horrific civil war, none were visible.

Natasha cautioned me not to take the train to Vienna; it was full of rowdy Croat soccer fans shouting obscenities against their Serbian rivals.

January, 1994

I pick up Natasha and her husband Andrea at New York's JFK airport. They are happy, relieved, anxious, and bewildered all at the same time. They have escaped their war-torn country and are about to start a new life in America. They feel very lucky but also sad. Yugoslavia is falling apart.

They stay at my Manhattan apartment for two months. We talk about the good old days in beautiful Belgrade and the not-so-bright future facing the people back home. But we also talk about their future here, about how rewarding it could be, if they work hard. They are terribly worried and insecure.

March, 1996

I am the official photographer at the baptism ceremony for Luka -- Natasha and Andrea's infant boy. Andrea is beaming with joy as New York's Serbian Orthodox priest pours drops of holy water on Luka's forehead. Natasha is teary-eyed. It is a rare moment of happiness. They are going through hard times as an immigrant family and there's constant bad news coming out of what used to be Yugoslavia.

April 10, 1999

I've wanted to call Natasha and Andrea ever since the NATO attacks began. But I'm afraid I might hear some bad news about their family. And I don't want to argue about which warring side is right and which side is wrong. I finally call.

- "Natasha? Hi! How are you?"
- "Hi! I can't believe it's you. I thought I'd never hear from you again. You don't return calls, you don't reply to emails... "
- "I'm sorry. I've been really busy. Are you and Andrea okay?"
- "We're fine. But, you know, the news is driving us crazy."
- "Yeah... I'm so sorry... "
- "I feel really bad about the Kosovar kids and refugees but there's so much propaganda. Nobody talks about the atrocities against the Serbs. They are blaming all the Serbs..."
- "They're blaming one man."
- "I hate Milosovic too. Most of us do. But our country is under attack. What NATO is doing is insane. Remember that street in Belgrade where I showed you all the nice shops? It's been bombed."
- "I hope your mother and sister are okay."
- "They're fine but they're scared."
- "I hope nothing happens to them."
- "Thanks... anyway... how's everything with you?"
- "Oh I'm fine... did you get your Green Card?"
- "Our application has been approved. We're just waiting for the card."
- "Fantastic!"

I then talk to Andrea. He says, half-jokingly, that Yugoslavia will eventually be reduced to Belgrade itself. Neither of us want to talk about the war.

We exchange tips on how to reduce the pain in our feet during jogging (we're both flat-footed). Andrea suggests that every few minutes or so I should put more of my body weight on my toes to relieve the pressure. He adds that, of course, if we also lose some weight, we'll experience less pain. We laugh.

He says he's thinking about taking a computer training course once he gets his Green Card. "Computers are the future," he says.

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