Igor is the sort of guy if he made a joke about your mother you’d pat him on the back and say “That was funny.” We are at his house and the mercy of his hospitality. He has fed us skewered prawns doused with more salt than they were exposed to in the sea. Hefty and bald, Igor is a best-to-smile-but-no-eye-contact type. A Serb, he lives with his wife Goga and their son in Notting Hill in London. My friend Nargess, who lives downstairs, is here with her husband Rob. Their friend Ivan is talking to a woman called Ivana — a Serbian journalist — about the Michael Jackson case.
“They want to destroy him,” says Ivan. “It’s nothing to do with justice.”
“He wants to destroy children,” counters Ivana, and so they exchange.
At one point Ivan draws a parallel between Jackson and Caravaggio, who I thought was an opera but is in fact a painter.
“He was a murderer!” says Ivana, rounding on her prey. Like any good counsel for the defence, Ivan mutters something about manslaughter.
“He was a murderer!” Ivana insists.
“It was a crime of passion!” says Ivan.
“A crime of passion is when you kill your child who is dying, not someone who beats you at tennis.”
If he broke the law, I chip in, it does make him a murderer.
“This is about morals not law,” says Ivan.
“Murderer!” says Ivana, gazing intently at Ivan.
“Okay”, Ivan relents, “but he could draw”.
Ivana has a debating style, with a Slavic drawl, that pummels the other person into submission and I am impressed with how she pummels Ivan, a sweet mild-mannered Englishman. I am also impressed by Ivan’s graceful footwork in response, more Cassius Clay than George Foreman. Not to mention his stance — if one is in disagreement with the thrust of tabloid opinion, it’s usually the right place to be. But, Igor, who has a son, was shaking his head at the thought that Jackson might be spared. Implicit in this gesture was the smug “You-have-no-idea-what-it-feels-like-to-be-a-parent-because-you-have-no-children”. This always gets to me before I remember that though I am not a parent, I used to be a kid!
“What about the children’s mum and dad, shouldn’t they be in the dock too?” I say. Igor agrees. We all do. “They are pimps!” says George Foreman (Ivana). Igor goes off to help Goga with the next course, which I suspect will not only be vegetarian (I can smell meat from three blocks) but arrive in a foil wrapper with a teat and we’ll have to suck it out like Guantanamo Bay detainees. (I had asked Goga the day before whether she could be trusted to cook dinner. She was hardly going to say no.)
To change the subject, I ask Ivan what he thinks of Ken Livingstone, the London mayor who has been under attack from the capital’s Evening Standard newspaper after comparing one of its door-stepping journalists to a Nazi concentration camp guard. This happened after the journalist antagonised him on the night of a party to celebrate the anniversary of the “coming out” of Britain’s fist openly gay MP. Livingstone had made it clear he had nothing to say, but the reporter had persisted and said he was only doing his job.
After Ken’s remark, the reporter informed the mayor that he was Jewish and offended. Livingstone responded that the paper in question is owned by a company that was pro-Nazi in the 1930s and today prints headlines as venomous towards today’s asylum seekers as they once were about Jews escaping fascism.
At a press conference he defied the tabloids and refused to apologise to the journalist, although he did acknowledge the hurt he had caused Holocaust survivors who had protested. As for the journalist, Livingstone said he was “in the wrong job” if he was offended so easily. He also pointed out that no Jewish body or serious commentator regards what he said as racist.
“It’s too late now, but he should’ve said sorry”, says Ivan. “You don’t say things like that.”
“He apologised to the Holocaust victims”, I say “but do you really think that the thick-skinned tabloid door-stepper was offended?”
Ivan says: “That’s exactly how he was acting.”
“Like a concentration camp guard, but you mustn’t say it.”
“Was it anti-semitic?
“Then why should he apologise?”
“He’s a politician — you just don’t say things like that.”
“So what do you say to those Jews who write to newspapers and say there is nothing wrong with what Ken said?”
“That’s their view.”
“It’s also Ken’s. Is he not entitled to it because he is not Jewish?” I add that the reporter was unprofessional to have brought his ethnicity into the matter: Livingstone had no idea the reporter was Jewish when he made the comment. It surely goes against the rules of journalistic objectivity to become the story. Ivan agrees: “He’s trying to raise his profile, he’s exploiting the situation.” But he says Ken should apologise nonetheless.
Enter Ivana: “You defend a child abuser and don’t even know what you want Livingstone to say sorry for?” Ivan is pummelled again. And, bless him, says something about how Ken’s refusal to apologise could have repercussions in the Middle East. On Thursday Livingstone wrote in the Guardian that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal who should be in jail and not in office. It is very rare for so high-profile a figure to attack the Israeli government, on the record anyway. But from Jews we went to Muslims.
That day, a schoolgirl had won the right to wear a jilbab — head-to-toe Islamic-wear, spring collection — to her school in what many claim was a landmark ruling. While I do not think headscarves should be banned in the current anti-Muslim climate, to allow girls to go to school wearing a tent is plain wrong unless they are going camping.
Muslims who consider this a victory are bonkers, especially in a week when a British government minister actually said people of “Muslim appearance” are more likely to be stopped and searched by police. Not long from now, suspected terrorists will be detained in totally Kafka-esque circumstances. Do they not see that they are being offered an apple and robbed of a turnip? Keep in mind the Muslim girl’s lawyer was none other than Cherie Booth, the Prime Minister’s wife. What the lord giveth, he taketh away.
We all agree that Muslims are bonkers. Peace reigns and we are finally served that damn lasagne, with small sliced mushrooms instead of minced beef. I tell everyone that I was in a bank earlier on and met a Serbian cashier called Svetlana who was cute but I didn’t press for a date, in case she pressed the security button.
It’s now after dinner. Rob, Nargess’ husband, is talking to Ivana. I hear the word democracy and it is clear Ivana is instructing Rob he has no idea what the word means and that he should either prove he does or be a good boy and shut up. Rob, I can see, is getting insulted and angry. He tries to make a case — by this point drunk — but George Foreman has already pummelled him into the ropes (she was on coffee). He gets up from the floor where they are both sitting and says, “Fuck you, I find you insulting and fuck off” and walks out.
Everyone goes quiet and I follow Rob into the corridor. He is angry but very quickly accepts that regardless of how right he might be, the gentlemanly thing to do is go back and apologise. Back in the living room, however, Ivana is preparing to leave. Igor, she says, has told her “No more politics”. She was, in my opinion, rightly offended. I follow Ivana out and she won’t have it, there’s no coming back. I am disappointed that Igor does not chase his guest to make amends. Rob, meanwhile, looks shaken. Goga assures him that it must have been Ivana’s fault as she’s never seen him this angry.
Everyone was glad she was gone, except me. It was one in the morning and cold outside. They assured me nothing would happen to her. (Quite how they were so sure I didn’t ask.) I agreed to stop arguing with everyone and thought if they are all so happy she’s left, maybe there’s something I’ve had missed. But Igor reassured me not: “Bitch!” he said, jokingly. “She told me my lasagne sucked!” Ivan, Rob and Nargess nodded politely. In Persian, I said to Nargess: “Whatever that poor woman may have said or done wrong, she was right about the lasagne.” She smiled and agreed not to nod politely anymore. As we were leaving, I challenged Ivan on his nodding. “It did suck”, he said. “But there are some things you just don’t say.”
The next morning I called Noli, my only Serbian friend, whose grandfather had just died. I told him my grandmother had a big nose and when she died we couldn’t shut the coffin. This cheered him up somewhat. Then I told him about the woman leaving last night and the host not bothering to chase after her.
“Politics?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Welcome to Balkan hospitality.”