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Macedonia’s exotic secret

The opening-up process is going both ways – the world has set off towards the Juruks, and they – towards the world. Will they manage to preserve authenticity and not to lose the long kept heritage?

The room is like a small box with shiny white walls, with the whiteness even more highlighted by the sun, entering through the narrow square window, set high near the ceiling. You can see that the wall of the house is nearly half a meter thick through that window. The smaller room doesn’t have a single piece of furniture; only the multi-colored mats on the floor as a screaming answer to the whiteness and emptiness of the space. I fell like Alice in Wonderland, almost touching the ceiling with my head in spite of my unimposing height. We are all bare-footed, we took are shoes off even before the wooden stairs leading to this white room. At last, we all sit on the floor, the door opens and enters a woman who doesn’t speak, just smiles with shy and obediently nods her head to her husband, who talks to her in Turkish. She is young, dressed in a blue dress decorated with orange and pink roses, under which she has much more clothing, it seems. You can see the thick trousers and the colorful knitted socks peaking from under the dress. Her hands are red and rough and she carefully passes the wonderful objects, one by one, with them. There is an explosion of colors going on in the small white room. The woman is showing us parts of clothing wonderfully embroidered with silk and silver threads, woven woolen aprons, scarfs made of colorful fringed silk, jewelry knitted from colorful beads, etc.
We are having strong black coffee and sweet halva. I ask her how she spends her days, to which she replies that she prepares food – molasses, couscous, tatli – or watches TV. The husband, who is translating our conversation, says that they watch Turkish channels because they don’t understand Macedonian. I ask her why she hasn’t learned it and she just raises her shoulders. She answers shyly and with her head down and occasionally the look from her blue eyes and her smile shine on me from under the white scarf. I have a feeling that if the husband wasn’t in the room, she would open up to me like a sister and we would understand each other, even by using pantomime.

Most of the women in the Juruk villages only speak Turkish, do not show up in front of strangers and they do not speak to them, especially not to men.

It was a marvellous discovery in the mountain villages, where flocks of children fly by with their colourful clothing through the dusty streets. As if I wasn’t in my country, but in another, exotic one, Nepal or the Andes, if such a comparison is even possible. Even in Macedonia, very little is known about the Juruks. Many people have never heard of them and don’t know that they are a part of the ethnic diversity in the country. However, this part of the Macedonian culture mosaic is slowly rising in popularity, both domestically and internationally. Perhaps the biggest credit for that goes to Elizabeta Koneska, an ethnologist from the Museum of Macedonia, who has been exploring this Turkish ethnic group for years. A new movie will probably add to that; a movie which has attracted great interest at the penultimate Berlin festival, called “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears” in which actress Labina Mitevska (she lived in these villages for couple of weeks prior to shooting) plays a young woman from the Juruk tribe. Robert Jankuloski’s photographs depict the life of the Juruks most vividly; photographs which became a real sensation for several years through exhibitions in Macedonia and abroad. The documentary by Koneska, called “Adak” has also contributed, attracting huge interest at many film festivals and ethnological gatherings in Europe – it has been shown in Belgrade, Bucharest, Izmir, Istanbul, Ljubljana, Paris, Trieste, Zagreb, etc.

Elizabeta Koneska spent a lot of time among the Juruks, exploring their culture, customs and way of life. “My knowledge of the Turkish language was very important for communication, especially with the women from the Juruk villages, as well as the fact that I am a woman, helped a lot in gaining their trust. As someone who is a stranger to them, I had a rare opportunity, along with photographer Robert Jankuloski, to attend their customs and to have a peak in their hidden world, which is magical for everybody, but especially for an ethnologist” – says Koneska.
The Juruks, along with their heritage which they have preserved until present day, came to Macedonia towards the end of the 14th century, and followed the Ottoman conquerors in their quest over the next two centuries. This nomadic tribe, originating from the region of Konya in Turkey, served the Ottomans as logistics – their duty was to transport military materials, equipment and weapons, building and repairing the fortifications, for which they enjoyed special privileges and did not pay taxes or other charges. They even had a status of “Evlad-i Fatihan” – the conquerors’ children. Some Juruks stayed in Macedonia after the Ottoman retreat. The big transformation occurred when they replaced their nomadic life with a constant habitat. Islam is their religion. Still, their customs, especially the sacred ones, are specific and authentic to their ethnic group.  

Today, the Juruks are living mostly in the mountain villages near Radovish, Shtip, Strumica, Dojran and Ovche Pole – regions in Eastern Macedonia, and there are several in Western Macedonia, too. There are several thousand living in Macedonia today (there are no precise data because in the census of population they are considered part of the Turkish minority).

The big difference in the emancipation between men and women can be seen in that the women hardly speak Macedonian, or any language other than Turkish, they wear their traditional, colourful clothing every day, they rarely get out of the village, mostly stay in the house and they don’t mix with foreigners. The men don’t wear traditional clothing; they use cell phones, travel and communicate with the “outer world”. Young men ride motorbikes with which they go to the surrounding places and they go to cafes and discotheques.

However, times are changing. Today the girls, too, participate in the changes that inevitably cover this community. “It is not the way it used to be” – says Jonuz Ali, member of the Board of Directors of the NGO “Em” from Shtip, and a Juruk himself.

“The Juruks are increasingly opening to the world and embracing the modern civilization. It still isn’t a finished process, but the fact that currently there are 20 Juruks studying at the University in Shtip, shows that things are changing” – says Ali.

That process of opening seems to be going both ways – the world has set off towards the Juruks, and vice versa. It would be nice if that movement is balanced – while taking the civilization benefits, they manage to keep the authenticity of their culture and not lose the heritage they have kept for so long. Unfortunately, balanced processes are a rarity. However, one day that marvellous hidden world of the Juruks will come out of its shadow and stop being Macedonia’s exotic secret.

Author: Marijana Ivanova – National Geographic Serbia

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