02/06/2013 10:01 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Balkan Soap Opera

Serbia is forever in transition. My late father changed six passports without ever changing his address.  I have changed a mere four passports myself, but soon I expect a new one.   That's the changeless, ever-changing bureaucracy here in Belgrade, the capital of the chaotic Balkans, in transition to eternal nowhere.

With the new radical/socialist coalition government, experts claim that the young nation has achieved a complete power-void.  The coalition partners fight each other over every issue,  while the democratic party, which should be a vigorous opposition, was so stunned by its unexpected election loss that it has basically ceased to exist.  No progress, no resistance and still life goes on.  Serbia, like Italy, may be one of those "nations" where the very idea of a "government" is fraudulent.

Walking the Belgrade streets, you the see that the "museum of contemporary art" has been  closed, for there's nothing contemporary going on.  Worse yet, the big historical museum building, covered with loud promotional posters and banners,  is also barred to the public, so that the past has also disappeared.  I managed to force an obscure door to the local "museum of genocide,"  and the red faced, half drunk porter told me  pleasantly: but madame, there is nothing in this building anymore.  We are renovating: new people, new life.

That's history!  Yesterday's victims are the future perpetrators.

Remaking history, recent and ancient, is a specialty of countries in transition. My daughter was born only a couple of years after Marshal Tito died.  Tito ruled former Yugoslavia for 40 years, with a nationwide personality cult of posters, TV and statuary,  and yet when my daughter went to grade school, she and her classmates had never heard of Tito.  Is Tito a good or a bad guy? she asked me.

The  official paperwork of the everyday Serbian citizen gets more bizarre every day. Along with its own ramshackle standards come a new host of inexplicable EU standards.  Bus rides are regulated,  so that passers-by can't flag them down, or hang from the doors, either,  even if the driver is their own cousin.  

In order to get the paperwork for my health insurance, I had to prove my labor record for the past decades of my adult life.  Naturally some of these years were simply lost in the general decay of bureaucratic records.  However, while searching for my invisible work-history,  I did discover the intricate paperwork for the pension of my grandmother.   She acquired a pension in 1940 from the Austrian government, which was occupied by Nazis in the hell-hole of World War II.  Everything neatly documented.

Balkan occupiers always brought their governmental rules and regulations, and their infrastructure, too. Thus, the ancient Romans built the roads and aqueducts.  The Ottomans  built walls, wells and public fountains.  The Austrians surveyed and named the districts and carried out the census.  The Austrians even legally renamed the local individuals, creating Balkan subjects with  Turkish first names and Serbian surnames drawn from their jobs or their villages. Every differing church or mosque, and they existed in plenty, was a cauldron of culture, language and rituals.  To find the Serbianity in Serbia is a job fit for Stendhal, the French writer diplomat who was proud to find some "Italianity" in an Italy scattered among seven nations.

Belgrade girls have always personified this nomad city on the run. Today they still teeter on spiky high heels,  dressed to kill as usual, but no longer in cheap Chinese counterfeits.   The Beogradjanka girl now parades like a top model in  Euro-globalized authentic brands, which tend to sell here cheaper than anywhere else.   Even the BBC has realized that Serbs are no longer the stock Hollywood bad-guy figures, but colorful and hospitable party animals.   

Monica Bellucci, the famous Italian actress,  spent days in the Kustendorf  movie and music festival ,  made by the  Balkan director Emir Kusturica.  Foreigners who get here swear by the local brandy.  The best way to get over a rakija hangover is to drink lots more, but from a fancier bottle.

Everyday people in Belgrade still chain smoke.  They know smoking will kill you, but such distant prospects are not a matter of urgency in a transition zone.  "It's all in your head,"  is a famous saying here.  If you don't fret about asthma and lung cancer, it will pass you by. Drafts can be more lethal!"

Then there's Magnificent Century, the Turkish historical soap opera, which has been renamed Suleiman the Magnificent for Serbian release, as if the Ottoman Emperor were Tito.   The relevance of this Turkish TV program couldn't be more obvious to a Balkan people striving to invade the Schengen Fortress of the European Union.

This three-year-old Turkish TV show has conquered Belgrade, especially the women, who are keen on the hot-house harem politics.  Suleiman the Magnificent involves endless Dynasty or Dallas-style girlish back-biting, feminine poisonings, gorgeous gowns, fantastic furniture and a dazzling close-up panoply of Ottoman updos, cosmetics, pearl necklaces and gem-studded tiaras.    

In theory, Serbs are still supposed to be blazingly upset about their legendary five centuries of Ottoman imperial domination, which involved all kinds of oppressions, such as forced conversions, abducted children, ethnic taxes, janissary jihads and so on.

However, that was well before the European Union came along, an empire which admittedly has some awesome wardrobes,  but is also all about imperial domination, forced conversion to weird standards in beer and carrots, etc.  Under these conditions, rehearsing the Ottoman Empire feels like psychotherapy.   

Even the unfortunate scenes in episode 8 and 9, when Belgrade is blown apart with Ottoman high-tech cannons, have to feel obscurely flattering.  Not only does Belgrade directly star in a couple of episodes, the Turkish special-effects version of Belgrade looks lots better than Belgrade actually did at the time.  When the glittering fortress Belgrade --  it has a rather Disneyland look, all clean white towers and knights in armor -- gets swept into the Sultan's vast dominions, Belgrade is regarded as a real prize.  Every character in the show is truly pleased about it.  One has to feel welcome.

The show has already created a few scandals in Turkey -- their fundamentalists are easily upset by a decolletage -- but it's also won loyal audiences inside Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Lebanon, Macedonia, Montenegro, Cyprus and the Arab Gulf states -- pretty much every single locale that Suleiman the Magnificent ever ruled.  

The streets empty when the show airs.   The Serbian net, tabloids and Belgrade bookstores are full of tie-in merchandise about concubines swooning in the arms of sultans.  Viewers are rewriting history in their heads.

The actors are just TV people, and the weird plot is far from plausible, but the costumes are terrific.  Viewers today can learn something about the Ottoman Empire from this show -- probably lots more than the actual, non-fictional Ottomans ever knew when the events portrayed were actually happening.

So is Magnificent Century  history, art, science, museum economics -- or  maybe a collectively intelligent melodrama?  It's soap-opera schlock on a massive regional scale -- so will it finally conquer Vienna?