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He stands still, but that is not what defines his state, even though his eyes mirror his posture, but also not quite, as the beads that are his pupils twitch rhythmically to interrupt the stillness of his gaze. They twitch to follow his fingers, which are one with the wooden tool he wields to manipulate the strings. Singular focus – but multiplied tenfold in ten different directions and harmonized, by the pulling, independent but also collective, of his tendons. Director and performer – creating, releasing tension in the threads, merging physics with art and beauty with ruthless efficiency – not wasting a single motion.


The puppet comes alive.
Lutkar[1], my host father, who has brought me to the spectacle, reminds me. I repeat after him, exhaling with the pompous air exclusive to complete foreigners picking up bits of an unknown language. In Serbian, it means puppet master. More fittingly perhaps, it means the same in Serbo-Croat-Bosnian, the official language of socialist Yugoslavia, where the Lutkar’s craft prospered before being subdued by shifting technology and politics. Yes, it is Yugoslav, not Serbian, puppetry that I am witnessing, my host father explains. He knows because he too was a practitioner, before time’s sands withered down both him and his art.
The curtains close, and I find room for introspection. The story of a young man from Pakistan, born in an orange-farming town, studying at an elite college in the United States and temporarily living in a puppeteer’s home in the heart of Belgrade seems slightly off the beaten track. But I don’t claim to know the stories of all young men from Pakistan, save a few, some of which I have heard here, often confusing and fragmented, but nevertheless enough to make me wary of assumptions.


There are other young men from Pakistan in Serbia. Not just young men, of course, and not just from Pakistan. Women and children. Young and old. Afghanis, Iraqis, and Syrians. Travelling together, travelling alone. This much I’m sure you, an individual in our globally connected world, can fathom – harrowing sketches of war, poverty and desperation, hopefully, not lost on you. I mention them because I meet them, here at Info Park, where I volunteer. My work requires me to mediate, my experience of their culture and command of (some of) their languages seemingly having equipped me for the role. So I sit, listening to victims’ tales of police brutality and nighttime attempts at unauthorized border crossings – stories of broken limbs and broken dreams. I doubt, not the veracity of claims, no, but myself, as I try to reassure. For my spine has not seared in agony from a Bulgarian police baton, and I have never been abandoned in the mountainous cold, to fend for myself, by someone I had trusted. “What route did you take?”, I was asked, by an Afghani man with a glimmer in his eye. I told him how I was here, and he nodded, although after a pause, and carried on, but I looked in his eye, and the glimmer was gone.


I think of the puppet master and his act, in my never ceasing search for analogies. But it is hard to find any, and I only see contrast, and an illusion, ignited by hope and plagued by uncertainty, of control. But I also think of the stage and lighting, of the craftsman who built the marionette and of the weaver who wove the strings. I imagine a crack in the deception, and a glimmer twinkling through.


[1] Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian word for puppet master.