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Thursday 23 February

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Space for Inter-Religion Dialogue in Macedonia.

1. Where is it?
The favourite anecdote of the Macedonians is: Macedonia declared war on the United States. Two days pass ...and only silence. On the third day, a message was sent to the White House: Where is the reaction to our declaration of war? The reply: We cannot find you on the map ...

The official name of this country sounds scary: The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short. It is situated... yes, at the territory of the former Yugoslavia, between Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Greece.
Nature in Macedonia is beautiful. From the view of a plane, the snow-capped peaks of majestic mountains are visible as well as the vast clear lake Ohrid. Speaking of airplanes....

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2. Two Airplanes, Part 1.
You can get to Macedonia in different ways. It is possible through Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece or Turkey. I chose the cheapest option - through Czech Republic. When I was asked the purpose of my visit at the passport control in Prague I told them the truth - the cheapest way to get to Macedonia. They were pretty amused. As a bonus this trip gave me the opportunity to see a good friend and colleague, Mirek Prokes from the organization "Duha" while enjoying genuine Czech beer.
There is only one flight per day from Prague to Skopje. And, given that most of the passengers of this flight use Prague exclusively as a transfer point, the aircraft can not fly without waiting for all registered passengers from all connective flights that are late. Therefore, never expect to fly from Prague to Skopje on time. Our flight was delayed for more than an hour. At first, the crew apologized for the delay and promised to be off in another 15 minutes. It was then explained that part of the family of one of the passengers had not arrived, and he refused to fly without them. After some time, it was announced that the missing passengers has not arrived and, as a guy refuses to fly without them, we would all have to leave the plane, unload all the luggage and go through additional checks. Everyone stood up and, sighing heavily and cursing through teeth, we all started to exit. Another announcement interrupted our departure: part of the passenger's family had landed, and we would be able to fly soon. Finally, the newly reunified FAMILY climbed aboard - a pair of parents and a dozen children, aged from infants to twenty-five - loudly screaming over each other. They continued to argue the entire flight, and occasionally (to the dissatisfaction of the entire aircraft) the baby would chime in with a deafening roar... At the airport, the family and their luggage (about thirty large checked bags a-la Cherkizon) meet with two mini-buses, which right away drove off. The square in front of the airport right away became quiet and uncomfortable, and I felt the immediate need to find people from our group. We were collected from the airport by a big white bus, where we continued our journey across the country to a town called Struga located on Ohrid Lake.

 

3. Team
In general, I want to give a special thanks to the organizers of the training - the Macedonian NGO Center for Intercultural Dialogue, and especially Lindita, Stefan, Milos and Christian! They wonderfully organized all the technical aspects - travel, accommodation, tours, night trips to clubs, etc. In addition to organizing and negotiating among other things, they often had to act as guides, translators and even doctors (Lindita, like a fairy godmother, dealt medicine to treat an intestinal infection), and with all they were able to cope brilliantly. It is so nice to see a young team from a small town able to organize such a big international party! Although some of these guys have not finished school, for example Christian who is only seventeen, but already demonstrates excellent organizational skills!
A very good discovery of the team which they want to call nightly «Reflection groups», can be translated like "Group Feedback". These are the fifteen to twenty minute gatherings in small groups with one of the organizers, where participants can express their complaints and suggestions, share impressions and general opinions, and where their voices will be heard. Our group was led by Lindita, and it was similar to group therapy sessions - «and the cure you ....»
Another good find of the facilitators team ... So, about the facilitators team.

 

4. Facilitators
The facilitators team consisted of Stefan who was previously mentioned and the international duo of Maram from Egypt and Lorenzo from Italy. Lorenzo, in particular, impressed me with his spouting optimism, excellent knowledge of modern Russian language and an inexhaustible supply of jokes on various topics. I really hope to collaborate in the future with this unique person because a good European facilitator who is able to work in Russian is a great find!
So, about good a find of the facilitators team. On the morning of the second day of training, Lorenzo distributed to all participants envelopes and sheets of blank paper and instructed to write a letter to ourselves - to describe the previous day, to recall the events, feelings, emotions. Further, we were told to put the letter in an envelope and hand it back to Lorenzo. The next morning the process was repeated, and thus started every day. The whole process took about half an hour, but this time was well spent. All the most interesting aspects of training were recorded, sealed in envelopes and handed Lorenzo, who had promised to send them back to the recipients in two months. Everyone did, and I ... yeah, dreaming! I'm not the kind of person to entrust a valuable document to international postage. Indeed, as stated in the famous advertisement translated by Goblin, "Mail of Russia. All deliveries via ass!". I sealed an empty envelope, secretly stashing away my valuable recordings that will help me now to restore the chronology of the training "Space for Inter-Religion Dialogue", held in Macedonia, 7-14 April 2011. You may ask why I write "Inter-Religion "? I will answer. When I asked why in the title instead of «Inter-Religious» is it «Inter-Religion», I got the answer: "Because they do not know English well ". So the dialogue, in fact, was Inter-Religious, but a name is a name.


5. Training
So, to speak about my recordings. What happened the first day of training? The weather was super! Warm and sunny. All our free time was spent a huge semi-circular porch with glass coffee tables and very comfortable wicker chairs. We had half hour for coffee breaks which was never enough - it took extremely long to explain to the bartender specifically what kind of coffee you want, considering the language barrier. In general, the Macedonian language is not complicated. For example, green tea is «zelen chai», and black tea is "seren chai". With coffee it's a bit more complicated - common terms in Macedonia do not work, coffee comes in two flavors - espresso or with milk, which is called Macchiato. After spending three days explaining to them how to properly make a latte, I came to the conclusion that it is easier to order tea. But back to the training.

 

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It started with a standard game on team building - two chairs, a rope between them, and 29 participants from various countries had to overcome this obstacle, without touching the rope, and not without ceasing to hold each other's hands. Done it. Then all participants were given colored stickers on which they had to write their expectations from the training, their needs and their contributions. Stickers were glued to a special sheet of paper. The stickers with the expectations were representing the germinating seeds, from which, at the completion of the training, were to rise (or not to rise) beautiful flowers. Then in small groups participants had to perform a "complex" task - make a list of birthdays of all the participants, draw a portrait of their group, make the highest possible pyramid, write the basic principles of the group, and decorate their pyramid ... all that in just 15 minutes. Done it too, but I'm still wondering why they had to make everything so complicated. Then individually we filled in a form of the definition of culture and discussed the results in groups. Then we talked a lot about culture and religion - at first a presentation was done and discussed, then we walked outside discussing the topic in smaller groups, then again in a whole group in the hall where the lectures took place.
The official closing of the first day was the presentation of food and drinks brought by participants. For creativity, the facilitators asked us to represent small groups of different "cultural origins" - a group of "Nymphs," a group of "Fauns", etc., and created a small description for each group. According to this description we, the fauns, were tailed, horned, and had hooves, liked good food, strong drinks and vulgar jokes. We had to conform. Here comes in use a bottle of vodka presented to me by the Armenian Diaspora in Pyatigorsk (special thanks!), that I brought to Macedonia with me. We made tails and horns out of rope and some stationery and decided not to bother with hooves. An American-born French girl Rene taught us a short American dance and as a joke I said that we were all horny, very horny. In English it sounded rather ambiguous. The party was a success! Among all the tasty stuff from round the world the whole group enjoyed a bottle of pepper vodka and bacon on rye bread, brought by Nataliya from Ukraine. And, of course, raki and traditional Balkan ajvar - something like adzhika, but not too spicy, that they put on bread.

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At night, still with our roped tails and the remnants of pepper vodka, we went to explore the Struga night life. First came the disco, where there was not a single person. We danced to an outdated songs, but not too much pop music - we quickly got bored and decided to relocate. The next stop was an Irish pub - an overcrowded place where a local hard-rock band played. It was a nice place with good music. I only wish they not dilute whiskey.

The second day began, according to tradition, with the letters to ourselves. Then we were divided into small groups - this time, no nymphs and fauns, but only "biologists","psychologists", "theologians" and "philosophers". The task was to define the term "identity" in regards to our own group. It turned out to be creative and fun exercise. Later the whole group tried to agree on a common definition. It turned out better than in a dictionary.

 

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The next game was the analysis of "letters to the editor". Again in small groups, we were the editors of the journal, which received a letter from a reader that required a response. The letters were peculiar. For example, "Dear editorial help! I do not know how I live. I am married and have two small children, but recently I realized that I am gay. I can no longer hide it, but how will it look to my parents, my friends, my family? What should I do? ". The letters were on different topics, and created a lot of interesting discussions. The only point that was not quite clear was the constant questions about each new job, "What do you think?", "How did you feel during this discussion?", "How do you feel now?" and others in the same spirit. This constant reflection looked like a quote from a stupid textbook and caused only a desire to quickly end it and move on.

 

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Then there was a whole unit focusing on the changing of values during a human life. It began with a discussion about whether the values have changed or not, at what age is a personality created, what factors affect human development, etc. While discussing in pairs, we walked through the park and by the lake. We continued in small groups with the task of portraying the result through making a statue with our bodies.
The evening program was a movie. It was an Australian film about a man who filed a lawsuit against God. It was a good movie, sometimes funny, but not a masterpiece. It became clear why the organizers choose this film only on the second half of the next day, but first things first.
After the movie we went to bed? No! After the movie organizers called a few taxis, and almost all the staff went to explore the night life in Ohrid! I must say that night Ohrid did not made much of an impression. What really impressed me was the traditional Balkan Kafana! Kafana - this is a restaurant with national cuisine and beverages, where they played live music. There, we held a tasting of local beer like "Skopsko" and "Zlaten Dub". "Skopsko" - was tasteless bitter beer that nobody liked, but everyone drank faute de mieux. " Zlaten Dub", or as I rightly translated, the "Golden Oak", was loved by all, as this beer was light and pleasant, but was hard to find. After the cafe we went to the biggest and most popular nightclub in Ohrid. There were a wild number of people, the situation was completely uninteresting, the music - awful, it was almost impossible to dance and even harder to get through to the bar for a beer - and they only offered "Skopsko. So we quickly left and went to yet another traditional place called Burechnaya. In burechnaya they sell - what do you think? Right, burek. These are puff pastry with cheese, which they eat with a sour drinkable yogurt. Traditionally, most of the local population, returning home at night, always comes for a bite in burechnaya. This is such a big part of Balkan culture which was interesting to join in before returning to the hotel.

 

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The third day began with bright sunshine and good moods. In the program were two excursions - to a church and a mosque. Orthodox Church in Macedonia is different, of course from those in Russia. It was a rather grim, very old stone building, with a huge metal cross and a set of icons and frescoes inside which were blackened with age. Inside we had an interesting lecture about Orthodoxy in the Balkans from the local priest. Participants asked many questions, because for most of them it was the first time seeing an Orthodox Church.

 

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The next excursion was to the mosque. The mosque was somehow uncomfortable, and despite the thick carpets, very cold. We talked about Islam and how the prayers are done at the mosque. Some questions on jihad, suicide bombers and terrorism were quite provocative, but sharp discussion was avoided through the efforts of the translators.

 

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The assignment given on our return was to give a definition of religion. Around the room were hung several versions of the definition, and we had to choose the most intimate and comfortable one for each of us. I chose to write my own version, and gradually some of the participants moved toward me.
Then we had to agree or disagree with certain statements about religion. This resulted in a long and interesting discussion about whether we need a religion, whether it helps in life, the role it plays in modern society, etc.
After dinner was announced the game, "the Court". Then it became clear why yesterday's film was played. We were invited to participate in the trial of a religion - whether you need it or not. Roles were distributed in advance and the positions were stated in the leaflets handed out. What can I say about this game? It could bee a success if ... There were too many "ifs". If the group was half what it was and had the active roles for all, if the parties could choose their role, or pull them as exam tickets, if there were more time to prepare. And it so happened that some of the participants, who were judges, prosecutors and lawyers, enjoyed the game, while jurors, witnesses and journalists have obviously bored, being out of work. I was especially sorry for those witnesses who prepared hard and spent most of the session polishing their speech, but were never summoned to testify. Later we were told that roles were distributed in so-called "contradiction" and "resistance" principle, but it was still not clear what benefit came from the role of an Israeli journalist for the participant from Palestine who was never given a chance to speak... As a result, the game can only be assessed as great facilitator's fail that separated already created team and made half of the group uncomfortable.
The evening after the game was not a good one. Part of the people went to bed, a small portion went to the bowling alley, and the rest sat or laid on the hallway floor, each buried in his or her laptop.

The fourth day began with a remarkable energizer from Stephen. He asked the participants to portray various creatures and to play the characters by using typical movements for each. We were especially amused to show the training participants with a reciprocal movement - tapping a forefinger on the wrist with a watch.
When all of late participants gathered, we began the first task. In groups of three or four people we have talked about the role of religion in our society and our culture - through personal experience and that of our family. It was a very informative discussion which allowed participants to become acquainted with other cultures.
Day continued with a tour in Ohrid. During the day, this city is really impressive! Mysterious curved cobbled streets, quaint buildings, the variety of just plain old and antique cars, the ruins of the ancient theater, many churches and the immensity of the clean and transparent lake - together with warm sunny weather, it's like a fairy tale! In the evening a banquet was held at already familiar Kafana - with music, dancing and merriment. It was an evening of Balkan culture!


The entire fifth day was devoted to work. The succession of various brainstorming and group work on the theme of interreligious dialogue, qualities and skills needed to work on interfaith dialogue, the definition of the term "dialogue", making collages on the theme of interreligious dialogue - were just a small part of what we did. That same evening we were invited to organize ourselves. We offered two themes to choose from for the evening discussion group - "Your Organization" and "Religion and sexual minorities." The second theme, of course, won, and in the evening we had a lengthy and very entertaining discussion on the given topic.
In general, it is interesting that in all our free time, including coffee-breaks and evening and night gatherings, participants spent discussing topics of training, ie interreligious dialogue. There was a lot of questions for each other, a lot of claims, disputes, requests for clarification of unclear points. Representatives of different faiths and cultures, questioned each other about religious services, celebrations, traditions, family values and personal relationships. The Group was interesting, varied and versatile. I will try to list the participants: Sarah from Egypt, Ana from Spain, Paola, from Poland, Krista from Hungary, Maja and Nikola from Serbia, Sanja from Croatia, Sigurd from Greece, Rene of France, Sebastian from Italy, Amit from Israel, Malik and Majd from Palestine, Nataliya from Ukraine, Baiba from Latvia, Inga from Austria, Renata from Ireland, Morgan from Sweden, Mustafa from Turkey, Mirali from Azerbaijan, Tamar from Georgia, Dardan from Kosovo, Arnel from Albania, Klavdija from Slovenia, Motasem from Jordan and me - Maria from Russia.

The last day of training was devoted to evaluation and a conference. During the summing up, it was nice to see how the "seeds" of our expectations really "grew and blossomed to full flowers". As for the conference - it was unexpectedly interesting. We were greeted by a local historian, a representative of UNESCO, and the mayor of Struga.
In the evening we had a farewell party at the Irish pub. Remembering the past, less successful visit to this institution, we only drank beer, which was good considering our appointed seven o'clock departure.

At 7 am all loaded the bus and cried. No one wanted to leave new friends, it was so sad to say goodbye. Thou we had not a mass hysteria according to such an early hour - people did not have time to wake up, and sleepily, dragged their suitcases to the bus. Most of the participants left the same day, a small group stayed for one more, that we spent in Skopje. The night was spent in Kumanovo, the hometown of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue, in a hotel with a playful title -"Luv Hotel". Do not let the title fool you- "luv" in Macedonian means "lion". On the day of departure, we had the opportunity to visit the Youth Cultural Center, see Lindita, Stefan and Sonya at work and tell them goodbye and thank you.

 

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6. Two Airplanes, Part 2.
At the airport "Alexander the Great" we arrived in a foursome - Sarah, Rene, Morgan and myself. Sarah left 40 minutes before us, via Istanbul. We three flew through Prague, where I hoped to see another good friend of mine and an activist in the Jewish community, Peter Gyori - the time between my flights was just enough for me to reach the center, spend an hour in a pub and go back to the airport. But of course, our flight postponed indefinitely. Information about it appeared on the scoreboard and quickly disappeared, and we were left there waiting for new messages. On the scoreboard near the gate our flight did not appear at all, but the second board held a description saying that it was delayed. Seeing this inscription, we calmly waited, sitting in a cafe right near the one and only gate in this airport. After about an hour and a half, when I mentally said goodbye to the idea of meeting with Peter and Rene and Morgan had read all the news on the Internet and answered all their e-mails, Morgan suddenly miraculously heard the speaker announcing - no, not the boarding to our flight, but names of the late passengers... OUR NAMES! The funny thing is that neither me - partly understanding Macedonian because of its slight resemblance to Russian, nor Rene, who lived in Kumanovo for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and speaks quite good Macedonian, had heard anything about our flight.
Accompanied by loud swearing from the "Alexander the Great" airport employees we, pushing aside other passengers, rushed through passport control, customs and personal searches and, dropping jeans with removed belts and unlaced boots, ran across the airfield to the waiting aircraft.


7. Summing up ...
I hope that all participants in this training agree that it was quite productive - it helped answer many questions, taught the methods of work on interreligious dialogue, helped to find new friends and business partners. Personally, my expectations were completely satisfied - in my mind has grown a new project that I would really like to translate into reality with the support of some of the organizations whose representatives participated in this training. And that I think is the most important result of the training.

 

Maria Kopelyan.