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Foreign Desk

Alina and the Hollow Bone
by Carrie Haber

Prague, June 1999.

While living in Prague between 1998 and 2000, I was shooting footage for a documentary film about Roma in the region. This story chronicles an evening spent with Fidel Castro’s daughter in a local Gypsy bar, exploring music’s implications on race relations and violence in closed societies.

These days Alina Fernandez lives in Miami and hosts a talk show on WQBA FM called Simply Alina, where she fields calls from new Cuban arrivals to the U.S.

Everybody knows that taxis in the Czech Republic are for tourists. Countless 'black', unregistered fleets of lawlessly-priced chariots careen the cobblestone corners of Hradcany and Stare Mesto (the castle district and old town) and their drivers cloak their thievery with stories about uncles in gulags and Uranium mines. The stories, true or not, justify the expense for many visitors, who are happy to pay dearly for such horrific privy. I lived close enough to the center and had made it a rule to never patronize the taxi men.
     One Thursday night in May 1999, I made an exception. My destination was off the public transport grid, so I opened the passenger door and ducked from the rain into the sopping Lada that stopped in front of me at the edge of town. The driver, upon turning to face me, was a skinhead. A Czech translation of Orwell's Animal Farm was stuck between the dashboard and the windshield. It was in bad shape; he said his friends had been passing it around.
     I gave him the address of the bar. He shook his head and threw his notepad on the seat.
     "Gypsy place?" He looked sidelong at me as though to say 'why would you want to go there?'
     "Gypsy? Oh, I don't know," I shrugged. I guess it wasn't so anonymous, as the film director had told me. "I've never been there."
     The fifty-foot metronome swung behind us in the pouring rain, over Prague, marking time with a repetitive, eternal humour. The metronome is there to replace the fifty-foot Stalin statue that was blasted from the mountain towards the end of the Communist occupation, once Stalin had lost his perilous clout. His speech LP's were being circulated as fetish objects by the cynical progeny of the wartime generation, whose memories were drenched in long walks through quiet residential streets, to a soundtrack of the convoluted monotones of Stalin's voice mandatorily wafting from half-open windows. The students in the 1970's found the leader's meek and cardboard character especially laughable when popped and picked at by dirty phonograph needles. Today, the metronome's long arm pulls to and fro, a totem to the resilience of the Czechs through change. They are monkey-in-the-middle, no longer dancing in the New West's political games, but sitting wearily, cross-legged, arms folded, waiting for its end, with the communal conviction that the ball may never land at all. It has been fourteen years since the Velvet Revolution. Most Czech businesses are today administrated and owned, at least in part, by U.S. or German companies.
     I kept my head turned, peering through the revolting condensation of our mingled breath on the window, seeing nothing but blurs of light through the water on the glass.
     "Where from?" The taxi driver asked. I pretended not to hear, not to understand.
     "Where from?" Again, in a sing-songy voice.
     "Quebec," I resigned. He raised his eyebrows and his whole head wrinkled back like a pug in the wind.
     "Which side you on?" He turned to look at me.
     "You really understand it?" I asked.
     "Which side you on?" He insisted.
And we cumbered into a difficult, delicate talk about Quebec politics with the use of charades, drawings in the fogged windshield, and feigned respect for one another's opinion. I was never happier to get out of a talk with anyone.
     I tried not to touch his palm as I paid him.
     I found myself in a suburb of Prague. The nameless tavern was a one-room wooden box, and about the only Gypsy bar skinheads left alone at night, mainly due to its distance from the tramline. It was on the other side of a wide, burnt-out patch of old airfield, surrounded on all sides by panelaks - the stark, bleak, Communist housing compounds that gruesomely pepper the city's outskirts.
     The bar's plumbing flooded one side of the floor, which didn't deter little plastic Tesco's slippers from dancing and splashing to the afternoon piano player, who was drunk and had missed the shift change. It was now dark, and a young Gypsy band was about to play, Gypsy except for the white cimbalom player, who studied at HAMU, Prague's music academy. The Gypsy band members laughed at him, as he set up and told them about his exams. Music is not something you study.
     He was not the only Caucasian in the room. There was a film festival in town, and a few Czechs, Americans, seven Cubans (considered 'white' by Gypsies) and more Europeans were commiserating. We were a gaggle of documentary filmmakers that had been invited by one of our films' subjects, a Romany man from Ostrava. The Americans and Europeans didn't drink late, and most had gone downtown, opting for rock bands and Europop-karaoke instead of the harmonic haunt of songs of loss. I was staying. I was staying and drinking until I got brave enough to walk the six miles home. Prague is a small, slow place, and people tend to wait around. People, if I can be clear, like the taxi driver that had brought me there. An hour and a half into my night, I looked out through the silver watershed on my way to the bathroom. The Lada was parked outside, wet, dark and sleeping like an aluminium, invincible spectre.
      There had been attack stories, as vivid as the skinhead encounter I'd had a few weeks earlier when they'd crowded around me, near midnight, in the Karlovo Náměstí subway station. I'd been alone with my echo waiting for the train. Boots thundered down the stairs, their laces pulled tight as nightmares. Eleven lugs, about my little brother's age, came on like a pack of dogs in full-fledged snarl, descending to kick at me. They demanded to know whether I was Czech … or not. They tried to taunt me into talking. They yelped nationalist songs in my face: two-tone, bloody awful chants. I sat mute, transporting myself to another place. I can still remember the pitch of the bricks in the opposite wall.
     This, by the way, works. Even the Czechs will tell you that if you find yourself in a situation from which there is no hope of escape, transport your brain elsewhere. Float it into a sauce of music. Float it into the countryside, to the bottom of the ocean. Trying to appear impassive is a game you play with yourself, not your captors - 'I am a stone,' you tell yourself. 'Do not show your fear'. It is a game we play in the most benign places: in café performances when we know we are tuneless. In crowded rooms when it is our turn to speak. When the lights shine down on us.
As the train slowed, two Czech hippies ran down the stairs and towards one of the cars, but never made it there. Riled into an anthemic froth, a few skinheads reached them first. I boarded the train. Beside me were two cops engaged in light conversation. They glanced over their shoulders at the bloody beating happening behind them, and casually returned to their chat. An East Asian man across from me sailed his frightened, vacant glare over my shoulder; the Gypsies at the end of the car bowed their heads in fear. The beating was only partial horror - the chitchat of cops, terrific. Two of the Skins ran for the closing doors and squeezed their chests into our car, panting and high with adrenaline.
     What happened next was a testament to our primal origins: the eyes of most every person in that car met the pair of eyes across from them, and hung there for protection. Could we trust each other to take care of each other?
      If you were a Gypsy you couldn't trust anyone. Neo-Nazism is on the rise, and many traditionalists feel that skinheads are the hounds of the new Czech social order.
     'What is the solution to the Gypsy problem', the Ministers ask each other in parliament; the American-modeled news shows ask the man in the street. The most popular answer: 'camps'.
     'Reservations, like they have in Canada', they say.
     'Everybody knows you can't give a Gypsy a job because he'll steal from you,' say business managers. The Roma people are nostalgic for the Communist days, when they too were guaranteed jobs, when they too were protected by the heavy bureaucratic doctrines that were thumbed by little men smoking off their brush cuts. Now they must be indoors by five p.m., or else face the consequences. Now their children are sequestered to schools for the mentally ill and learning disabled. But with nothing, they get by. Frantisek, my neighbour, works 16-hour days collecting bits of old cable from industrial garbage piles and abandoned buildings. Once he has enough, he goes home and strips them down to the fine copper hairs inside, then he sells the wire and, if he's had a good day, his family has dinner. On Saturday nights he runs a wire from his apartment down to the communal car, a rusted Lada he shares with twelve others, and gets in with his wife, an old radio, a fifty-korun bottle of Moravian wine. They sit there for hours, every Saturday night - even in winter, wrapped in blankets and all their clothes.
     Across town, from a family just like Frantisek's, Vojtech was born in 1982, and made it all the way through childhood and adolescence without once damaging the violin his uncle had given him. They had often moved, but the violin lived, for the most part, in three places: pressed under Vojtech's chin, loosely stored under his bed, and carted around in a little nylon promotional sports bag, under some company's faded logo, that he'd found by the side of the tracks.
     That Vojtech had come by such an instrument in the 1980's is not so unlikely. The violin has never stopped singing in Czech. At the turn of the last century, enterprising luthiers set up factory workshops to reproduce Stradivariuses in Czechoslovakia. During the Communist occupation, the makers of instruments were stripped of their factories, but were among the scant few whose professions were not nationalized, and the luthiers, with their exacting crafts, were left alone to profit from their cellos and violins. As a result, hundreds of these instruments are today floating around the pawnshops, and are even sold in street markets. They are not particularly valuable: three week's wages will let you take one home, if you are Czech, and a day's if you are American.
     Tonight, Vojtech and his violin were about to lead the band in the wooden box bar, but first, as always, a drink. He was young, sinewy, and ambitious. He had soft lips, and thick wavy hair, full of oils. He'd cut his own clothes into cool-looking garments. He'd learned English in nine months, was king of maths, and was trying to get into a normal high school. He'd been asked to play for a television commercial. He'd been asked to play on Ivan Kral's next record, and he was starting to get comfortable in the dressing rooms and backstages of Prague's bigger venues, pocketing the fruit and biscuits from the rider for his little brothers and sisters. He hung onto his instrument by the scroll, with his thumb and forefinger, at his hip. When it was time to play, he opened up like a giant bird, and the bow sang out like a hollow bone in the wind.
The woman next to me was tired. Her feet were up on the chair in front of me. She played with her bangs and drank.
     "Isn't it strange," she asked, "that there we see a white man playing with a bunch of Gypsies?"
     Yes, it was strange. I lived in a Gypsy neighbourhood and never saw a white playing anywhere near them.
     "In Cuba you hear the stories…the Russians, the Czechs - all the racists from the East. I didn't think this would happen here, that they could play together." She spoke romantically, dramatically, as though there were a camera behind me somewhere. She hung inside her observation and looked to me for confirmation.
     A small, stout woman came to join us. Her eyes were nearly puffed shut and her mouth was permanently caught in a half-open grin, as with one who doesn't hear too well.
     "What am I missing?" she grinned to the woman beside me.
     "She's telling me about Cuba," I replied.
     "She's the expert. You know who you're talking to. Alina will do nothing else but talk about Cuba, until she's dead!"
     Her soft, short fingers jabbed out to touch me when she talked. I didn't know whom I was talking to. I kept talking.
     "If the music is any indication of the mental landscape of the people, it can't be as bad in Cuba as it is here," I assumed. Vojtech was leaning back in a slow, pained, minor howl. His brain was definitely elsewhere.
     "No," reflected Alina, "Cuba has a happy music, a wonderful music. But that has more to do with the resilience of the people than their conditions. They are very different people than here." She became emphatic. "We will never know how many people disappeared at sea, eaten by sharks, all culprits in only wanting to leave that 'paradise of socialism,'" she continued.
     "Let her enjoy herself!" the stout woman scolded.
     "Alina's touring the East now," she explained. "She has speeches to give, she is used to this. I think you are not. What is your film about?"
     "Gypsies," I answered, and her eyebrows rose with her measurement of which was the sadder situation: the Gypsies forever roaming Eastern Europe, or the Cubans stuck on Cuba.
     I asked the women about their tour. Alina had narrated the film Gloria had edited, and she was following it through the festival circuit. She had a responsibility to her people, she said, to tell them what Castro was really about, and as his daughter, she felt she knew better than anyone. Alina had not heard from her father between the ages of 10 and 17. At 10, she was picked up from her mother's by a strange man and was brought to one of her father's press conferences. She wanted to touch his beard. She wanted to climb into his beard and disappear. Fidel bent down and embraced her in front of the cameras, and she spent an hour in his arms while he answered questions about fatherhood.
     "Journalists love him," she said. "But he is not so exciting. He is not a villain for America's theatre. It is not about Fidel - people can't understand what the family in Cuba is going through!" (1)
     These were the words of Castro's daughter. Alina the rebel daughter. The ex-model, ex-medical student, the exile. I knew about her only from a Spanish trumpet player I'd met who had visited Cuba and had spent the night with her, before she escaped. He'd written nine songs with Alina in the title. One about Alina and her four husbands. One about the darling Alina and the father complex. Alina with the hard-tack vengeance campaign, Cuba's Eva Peron.
     Alina made it to Miami in 1993, masquerading as a Spanish tourist on a borrowed passport. "Do not show your fear," she told herself as she looked into the gloss of the airport official's eyes. With little else but a small roll of dollars and a coffee bean in her pocket, she pulled the knots through a good Cuban network and within a few weeks had landed herself a high-rise apartment in Manhattan. Just like Gloria, the stout woman beside her.
Gloria was seventeen when she left. She made it to Miami on a boat with an uncle, and she too made her way to Manhattan. She had one job lead there. On her second day in New York, she rang the number of the film production house she'd been given. "What can you do?" they asked her over the phone. Gloria had spent most of her life helping her neighbour make documentary films. She already knew the feeling of film stock slipping through her fingers, and the effort of diving into barrels for a 2-inch strip of silence, or a footstep. In Cuba, you did everything yourself.
     "What do you do?" The producer leaned across his desk.
     'Do not show your fear,' Gloria amassed her wits.
     "I can photograph, develop, work on a flatbed, and do lighting, sound…"
      The producer was impatient. "When someone asks you what you do, don't tell them what you can do…" he shook his head, "…never say that again. They'll either be afraid of you or they'll think you're crazy. You're an editor. You edit film. You'll start as an apprentice."
     Gloria never figured whether he'd really seen it in her, or just needed an editor. She turned up the next day to 'learn' from the assistant editor. He was a real New Yorker. He began by teaching her to rewind. He leaned over the machine and began to demonstrate his best spooling techniques. Gloria watched patiently. She had been rewinding since she was four.
     A few years later she opened her very own postproduction studio a few doors down the hall. Now she was fifty-eight.
     "I want my AVID machines to be buried with me," she said as she pressed her fingers together in self-satisfaction.
      "I'll never go back", Alina cut her friend short, as though the discussion of burial had brought up the question of home. She was beginning to slur.
     We turned and watched the band, now thrown into a slow, five-part bellow, an acapella haunt. It was the sound of the saddest place on Earth.
     Castro is the ultimate patriarch. His Communism seats itself at the head of every Cuban family and demands its loyalty. The Czech Communism demanded only obedience, and left the heart alone. Castro's country is his house. He knows what's best for its pipes, its gardens, and its children in their bedrooms, lying on their beds and wishing.
     "In Cuba, prejudice has nothing to do with skin colour. It's an educational kind of prejudice - the very best kind. If you can't read or write, you're discriminated against: you're stupid, and so you're marked as stupid. But," she took a sip and got a wind of pride, "you can always learn to read or write. You can always climb out of your bad suit. If you're a black doctor, no hospital will make you feel unwelcome, because you're a doctor!"
      Castro is a patriarch who knows what's best. First came the sugar crisis, during which the whole country watched the value of sugar plummet like a diabetic in the afternoon. Castro, as always, knew what to do: against his counsel's best advice, the agriculturally experimental Commandante ordered the burning of Havana's sugar cane crop, and took people off their jobs to plant coffee there instead.
      "Coffee in Havana!" Alina invoked the power of a higher reason with her slender hands. "The coffee plant is a delicate creature. It needs the protection of mountains - of morning mists and dry, hot afternoons. Cold nights. You cannot grow coffee in Havana!" But Castro knew best, and managed to kill both the coffee and sugar industries in a single operation.
     Back in Canada, I sometimes fall asleep to Radio Havana's shortwave transmissions. Last week, after yet another news story of the empty, overturned rowboats and rafts skimmed in from off the coast, the announcer pleaded the U.S., on behalf of Cuba, to modify its immigration policy. Sixty percent of refugees leaving Cuba do not survive their journey.(2)
In the Fall of 2000, the CBC lowered its cameras from the half-mast national flag to the slow-moving crowd of dignitaries that came to mourn the death of one of this country's most flamboyant statesmen. At the helm lay a former prime minister, small and cold, his lips wrapped strangely around a last joke. The cameras previewed our guests - His Highness the Imam, a French President, a Royal Prince, a President of The United States, many accompanied by wives. Then, appearing like a romantic apparition, a solitary Fidel Castro emerged to a roaring response from the public around him, and took his place as pallbearer.
     Americans watched, able to pick up the CBC from points in Vermont, New York, and over the Internet, anywhere else. They watched our welcome and seethed. Castro is the man they do not allow to set foot in their country, but to Canadians, he is a curious figure - a sexy, daunting man with an uncontrollable ego that has manifested itself in clumsy disasters across his country. To have been a friend of our Trudeau's was enough to guarantee the Commandante a popular welcome here. After long deliberations with Quebec politicians, Trudeau had arranged for the FLQ separatist terrorists, upon releasing their hostage, to be deposited in Cuba. Later, as a gag, Trudeau set out in a wooden rowboat from Miami for Cuba. Soon after his departure he was retrieved, soaking and exhausted from his point of defeat like an over-ambitious spaniel.
From her 18th story apartment in Manhattan, now in her forties, Alina has a new project. She planted a solitary coffee bean and watched it climb defiantly through the potted soil. It was now nearly three feet tall.
     "I took a photo - Alina and her coffee plant in New York - and sent it to him. He'd have liked that!" she said.
Vojtech played until he had nearly fallen asleep. The cimbalom, bass and guitar players had long gone. We waited out the rain in the bar, not to risk a hostile taxi, or to leave Vojtech alone. We walked out into the airfield as day broke, Roma kids beginning to emerge and scratch games in the mud with sticks all around us. Hopscotch, Marbles, and Hang The Nazi. The children all knew Vojtech. He headed toward a horizon of panelaks, waving back with his little violin bag. And we, privileged by skin here but equally broke, headed back to the city.


1. Journalist Herbert Matthews first propelled Castro’s revolution to fame in February 1957, and introduced America to one of its favourite characters.

2. Statistic from an interview with Hermanos al Rescate. Comprised mostly of Cuban exiles, “Brothers to the Rescue” is a Miami-based refugee search and rescue operation/resource center that helps Cuban refugees by airlifting them to safety, and by providing information and job leads to new arrivals. The organization works in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard. Currently, U.S. legislation allows Cubans to stay as refugees in the U.S. if they make it safely to American soil and carry identification cards, but the Coast Guard patrolling the waters around Florida will thwart most attempts at escape.

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