Dragan, by Chris Keulemans

As usual, Dragan has got me thinking. About the nature of friendship, this time. About its many natures.


 Dragan had friends all over. In Amsterdam, his first friends must have been Steve Austen and Rudy Engelander. In Ljubljana, Dusan Jovanovic remained his great companion over the years, judging from the wonderful summer stories he tended to tell us, once back in rainy Amsterdam. In Belgrade, New York, Budapest, Zagreb, Sarajevo and all those other cities, there were many more. Dragans friends were people he recognized, respected, cherished, saw potential in, made mild fun of – and loved to bring together, even on this, his day of farewell.

Somewhere along the line, we ran into each other. I remember the occasion. It was the early nineties, a night in Paradiso, here in Amsterdam, dedicated to the war in Bosnia. I was immediately impressed by this rather small, eloquent man and his equally small, equally eloquent wife. Not much later, I was invited to a dinner at their home.

I must have been interesting to him, an Amsterdammer outside of his regular professional circle, someone who might help familiarize him with this city he was slowly discovering.

Needless to say, I soon started to disappoint him. I knew less about the history of Amsterdam, let alone of its Jewish past, than he had already managed to master. About the ins and outs of local politics, he knew the gossips before I did and analyzed them better. Pop culture, my specialism, was alien to him. Worst of all, I not only loved football, I even had to confess that I played it on a weekly basis. In short, I was not much of a guide into the Amsterdam that he had in mind. On the contrary. Before long, he was me teaching me things about my own city. I had become one of his many students.

Teaching, I discovered, was one of Dragans ways to express friendship. As long as he took the trouble to help you see the bigger picture, he had not lost all hope in you. Me, at the time director of one of the liveliest cultural centres in town, he taught how to look all over again at these streets and the people walking through them. Gazing out over the city from cappuccino level, he made me realize how Amsterdam is another word for intercultural – the phrase I will now always regard as part of his legacy. And what else is interculturality than the art of friendship across borders, an art that Dragan treasured.

He loved Amsterdam. Its parks. Its theatres. Its history, hovering just underneath the surface. Its newcomers, many less gifted and fortunate than he was, whose survival strategies and little miracles of adaptation fascinated him. Its statue of Ghandi, in his own Churchilllaan, and the monument to the fallen, a bit further down the road, where he would take Nora and Julia on the 4th of May, when at 8 pm, we stand in silence for two minutes, in tribute to those who died in World War II.

He relished telling me stories about Amsterdam. This too was one of his ways to be a friend. Sharing his experiences in someone else’s territory. Showing he had an intimate knowledge of the place you were from. Cities and friendships, in his world they belonged together. In all the cities he visited, he had friends to return to. And in describing them on his return home, he would also describe their city, their environment, their history of dealing with the place and the people surrounding them. With a special place in his heart for those who chose to differ, those who understood their cities and their people well enough not to blend in, not to follow the mainstream.

In the spring of 1997, he invited me to travel with him to Belgrade – his first trip back since he, Julia and little Nora left in 1991. I remember a poisoned city, just months after the exciting but fruitless demonstrations of that winter. A theatre play in a packed venue, where he went backstage afterwards, because no less than 16 of the 20 actors were former students of his. A night at Borka Pavicevic’s heartbreakingly brave Centre for Cultural Decontamination. A visit to Ljubisa Ristic’s bizarre sugar factory, outside of town, followed by a night of heated and hopeless debate between these two old friends who had chosen radically different ways.  

Best of all, I remember a lunch, just the two of us, in his one of his favorite traditional restaurants, around the corner from Knez Mihailova. All during those five days, he had been restless and emotional. The generosity of old friends, the dilapidation of the city, the shock at discovering how nationalism had seeped into all corners of daily life, the sadness about a life and a culture irretrievably lost – it had all shaken his usual steady self. But here, in this restaurant with the ageing waiters, I had a rare glimpse of Dragan Klaic in his natural element. For an hour or two, he seemed restored.

The slight swagger of a small man who is fully conscious that the world is full of bigger people. The boyish curiosity in what will be served next, followed by the deep satisfaction after the first bite, the relief that some things in this world are good enough never to change. The professorial, but never overpowering explanations about everything around us – a kind of neverending subtitles to what he wished you not to overlook. Above all, the ability to enjoy, physically and intellectually and emotionally, and to share that joy.

The wonderful thing is that these gifts, the best he had to offer, are still with us. They are right here. Julia and Nora, I am grateful to Dragan that he introduced me to you. 


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