2 Feb 2016

Macedonia at midnight

10:54 am on 2 February 2016

As she hunted down six thieves in Skopje, Mava Moayyed realised she wasn't quite as invincible as she thought.


I grew up with parents who taught me, before I could even talk, about the strength of women. They hold firm to the idea that if humanity is to advance, full equality between sexes is essential. They said inequality stumps not only the advancement of women but the progress of everyone. It’s understandable that with that kind of heart-warming sentiment, I’ve always felt strong - like I could do anything.

One summer, that idea of myself was shattered.

My parents moved overseas for a five-year volunteering stint when I was at university. Most summer holidays I’d go over to see them and I’d usually be able to scrounge together just enough money to visit a few other places, too. One year, after visiting my parents, I ended up in Macedonia. Why Macedonia?  The gist of my decision came down to the fact that I thought that’s where Macadamia nuts were from. Turns out that’s wrong. Macadamia nuts are from Australia. I should have gone to Australia.

I arrived in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, in the middle of their winter. I got off the plane and thought, “Who even goes to Macedonia?” Very few people, made obvious by the fact that I was the only person staying at the hostel in Skopje. I spent the evening chatting to the sweet hostel owner and went to bed that night with absolutely no idea of the ridiculousness that was about to follow.

Just for a bit of context the Republic of Macedonia, as it’s formally known, is a landlocked country in the Balkans in Southeast Europe. It was once part of former Yugoslavia and it has been marked with a lot of conflict through years of fighting for its independence. It’s also a poor country with one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the whole of Europe.

The morning started off with a stroll through the city. It’s a quaint little place with paved walkways and a lot of statues of Alexander the Great. As I was walking over a bridge, I noticed a group of men crouched together playing the cup game; the one where you put a marble underneath, switch the cups around, and then the person watching has to try to guess which cup has the marble under it. Just to be really clear, I knew it was a scam but it was also quite interesting to watch, so I did.

I ended up in Macedonia. Why Macedonia?  The gist of my decision came down to the fact that I thought that’s where Macadamia nuts were from.

That wasn’t a good idea. Any actual Macedonian would never stop and watch, so, as I stood there, I was inadvertently making it very clear that I was a tourist. Five or six men came over and invited me to join in. They ushered me over to the cup master, who was skilfully switching the cups around. My reaction was a very sensible: “No, I don’t want to play. I don’t gamble.”

“Just choose!” they keep saying in limited English, pointing to the cups as they surrounded me on all sides. I was literally in the centre of a large group of Macedonia men trying to get me to bet on a game I knew I couldn’t win. I began to panic.

At this point, one of the men shouted “YOU WON,” which was puzzling, seeing as I hadn’t even picked a cup. To my confusion, they handed me a wad of cash. Keep in mind I’m still surround by a circle of men’s bodies. I hesitantly took out my wallet, at which point, I kid you not, one of them said “Wow, look over there”. In the second it look me to look and look back, every single man was gone. Completely vanished. They had taken the 300 or 400 euros in my wallet, plus the money I had 'won'.

Initially, I was quite impressed with the slickness of the operation. Then it began to sink in; I was a poor student and that money was fundamental to me eating and sleeping over the next few weeks of travelling. I grew increasing upset as I figured out all the men were in on the scam – there was no one really playing.

So I did what any reasonable person would do: I hunted them down.

Imagine for a moment a young woman, ugly crying, walking through Macedonia mumbling “Where are they?” between sobs. I spotted a group of men huddled around each other, smoking behind an abandoned warehouse. Without really being sure it was the same guys that has stolen my cash, I shouted, “GIVE MY MONEY BACK!”

The men ran. I chased after them.

I’m not sure if you are familiar with parkour but that is essentially what was happening. I was jumping over fences, rolling down hills, and doing badass sidesteps through traffic. Despite my burgeoning parkour skills, I didn’t catch them, and now I was completely lost in the old part of Skopje with no money and no pride. Still ugly crying, I wandered the streets until a kind Turkish man took me in, gave me a strong coffee, and called the police.

I should have just let it go but, evidenced by the hunting down and chasing, I'm not someone who easily lets things go. The police showed up and drove me to the police station. The car was so cramped I could feel the officer's gun pressing up against my thigh. They clearly felt sorry for me and in their very limited English, offered to give me an escorted tour of the city later. I thought it was a great idea for the mere fact that no one would mess with me with cops around.

I spent hours at the police station explaining my story to different levels of management. Each time, they’d burst into laughter at the idiocy of my decision to stop and watch the cup gang. It was humbling and quite annoying. In between berating me for my bad decisions, the police would try and convince me to marry a “good Macedonian man”, which I repeatedly and awkwardly declined.

I’m not sure if you are familiar with parkour but that is essentially what was happening. I was jumping over fences, rolling down hills, and doing badass sidesteps through traffic. 

Morning turned into afternoon and I was very ready to go back to the hostel. When I asked to leave, I was told I couldn’t because that the city’s top investigators, essentially Macedonia's FBI, were on their way to get me. A man showed up in a floor-length trench coat, offered me a banana, and took me to his investigative headquarters where he made me troll through hundreds of pictures of the country’s criminals to identify who the cup gang members were. I didn’t think much would come of this process – I was only in the country for two days – so I pointed to someone in the book who looked vaguely familiar.

Trench-coat man looked pleased and took me back to the hostel. I began to recount my day to the hostel owner when there was a knock at the door. Remember when I the police officers had offered to give me a guided tour of the city? Turns out it was just one guy, off-duty, who’d come to take me on a date. He proceeded to buy us a pizza dinner and a rose from a street vendor while repeating the only five words he seemed to know: “It’s OK. I’m a police”.

Awkward cannot begin to describe the situation I was in. Despite my pleas to be taken home, the off-duty policeman took me to the top of a freezing cold mountain called Vodno and tried to snuggle up to me. Eventually I convinced him to take me back to the hostel and declined his offer to come in and give me a massage. Back inside, the hostel owner gave me a worried look.

“While you were gone, the chief investigator came back. They’ve caught some men and want you to go down and identify them,” she said.

It was midnight when we got to the station and it seemed every single police officer in Macedonia had congregated for this moment. I was told to hold my nose as I was taken down to the cells where a group of six men were locked up, looking miserable. Who knew how long they had been down there as I tried to avoid the embrace of a very inappropriate representative of the law.

Through one-way glass, as men held up numbers, I was told to point out the ones who had taken my money. I didn’t recognise any of them and I couldn’t potentially put an innocent man in jail so I said it was none of the men. The investigators were pretty pissed, but said they’d go out and catch some more, as if this was some kind of fishing trip. 

I went back to the hostel, exhausted and grateful the night was over. But the hostel owner looked at me, pale as snow on top of mount Vodno. “While you were gone, that off-duty policeman came back and tried to book a room here,” she said. We locked all the doors and windows, and spent the night huddled together in front of the fire. The next morning, I got on a bus and went straight to Bulgaria.

I had arrived in Macedonia with the idea that I could do anything, that women were as powerful as men. I left having learnt that in many parts of the world, they’re not. I learnt that the people I was meant to be able to trust, couldn’t always be relied on. While I still firmly believe in the need for equality between men and women, Macedonia taught me that there’s a whole lot more work to do. I lost a little bit of my wide-eyed naivety... and a whole lot of euros.

This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email thewatercoolernz@gmail.com or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: Mathew Worthington

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