eyes on the U.S.

Melania Trump, A Journey Home To Untangle Her Slovenian Roots

A road trip and reflections from another New York-based Slovenian on a visit back to the homeland of the once Melanija Knavs, who could be the next American first lady.

Donald and Melania Trump in Las Vegas
Donald and Melania Trump in Las Vegas
Andrej Mrevlje

Hôja, di, hôja, ljubica moja! Aj, jaz pa pojdem v belo gostilno, aj, jaz pa pojdem, da te pozabim, da se tam silno, silno napijem,

dnarce porabim, vinca navžijem! Bodi, točajka,tako prijazna, daj mi še vina,

čaša je prazna… Kaj boš, točajka, radi mezinca mene jezila… Meni je sila!

Daj mi… vrag vzemi tebe in uro,

kaj bom šel s kuro spat?

Hey, hey my love! Ay,I am going to the

white inn to forget you,

to get drunk, very drunk, to spend a fortune for enough wine.

Be friendly, barmaid:

give me more wine â€" my cup is empty…

Why would you, barmaid, anger me over a sip of wine…

There’s an urge in me!

Give it to me… the hell to you and your watch, am I meant to go to sleep with the hens?

In a slightly tacky looking, family-owned inn called "Vrstovšek" in Sevnica â€" the hometown of Melania Trump â€" the words of "Drunkard," a poem by the Slovenian modernist poet Dragotin Kette, run like movie captions around the walls of the two-room inn. "Drunkard" is definitely not Kette’s best work.

Like many of the poets and writers in 19th-century Slovenia, Kette helped form the identity of a nation that was longing for its own, independent land.

It was the end of the long day, and I set down in this old gostilna (inn) in the heart of Sevnica with my friend, Jure Pohar â€" a professor of biotechnology at the University of Ljubljana, former CEO of several important Slovenian marketing companies, and a man of a thousand talents, whom I got to know in high school as a great actor and athlete.

The inn is attached to the parish office and is the oldest tavern in a town that grew up around a medieval castle. Sevnica currently has a population of 5,000, but the inn was empty that day. We drank a Coke or some such, ordered some food, and contemplated the walls and decoration of the place. Aside from the words of the young poet, who died at the tender age of 23 â€" a fragile soul that embodied the subdued Slovenian spirit under the rule of the Austrian Empire â€" nothing else in the inn evoked the era when the poem was written, and when the inn was first open. The current owners have no interest in poetry. They do not bother with national identity. They are there to do their business, and have no pity or empathy for a drunken poet. There are no poets in Sevnica, anyway, but the Vrstovšek family obviously used the verses of Kette for the same purpose as the kitschy wall painting that vaguely represented Bacchus being served by two women with prominent busts: Anything goes when it comes to attracting customers.

I was wondering if Melania Knauss’s father, Viktor Knavs, ever brought his teenage daughters to this place. If so, on what occasion, and what would Melania remember of the visit to this inn? Surely they did not come for the food. Melania’s mother, Amalija Knavs, a seamstress in a Jutranka factory that produces children’s garments even today, surely cooked better than Vrstovšek’s chef.

For the whole day, Jure â€" born across the Sava River in the town of Radeče, which had culturally and politically dominated Sevnica in the past â€" followed in the tracks of young Melania with me. We would together try to imagine what this beautiful girl â€" with her young soul â€" absorbed from these places, full of green and mellow fragrances in this mid-June. Did she like the area? Was she happy hiking and walking around these beautiful hills and these small valleys that fill with blossoming gentians and azaleas in the spring? Was she aware that Sevnica was the center of the area where many famous Slovenians had once lived and worked? One of the most prominent was Primož Trubar, a Protestant reformer and the author of the first book published in Slovenian, who worked as a priest in the nearby village of Loka. And then there’s Jurij Dalmatin, a Lutheran minister who was the first to translate the Bible into Slovenian, and who taught Lutheranism in a small chapel near the castle above Sevnica.

Sevnica â€" Photo: Marijan Latin

Jure and I deliberately choose an itinerary that was almost like a pilgrimage for Melania Trump, a model who â€" in Slovenia â€" only exists as a piece of media news, but not truly as a person. In her country of birth, nobody knows Melania â€" or at least, nobody would be able to tell you more than a few short sentences about her personality. Just a story? Nothing.

Melania is not a story-maker â€" and, as we know now, she is not a storyteller, either. However, the two people who know her are her parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, whom we were unable to reach because they are under the protection of the secret service, even when they are in their hometown. Sašo Sotošek, a local entrepreneur who is a friend of the family, told us that this is happening on the request of American authorities because of their relationship to Donald Trump, who is running for president in the U.S. For that same reason, they probably wouldn’t have consented an interview, anyway.So we went cruising. First we drove through the valley where my own grandparents had lived. It runs from Dol pri Hrastniku to Rimske Toplice, a spa that we both had fond memories of. The valley then runs along the Sava River, all the way to Zidani Most â€" a Stone Bridge â€" and down to Radeče and Sevnica, each on the opposite side of the river.

In search of the Melania "weltanschauung" (world view), we even climbed Mount Lisca, the hill above Sevnice that gave its name to a line of women’s bras and lingerie that have been manufactured in the city since some bright "red entrepreneurs" in the 1960s launched the new industry, which gave 1,600 jobs to women in the region. Aside from the already established Tanin company (which processes wood and produces extracts like tannin) and and Kopitarna (the clogs factory established in late 19th century), Jutranka and Lisca (the two new socialist garment factories) made Sevnica a more prosperous place by the time that Melania was born. Sevnica expanded economically and politically, and recently surpassed its long time rival, Radeče. The changes of regimes â€" from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the monarchy of Yugoslavia to the socialist Yugoslavia and finally to the independent Slovenia â€" caused transformations in the economy, contributing to the evolution of a new lifestyle and more flexible politics. All this made the whole area more interesting and dynamic, but not fully free of the local rivalries that come with the regime changes. Interest groups rise and fall. Networks of power move back and forth, left and right, and so does â€" unbelievably â€" the regional and county borders and local administrations. This permanent change of topology and political iconography creates a conundrum for the local population. They feel uncertain about what the future might bring; they lack identity. Was this uncertainty something that pushed Melania Knauss to even more stormy waters all the way in New York?

My impression of Sevnica this time was quite the opposite of the memories I had of the place when I wrote my first piece on Melania Knauss-Trump a few months ago. I now think that the whole area offers a certain quality of life that is impossible to have in Manhattan, where Melania and I both live now.

So why did we both leave? In spite of our radically different styles of life â€" and just to be clear, I much prefer my style â€" we both started from a similar position. Perhaps I was less hungry, and therefore less determined. But as a kid, while my parents were working, I would run out of my house and across the street to watch the trains departing from my native town of Celje. Taking a train at that time meant excitement about travelling to unknown destination. It meant being surprised by new skylines, people, light, and smells.

During my earliest vacations with my parents and siblings, I remember travelling to the seaside by train. And I remember going to visit my uncle in Zagreb. I even travelled by train to Graz in Austria to practice my German. And I took a train to go to college in Ljubljana. There, I permanently exchanged trains for planes, except for a brief period when I drove a car obsessively to travel from Rome to Ljubljana as many times as I could. But there were no flights from Rome to Ljubljana, anyway.

It’s quite possible that Melania Knauss had the same initial love for trains. It’s natural â€" it happens to people who live in small towns … provided that they are not islands. But with what little we know about Melania Knauss, we can only suspect that she always traveled one way, and never turned back. This is perhaps why, according to Slavica Gospodarič, many of Melania’s fellow citizens dislike her. Miss Gospodarič used to work in Jutranka with Amalija Knavs, Melania’s mother, and told me â€" while sitting comfortably by a big public swimming pool in downtown Sevnica â€" that the locals accuse Melania of neglecting Slovenia and Sevnica. While she didn’t want to discuss her own feelings on the subject, Gospodarič said that many locals begrudge the fact that Melania never comes back to visit, and that she never speaks about her hometown? That she seems to despise her own nation and deny her origin in the way that she behaves.

There is nothing to add to the locals’ feelings of hatred and envy toward their former countrywoman, whom they have never even met. Knowing my nation, responding to this hostility would be devastating for Melania. But not everybody feels the same way. There are some more proactive folks who think Melania’s hometown should take advantage of being this close to seeing one of their own citizens enter the White House. Would she deserve to became an honorary citizen? Could Melania Knauss get involved in promoting the region, which is hoping for a new renaissance? I do not know, but apparently the mayor of the city Srečko Ocvirk is about to launch some initiative.

Once Melanija Knavs â€" as she was called before she changed her Slovenian name â€" got to Ljubljana and started to go a high school for industrial design, she never went off the track that landed her here in New York. Or did she really want to end up in Milan or Paris? We will never know.

As filmmaker Peter Bratuša told me in Ljubljana, he got to know Melania, because she lived in the building next to his in the outskirts of the residential area of Ljubljana. The two met in 1994. Bratuša needed models for a TV ad, and he invited Melania to his casting call. He remembers that he saw her photos in some fashion magazines. It was nothing glamorous, said Bratuša, who recently directed and wrote a very successful TV series called The Lives of Tomaž Kaizer.

"The story of the ad was very simple. Melania had to get into a scene in her underwear and put on a pair of pants of the brand we were making an ad for. She looked pretty good, and she was easy to work with, since she followed the script and was very focused. But besides looking good, she was a kind of babe that you have to drag the conversation out of her if you wanted to avoid an unpleasant silence."

After this conversation â€" and many other testimonies and narrated encounters with Melania Knauss-Trump â€" I am slowly becoming convinced that perhaps she isn’t (as I had thought) a ticking time bomb that will one day explode. Melania has landed. She does not want to go anywhere. Not even to the White House, where there would be too many challenges beyond her control. Perhaps her force is really in her husband, Donald Trump â€" perhaps she speaks with him and through him. That would mean that Melania has really achieved what she wanted. She is in the kind of paradise that she might have dreamed of as a little girl. I have to move on from my attempts to get to know you, but Miss Trump, give me a call if you have more to say.

This piece was first published on Yonder.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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