"Every time they set out to return to the Balkans, they came across people fleeing from there. 'Are you out of your minds?' the people said. 'We barely got out alive, and you are trying to return? Down there death is everywhere!'" --Ismail Kadare, Three Elegies for Kosovo
It is a part of the world I know well, but this does not keep me free from prejudice. Already in the Vienna airport I can feel the defensive, reptilian, judgmental part of my brain taking over, colonizing the cosmopolitan and ecumenical lobes. I have been directed to that special wing of VIE for flights to cities that invariably instill unease: Belgrade, Tehran, Astana, Tiranë, Prishtina. This is the only part of the airport where they could not possibly remove the glass-encased cubicles for hardened smokers. I send a message to a friend and joke that I will need a shiny track suit and a broken nose in order to fit in at my destination.
But this is all unfair, and I should know better. There are plenty of track suits here, and men who huddle together and smoke in a way that appears, to those of us who come from across a certain geographical divide that seems to lie somewhere between Graz and Győr, but that will resist any attempt you make to define it with precision: that appears, I say, to be the prelude to a criminal overture. But it is in fact only a form of sociability, of male sociability, or of what some of my academic cohort would call homosociality, that still thrives in parts of the world where masculinity is less problematized. They are men, so of course they huddle together and smoke, and after a day or so in Kosovo one's vision comes into focus, and one sees these men everywhere, but no longer feels that unease that had so engulfed the traveller during what was really just a journey but felt distinctly like a descent.
Yes, one always descends into the Balkans, like some Dame Rebecca West. One takes up smoking again, despises health and well-being and complacent comfort, and feels the sharpest contempt for the sanctimonious academic colleagues one has left behind in the so-called West, with their performances of deep concern for all of humanity, which seem seldom to get much beyond recycling and childcare. Where are their track suits, one now wishes to know? Where is my track suit? Where are my cigarettes? Where is my broken nose?
I am here for a project that I would do better not to mention, for now, but inevitably I return, while here, to my perennial obsession with the question of the 'Oriental', not in that distorted sense in which Americans understand it, but rather in the sense that preoccupies Eastern Europeans and art historians: the question, namely, of the uniqueness of the West, of where it leaves off, and of the identity and prospects of all those people whose affiliation to it is in doubt. This is also the question of the weight of history, of historical legacies, and whether they can be changed by force of will.
There was a war here not long ago. Mass graves were filled by the bodies of people whose loved ones, the survivors, are still walking around, selling vegetables and bus tickets, huddling and smoking. This war was the expression of a sort of popular will, and it was part of a process of geopolitical realignment that ought to be of significant interest to self-identified Westerners, yet is not. Neither Samuel Huntington, nor Sam Harris, nor Bill Maher, nor anyone even lower among the pundits whose reptilian lobes do not just kick in in moments of distress, but whose careers in fact depend on the continuous buzzing of these lobes: none of these people, I note, ever care to acknowledge, in their professional performances of Islamophobia, that what is perhaps the most Americanophile country in the world is also a Muslim country. Today I went to the Museum of the History of Kosovo hoping to see ancient Venus figurines and sundry Thraco-Illyrian treasures. Instead I found only sacred objects and monuments relating to the very recent origins of the Republic: a NATO-themed portal; laminated copies of the New York Times tacked to the wall, telling of Serbian massacres and of the 1999 Rambouillet Accord; a sort of shrine to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair; and a hat worn by Misses Madeleine Albright.
I walked out and quickly found my way to the intersection of the boulevards Bill Klinton and Xhorxh Bush-- the latter of which might be able to preserve its air of foreignness, if the visitor has not yet learned the phonetic value of 'xh' in the Albanian alphabet. The crossing of a Democrat and a Republican does not present a problem for the Kosovars: both stand for America, and America, along with NATO, plays a key role in the somewhat hasty construction of a myth of national origins. How strange to be there and to witness this construction at such an early stage!
A recent article in the Washington Post describes a supposedly distant past in which "the West wanted Islam to curb Christian extremism." The variety of Christianity in question is Orthodoxy. Until his recent fall, the pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist known as Colonel Igor Strelkov had banned cursing and mandated daily prayer among his fighters, and had instilled a discipline based on an ideology of holy war for Christ and for nation. He is suspected in the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight. His first experience of war was as a mercenary, fighting on the side of Serbia, and he is believed to have been involved in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Višegrad in 1992.
The Russian-Serbian bond remains strong, and while Americans might not know that Kosovo is grateful toward their government, Russians most certainly do know this. Most recently, Serbia rescheduled its own Liberation Day parade in order to synchronize it with the visit of Vladimir Putin. There is talk of Serbia's newfound Putin-mania, but in fact the rhetoric of Russian-Serbian 'brotherhood', sometimes generalized as pan-Slavism, goes way back, and was a common theme in Russia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. I heard from many Russians at the time that they would have liked for their government to intervene directly (rather than only covertly supporting mercenaries), but that they were caught at a weak moment, and not prepared for a full-scale war against NATO. It is not nearly so certain that we would see the same passivity, should there be another confrontation between Albanian Kosovars and Serbia. Albanian Kosovars are, again, mostly Muslims, and their disputed territory is arguably the real flashpoint of global conflict. Is the Islamic State recruiting in the dark corners of Prishtina? Probably, but probably not nearly with the same intensity as in London or Paris. And anyhow the Islamic State doesn't have ICBMs, ready to launch at a moment's notice. Russia, the de facto Orthodox Christian monarchy to the East, most certainly does. The chatterers on American television are simply distracted.
If pushed, they would probably say that what we have here is not real Islam, it's secularized, Europeanized, de-Islamicized. Man, what is the name of this logical fallacy? It's not begging the question, but it's something like it: defining the concept in question so narrowly, in a way that is so closely honed to one's desired outcome, that one cannot fail to be right. If the fact that there are Muslims, who wear fezzes and love the sound of the call to prayer from their local minarets (which I can hear right now), but who are not prone to radicalism, means that these people are 'not really Muslims at all', then what one really means by 'Muslim' is 'radical Muslim'. But 'Christian' is still permitted to mean 'vaguely, culturally-but-not-practicing, post-Reformation Christian', while the fanatical war-mongering cults of Donetsk and Uganda are conveniently sidelined. You can go on not thinking about Uganda with little consequence other than the intrinsic shamefulness of your own ignorance. But Donetsk is a different story, and that story is a chapter in a book that includes the infant republic of Kosovo. Again, this is a book that is not about ideologues taking the first steps towards the enrichment of uranium, as has been the case in America's silly detours into the Middle East, but about ideologues with plenty of enriched uranium and fully functional delivery systems to ensure that that atomic stuff does some proper damage. None of us can know the future, of course, but for my money this is a far more important fact about our present predicament than your or my carbon footprint, or ebola, or radical Islam.
I have never studied Albanian, but it is one of the many languages I have 'looked into'. While flipping through manuals I have admired the so-called admirative verbal mood, which enables one to make explicit one's appreciation of another in the very conjugation of a verb (as a good friend has speculated, the admirative mood simply must have mutated into 'the sarcastic mood' under communism, when every statement was required to be maximally superlative and maximally earnest). I seem to understand nearly everything I see out in public, either because it is borrowed from a Latin, Slavic, or Turkic root, or because it comes from that deep Indo-European wellspring that unites so many of us. The language is held to be an oddity, in that it is the sole member of its own branch of the Indo-European family, and it was not until the mid-19th century that its membership in the family was established with certainty, thanks to the crucial lexical studies of the German linguist Franz Bopp. Albanian is generally thought to be a sort of hold-out or living fossil of a deeper Illyrian substrate: what was spoken, we may speculate, in the broader Hellenic world long before the Greeks took to writing and philosophizing.
Albanian is spoken natively not only in Albania and Kosovo, but also in Montenegro, Greece, Serbia, and, in its Arbëresh dialect, in southern Italy. Sometimes, the linguistic unity of Albanian speakers in all these countries inspires talk of the existence of a 'greater Albania', which in turn inspires fear of irredentism, or feigned fear for the pretext of repression, in all of the countries just mentioned. But it is unlikely that Albania will ever get much greater than it is at present. The Republic of Kosovo, for one thing, is very happy to be its own creature: ethnically Albanian, for the most part, but also Roma, Serbian, Bosniak, and Turkish (hence the five stars on its new flag). For another thing, there does not seem to be much of an irredentist spirit within Albania. Under communism, Enver Hoxha (with the 'xh' pronounced 'j', giving us the honorary title of a learned Ottoman elder) was far too isolationist to have much real interest in expansion. And before communism there was Zog I, King of the Albanians (whose name sounds fable-like to the foreign ear, but in fact means, simply, 'bird'). A complicated figure, King Zog was also President Zog, and he was sworn in on both the Quran and the Bible. Although he was the King of Albanians, and although he was linked by aristocratic genealogy to the Prince of Kosova, he does not seem to have had any interest in expanding the Albanian state to its maximum reach. Zog does not seem to have had much of a taste for the modern project of state-building as the project of ethnolinguistic homogenization.
Before Zog, there was Ottoman rule, in which ethnicity was one thing, the rule of the Sultan quite another, and no one thought that rule and ethnicity ought to be coextensive. It strikes me that however overripe the current Kosovar fawning over George Bush and all that he stands for might be, in the end it is motivated by a rejection, widespread among Kosovars, of the idea of the ethnic state, a rejection that keeps them relatively indifferent to the Albanian state, and that leaves them sharply opposed to the ethnonationalism and the very real irredentism of Serbia, which would retain Kosovo as a key part of 'greater Serbia' mostly because of the role certain medieval battles and monasteries here continue to play in the stories Serbia tells about itself. Serbians have a legitimate claim to these sites (all nations, not just Serbia, are generated and sustained by storytelling), and it will be a great disappointment if the Kosovar Albanians create serious obstacles to their access, particularly if they do so for punitive reasons. Anyhow the Ottoman empire, for all its anti-democratic dimensions, was in its own way cosmopolitan. Kosovo remains a sort of pocket of Ottomanism in a world surrounded by ethnic nation-states, and, surprisingly to us, it sees a place for this self-conception within the broader pax americana, with all the attendant kitsch of stars-and-stripes and bald eagles.
I am not a great fan of the American empire, but I always support local upstarts against regional thugs. I also believe --quite strongly in fact-- that cosmopolitanism has its virtues. And I am extremely wary of the Christian ethnonationalists of Eastern Europe who despise it.