FROM PRISHTINA WITH LOVE (AGAIN)

Vladimir Arsenijević (b. 1965 in Pula, Croatia, SFR Yugoslavia) is an awarded and internationally acclaimed Serbian writer, translator, editor and publicist. He won the 1994 NIN-award for his first novel In the Hold (U potpalublju) thus becoming the youngest ever recipient of this prestigious prize. This was the very first debut book ever rewarded with this prize. This anti-war book was soon translated into 20 languages and placed Arsenijević almost instantly among the most translated Serbian writers ever. Since then, Arsenijević published seven other novels, graphic novels and books of essays. He is a well known editor who formed and developed the RENDE publishing house, where he worked as its editor in chief from its foundation until 2007. From 2007 until 2011. he ran a Belgrade subsection of a distinguished Croatian publishing house VBZ. His essays and columns are published in both printed and online media all over the region of former Yugoslavia. He is the founder and president of Association KROKODIL which runs one of the most distinguished literary festivals in the region as well as the first continuous Writer-in-Residence program in Belgrade, Serbia.

BY VLADIMIR ARSENIJEVIĆ

When Milena and I left Belgrade around noon on that December Saturday on our way to Prishtina in our little, French, sky-blue car, the snow was blowing in powerful gusts. The snow storm followed us almost all the way to Niš. But by the time we reached the border near the village of Merdare (referred to as an ‘administrative crossing point’, if you buy these euphemisms) between the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Kosovo, there was no trace of snow. Instead, there was an icy rain spitting at a slant. The police and customs officers on both sides wore similar uniforms under soaked dark-blue hoods. And they were equally indifferent to us. They gave our passports a fast glance, with the weary good intentions typical of the guardians of small, out-of-the-way border crossings, and with what were amusingly identical gestures they showed us we were free to continue on our way.

This is how we arrived in Kosovo.

Although the rain followed us the rest of the way to Prishtina, the next morning, beyond the thick curtains in Room 201 at the Begolli Hotel, the narrow twisting Prishtina street, Maliq Pashë Gjinolli, dawned under the year’s first snowfall. At breakfast (either an omelet or continental) we met with Adi, and then with Antoine from the Swiss Spoken Word collective Bern ist Überall. We chatted in a relaxed mood on the way to the seat of Qendra Multimedia, the Prishtina organization for theater and literature, to an appointment with Blerta and Jeton, friends and hosts of the working meeting which brought our three organizations together at precisely that place and time.

The streets in the center of the city were festooned with hundreds and hundreds of United States flags. Only two days before, Kosovo had officially laid the groundwork for its own armed forces, with the open support of the United States. Hence the stars and stripes above us. For days in Serbia a huge alarm had been raised over this, and there was an impotent rattling of weapons, but actually this morning Prishtina felt quite easy-going This city, which is by no means beautiful—over-populated, polluted, noisy, chaotic—felt almost harmonious to us, so unexpectedly serene under the first gleaming winter snow which had fallen over night and blanketed its muddy streets.

Jeton and Blerta were waiting for us in a pleasant café right near their office. After a warm welcome and a brilliant macchiato—officially the world’s finest—now one of the national beverages along with rakija, ayran, and boza, we went over to their two-story office and took our places around the community table on the upper floor. Adi spoke first and thus the scheduled two-day working session of our three organizations could begin.

*

There are a good many reasons why we were spending this snow-covered December weekend here, in Prishtina. The Association KROKODIL was founded with the express purpose to serve as our tool for intensive and multiple broad-band literary and socio-political communication within a region which is bordered in one part by a common language and, somewhat more broadly, with shared experience, memory, and a general sensibility, which are of almost equal importance.

Regional cooperation was, for us, crucial from the very start. It is after all right there in the acronym: KROKODIL: Književno Regionalno Okupljanje Koje Otklanja Dosadu i Letargiju [A Literary Regional Gathering for Alleviating Boredom and Lethargy]. And to this day, a full decade after we began with a festival of the same name and then with a host of other activities, this holds as our most concise definition.

Although that word ‘region’… You know: ‘Southeastern Europe’, ‘the Western Balkans’, ‘the Former’, ‘Ex-‘ or ‘Post-Yugoslavia’, ‘the Yugosphere’. All these too-snappily devised euphemisms have in common that they mean one thing and another. All and nothing, depending on whatever the person who uses them wants them to mean.

The point is that nobody can, with assurance, say what this “region” of ours actually entails. Nobody knows where this realm that dares not speak its name begins nor where it precisely ends. Its borders lie roughly along the borders of what used to be Yugoslavia, but not always and not necessarily. The sense of the ‘region’ is strongest in the central part of the area where the shared four-named language is spoken, and then it weakens gradually and unevenly toward its peripheries. In this sense, Slovenia and Macedonia—and Kosovo, of course—have always held an ancillary position in comparison to Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia. Which, whether they liked it or not, are bound with unbreakable linguistic bonds and mindset.

Within this Yugoslav context, shaped in concentric circles, through a combination of its linguistic and geographic fate, Kosovo was condemned to playing the role of the odd, at best exotic, unintelligible cousin from the far south. Communication with the Albanians was always challenging, and it was blithely overlaid with an entire treasure trove of the most incredible prejudices. There was little to distinguish various other Yugoslavs in this regard. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, in the eyes of many Serbs, Kosovo Albanians moved from being seen as the benign, generally despised Uncle Toms during the Yugoslav period to being perceived of as horrific demons, the Shiptars, who existed for the sole purpose of their unflagging dedication to destroying and annihilating us Serbs.

Which meant, of course, that it was necessary, for us, preemptively, to destroy and annihilate them.

This consistently unhealthy, irrational, and essentially destructive relationship with Kosovo and its strongly majority population was and remained the core of almost all the other problems Serbia has had in the past, has now, and will have in the times to come. This monstrosity of a relationship is something at which our future generations—if they ever muster the strength and the way, as a society, to pull themselves out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves— will look with incredulity and disgust.

Because of all of this, we, at KROKODIL, pay close attention and are sincerely glad for every possibility to collaborate whenever, for as long as possible, with the literary, cultural, and artistic scene in Kosovo. This cooperation requires investment of considerable effort, it cannot be taken for granted nor does it come easily and these facts make it all the more challenging.

Jeton Neziraj is without a doubt our closest friend and partner in Prishtina. This productive and internationally successful playwright of boundless energy who has been actively directing the Qendra Multimedia organization for some ten years, runs Polip, the Prishtina literary festival, with Belgrade writer Saša Ilić. Various writers from Serbia take part in this dynamic festival along with writers from all over ex-Yugoslavia. The two of them co-edited and published in both countries parallel anthologies of contemporary Kosovar and Serbian literature with the touching titles: Nga Beogradi, me Dashuri and Iz Prishtine s ljubavlju [From Belgrade with Love/From Prishtina with Love].

As for us at KROKODIL, we have already worked several times with Jeton and the organization he runs. In November, 2013, we held our first Serbian-Albanian (or actually, regional-Albanian, or ex-Yu-Albanian, it this makes any sense) literary festival in Kosovska Mitrovica, entitled Do You Read Me? We held the festival before a mixed Serbian and Albanian audience with participation of writers, actors and musicians from both Serbia and Kosovo, but also from Albania, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Anyone familiar with Mitrovica and its dynamic will be able to appreciate what this means) in a remarkably thrilling atmosphere at the Culture Center on the southern bank of the shallow Ibar River which divides this city into the northern, Serbian, and southern, Albanian sections. After that we spent a full two years running Neighbors, a joint project which included an exchange of Serbian and Albanian writers in our residence programs in Belgrade and Prishtina, guest appearances for Kosovar and Serbian writers at the Polip and KROKODIL festivals as well as study trips for young, rising people from the realm of culture, media, and the civil sector. Among the many collaborations which KROKODIL has undertaken to date, and there have been many, our work with Qendra Multimedia is among our favorites, the most important we have been involved in over our first decade.

We got to know the Swiss collective Bern Ist Überall a little over a year ago. We were engaged at the time to organize “Four Countries, One Language,” a program designed to present four German-speaking countries—Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein— with the single, cohesive literature of the polycentric German language at the Belgrade Book Fair. Although the selection of the writers, essayists, journalists, publicists, poets, playwrights, publishers and official representatives of all these countries was truly impressive, one of the most powerful impressions was made by the performance of Bern Ist Überall, held at Polet, the crowded Belgrade literary club. Together with Serbian poet Miloš Živanović, this amorphous poetic group—for which orality, performativity and an extreme lack of linguistic discrimination are of essential importance— gave a fantastic performance which was met by richly deserved ovations from the audience.

When Adi, Antoine, Blerta, Jeton, Milena and I ended our meeting later that afternoon and went out into this city which clearly wakes up very late on Sunday, we found ourselves amid typical Prishtina vitality. Unlike the deserted streets we’d seen earlier that morning, we now found ourselves amid colorful and varied crowds, the teeming cars, the store windows, monuments, kiosks, billboards, and signs on the walls with the buildings looming over us at odd angles, twisting and swinging overhead in a poorly planned attempt at contemporaneity which had gone awry before it even happened. Amid all the hustle and bustle, not even all the stars and stripes predominated quite so intensely as they fluttered between us and the consistently gray sky.

*

In the evening we went off to Gračanica, a Serbian enclave on Prishtina’s outskirts. The town of Gračanica grew up around a 14th-century monastery of the same name which shone with apparent disinterest through the night on its monastery holdings as if it were an alien spacecraft that had only just landed. A large billboard is also there of the Serbian Progressive Party with the figure of President Vučić. And a famous Serbian chain of supermarkets as well as the seat of the Belgrade bank, which is closely aligned with the state. Unlike the bilingual signage in Prishtina, the signs here are in only one language. But the renowned Gračanica restaurant where we had dinner offered a superb example of traditional Serbian cuisine.

Our dinner with Jeton, Antoine and Adi was joined by Gerhard, another of the leading members of Bern Ist Überall, who had arrived, meanwhile, from Zurich, as well as Patrick from the Swiss Embassy in Prishtina. We drank rakija and wine and spoke a lot, mostly at the same time, about a wide range of things but kept coming back, from one digression or another, to our emerging collaboration. We were pleased with the ease with which the whole project took shape, through intensive brainstorming, in a series of workshops in Bern, Prishtina, and Belgrade dedicated to developing spoken and performative poetry and to creating a poetic and performance triangle of Switzerland, Kosovo, and Serbia. “We need a new form of Dada,” said Antoine. And who knows, maybe he is right.

We came back to the Hotel Begolli, to bed, relatively early. The next day we’d be holding one more meeting, our last (at which we’d sum up our joint Swiss-Kosovo-Serbian Spoken Word project and assign each of us our future obligations), and after it Milena and I would be leaving immediately for Belgrade, in hopes of getting home by a reasonable hour.

We took advantage of the fact that we were here, in Prishtina, to initiate another activity we have been working on in parallel. We are also organizing encounters between young writers from Kosovo and Serbia, the project we’re calling In the Neighborhood, to take place in March 2019 at KROKODIL’s Center for Contemporary Literature in Belgrade. We have already settled on a fantastic selection of twenty participants, ten from each side, who will have the opportunity to get to know each other, talk, read, and present their work to Belgrade audiences and media during this three-day meeting in March. It goes without saying that Jeton Neziraj’s involvement is essential, so our meeting in Prishtina was doubly important for us. Jeton is the main selector, and, at our insistence, one of the ten participants from Kosovo who will be attending this event.

And, indeed, when we’d wrapped everything up and said our goodbyes, Milena and I got into our French, sky-blue car and left for Belgrade. Traffic culture in Belgrade is already at quite a low level, but Prishtina traffic is, even for our standards, remarkably chaotic. We therefore had some trouble getting out of town. We then drove through the colorless plains where there was nothing even slightly mythical to see. To the contrary: on either side of the road stood buildings of unclear purpose, half-built monsters, unfinished, unfinishable. The constant clutter of houses, warehouses, highway cafés, bus stations, suburban sprawl that had no beginning or end or any clear shape all interfered with any view except that of the road ahead. And so it went all the way to the border.

When we arrived at the first border ramp, we were met by an icy rain spitting at a slant.

The police and customs officers on both sides wore similar uniforms under soaked dark-blue hoods. And they were equally indifferent to us. They gave our passports a fast glance, with the weary good intentions typical of the guardians of small, out-of-the-way border crossings, and with what were amusingly identical gestures they showed us we were free to continue on our way.

This is how we returned to Serbia.

Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac