Alexandra Channer/ Language, political creativity and the murder of a city

 

Alexandra Channer began translating in Kosovo in 2009 while conducting research for her doctoral thesis on Albanian national self-determination movements. She translates a selection of prose and poetry each year for the POLIP festival and has translated and edited many plays by Jeton Neziraj, as well as other authors from Kosovo.

She currently works as an independent consultant in the UK, specialising in business and human rights. She has a PhD in Political Science and has worked on elections in the UK and US. During her doctoral research, Alexandra Channer spent eight years in Kosovo during which time she actively participated in the political life of the country and was elected a member of the presidency of Lëvizja Vetëvendosje.

Language first opened the door into Kosovo for me. In 2002, I signed up for the University of Prishtina’s summer language school, a far-sighted and amazingly generous project which taught academics and Kosovo enthusiasts the Albanian language, for free. It was just two-weeks, but long enough for me to recognise the nervous energy of a deeply political society, to get a hint of the trauma caused by war, and most importantly, as it would shape my doctoral research, to hear snippets about Kosovo’s history of political activism. I returned to Prishtina in 2005 to research this story in more depth – and in the best tradition of a doctoral student, decided that only a one-hundred-year analysis would suffice. Completing this, naturally, took some time, almost eight years to be precise, and I am still revising the book. It meant, however, that I was privileged to live in Kosovo as it stepped away from UN administration, declared independence and began the messy process of strengthening democratic institutions.

 

I experienced Kosovo’s post-war transformation through a somewhat unusual lens, the Movement for Self-Determination. Now a major political party, it was then a small movement, straddling a civil society-political space, and demanding self-determination, independence, and democratic institutions. I decided to include a study of their nonviolent strategy in my thesis; and in time, became an active supporter.

 

My Albanian vocabulary reflected this peculiar introduction to Kosovo: After a year, I struggled to find the word for a household item or piece of clothing, but I could draw on a broad political vocabulary. I listened to speeches, wrote graffiti slogans, participated in symbolic protests, marched in demonstrations, and saw first-hand what grief a peacekeeping rubber bullet can cause. It was a small slice of post-war life in Prishtina.

 

This Kosovo that I saw was deeply political; but also, vibrantly creative. A political creativity used for both positive and negative outcomes.

 

Political creativity oozed out of the ingenious and agile symbolic protests of the Self-Determination Movement, which changed the trajectory of post-war politics by building a political organisation from the ground-up. The same political creativity led to the wily, repositioning of Kosovo’s traditional parties as they sought, and ultimately failed, to mock and outlaw this insurgent rival.

 

Kosovo’s political-criminal elite drew on political creativity to successfully exploit the post-war environment, from the top-down. Instead of channelling their political energy and inventiveness into building the state, they perfected a global template for state capture.

 

And, political creativity permeated Kosovo’s theatrical stages. I’ll never forget Bekim Lumi’s dance interpretation of Macbeth and Kosovo’s Kanun, the ancient customary social code, performed in candlelight at the Museum of Ethnography. Nor, attending Polip for the first time, now an annual all-Balkan literary festival in Prishtina. And translating, as my language skills advanced, the sharp and satirical works of Jeton Neziraj.

 

Translation is frequently the lens through which I see Kosovo today. And I am currently translating Neziraj’s latest play, ‘In Five Seasons: An Enemy of the People’, in which a city is the victim of murder; the cause, death by construction. The city he is writing about is Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, and the murdering hand is the construction mafia.

 

For me, the play sums up the story of Kosovo’s post-war criminal capture.

 

The unlikely hero of Neziraj’s play is an architect, who is trying to publish and implement a municipal urban plan to stop illegal building. The architect’s vision is to design a living city with green parks and play areas, and space to breathe. Naturally, his long-term plan conflicts with the immediate profitable concerns of a building tycoon. This mafia boss is erecting skyscrapers overnight and wants to build a new super development called Sun City. He has bribed, threatened or cajoled the very people who are meant to safeguard the city – its international administrator, a top investigative journalist, and a trade union boss – to reject the urban plan, and also to declare the architect an ‘enemy of the people’. Each character takes a calculated decision to support what they know is a criminal development: The administrator likes the good life and doesn’t want to rock the boat before he goes home; the journalist needs advertising revenue to keep her TV station afloat; the union boss wants jobs for his members – and is glad to receive a discounted flat in recognition of his public service.

 

Once these political, media and civil society leaders make their individual and unconnected decisions, they adopt a joint narrative that soothes their conscience: They’re the ones supporting the city’s future prosperity; construction is a means to a just end. Of course, as the play reveals, the end in question is neither just for the city nor the people it nurtures and embraces. The cumulative cost of each character’s self-interested decision-making is collective and indiscriminate – the city is suffocated by concrete and so is the civic space and the civic body.

 

The sophistry of the building tycoon – whose firm goes by the name of ‘Freedom’ – is so skilful, however, that he almost convinces the reader of the necessity of his crime: Surely, he argues, the jobs he provides for thousands of workers, who otherwise live on the edge of starvation, makes him a philanthropist, not a criminal? It’s a familiar argument in Kosovo where voting intention is often determined by a brutal logic of everyday survival: How to switch your vote when your family’s income depends upon it?

 

Just as we begin to wonder whether the tycoon’s wage does equal freedom, we discover that every day, workers are dying at ‘Freedom’ construction sites, either in accidents or by committing suicide. In the drama’s most disturbing scene, we watch a live TV report of a worker, who is deciding to jump off the 30th floor of a tower block under construction. The presenter informs us that the worker is apparently ending his life because his working conditions were too good – indeed, it seems he had demanded lower pay and longer hours, and no health insurance.

 

Often Neziraj uses humour and the ridiculous to satirise in his work, but there is little to laugh about in this play. Indeed, the message is bleak: The young construction worker who takes his life, exercises his agency only to end his life, not to change it. ‘The people’ sleepwalk past gaping holes that emerge overnight and skyscrapers that magically shoot upwards. They permit others to define their enemies, without looking and seeing the reality of the city around them.

 

I am translating this play as snap elections approach in Kosovo, and so I find I am looking within this text for a solution to Kosovo’s ‘state capture’, a term that sounds so very final. The story in this play suggests that the solution is simple, though clearly not easy. Neziraj’s characters all have agency, they all have an opportunity to take a different decision, to calculate their self-interest as inextricably linked to the city’s interest. If just one of the three main characters – the administrator, journalist, union boss – had refused to support the illegal Sun City development, the scheme would have faltered. And the window of opportunity created by that single decision might have been all that was needed to change the decision of the construction worker, teetering on the edge of the 30th floor, thinking about whether to live or die.