Durim Abdullahu/ Quarantine reminiscence and empty signifiers

 

Durim Abdullahu is an assistant in the Department of History and Anthropology at the University of Prishtina. He is a doctoral student in the history of identity in the medieval Balkans. He lectures in Medieval History of South Eastern Europe, Anthropology, Religion and the History of Art. In addition, he works as a journalist at KTV television. Durim
Abdullahu has written about the politicisation and mythology of historic discourse in the Balkans and about the language used to discuss war in Kosovo.

 

In an article, published in 1950 in Vi, the weekly newspaper of the Swedish co-operative movement, the writer Stig Dagerman wrote: “For me, solidarity, sympathy and love are the last white shirts of humanity.” He was responding to the question, “Do we believe in man”. The title of Dagerman’s short article, “Man’s fate is sealed everywhere and at all times,” expresses his doubts about man’s ability to prevent the annihilation of the world, and he suggests, “that man’s hereditary enemy is the macro organism, for it deprives man of the essential sense of life, of the responsibility he owes to his fellow man, and it reduces the number of opportunities given to him to show solidarity and love”. In the Arendtian interpretation, the human condition, caused by the Covid 19 virus pandemic, has from the very beginning been accompanied by situations that enable man to show solidarity, if not also love, for his fellow man. But how many people have been seen wearing the white shirt of solidarity these days, as they continue to live with the risk of a virus spreading worldwide? Although man’s fate is sealed everywhere and at all times, it is never the same for everyone, anywhere and at any time. Covid 19 has turned out to be a very mutable virus, causing a pandemic that has spread across different regions and areas of the world. This pandemic has tested the resilience and shaken the foundations of almost all political, economic and social systems. Perhaps this virus is the disrupter that has disturbed the waters of our times to such a degree that many believe that afterwards, when the virus departs and the waters settle, we will see more clearly the flaws of our lives and time.

As a historian and anthropologist, I am interested in the potential historical interpretations of this period and how culture determines the ways in which people react to the extraordinary conditions imposed by this pandemic. Today, historians seek comparisons with similar periods in the past. And history is full of relevant cases. You can take your pick: there is the bubonic plague, or the “Black Death” of the Middle Ages, or the Spanish flu, the scariest example of most recent times. During the extra time that we gained in quarantine, and as I wandered from one text to another, I noticed that the first book written in the Albanian language – published in Venice where quarantine originated – has a prayer against the plague. In 1555, in what seems an irony of history, the author, the Catholic priest Gjon Buzuku, wrote: “Dear Lord, Please spare all the Christian people of Albania from the plague”. In the border situations of our time, this prayer, which is five centuries old, is regaining relevance.

On the other hand, in the eyes of anthropologists, it is culture that explains the variety of different ways that states choose to deal with this global pandemic. In more traditional societies, such as the one about which this text is written, this is even more evident. Fear and panic; doubt and mistrust; isolation in quarantine and restriction of movement; hygiene and extra cleanliness; social distance and self-isolation; solidarity and empathy. These and other features of the pandemic are shaped and coloured by the cultural backgrounds of different societies around the world. In this context, the pandemic has created some useful and interesting cases across the world for anthropologists to study. Once again, the Balkan Peninsula turns out to be the region of Europe where traditional ways of life are most synchronized with modern Western culture. And in the centre of the Balkans, Kosovo is like a monad that encapsulates almost all Balkan cultures.

On 13 March 2020, a 20-year-old woman with Italian citizenship was the first person reported to have the Covid 19 virus in Kosovo. The woman was thought to have caught the virus in Italy, her home country, with the highest infection rate in Europe. Sometimes, in a disaster it can be an advantage to live on the periphery, or to be small and insignificant, as bad things take longer to reach you, and when they do, they may have lost some energy. This is the hope of those who live on the periphery and who are fewer in number. But the Republic of Kosovo, geographically located in the centre of the Balkans, and with a population of about two million inhabitants, is neither on the periphery nor small. At least not when compared to the neighbouring countries in the peninsula. Nonetheless, Kosovo is perceived from the outside as such and it is experienced as such from the inside: peripheral and small. Declared independent in 2008, this parliamentary republic is the youngest state in Europe. Not yet a UN member, but with aspirations to join the European Union and NATO, Kosovo is not yet recognized by five EU countries, including Spain. With a territory of about 11 thousand square kilometres, Kosovo is the most isolated country in Europe today. Isolated from the outside, but inside very open to the outside world, Kosovars have been waiting for a decade to move visa-free in the Schengen area. With an annual budget of two and a half billion Euros, the economy is based mainly on small and medium-sized trading businesses and very little production. Half of the citizens of Kosovo live in poverty and a large part of their income is provided by financial remittances sent by relatives in the large Albanian diaspora living predominantly in Germany.

Historically an Albanian-majority area, Kosovo was twice occupied by neighbouring Serbia, in 1918 and 1945. Kosovo was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between the two world wars and then communist Yugoslavia until this disintegrated as a result of the wars waged by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia in the 1990s. Detached from their state, Albania, which in the meantime experienced a self-proclaimed king and a brutal communist dictatorship, the Kosovo Albanians were one of the most politically oppressed and marginalised ethnic communities in 20th-century Europe. In the 1930s and 40s, they experienced a harsh famine still mentioned by older generations. In the 1960s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians, or about one-third of the population, were persecuted, imprisoned and tortured as part of Serbia’s campaign to suppress efforts to promote Albanian political and cultural rights. During the 1990s, after revoking Kosovo’s autonomy as a socialist province of Yugoslavia in 1989, Serbia pursued brutal policies of apartheid and segregation in Kosovo from which no Albanian was excluded. In this decade all Albanians were equal in the face of the policies of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, later nicknamed the “Butcher of the Balkans”. It was at this time that many Albanians emigrated to Germany, where according to the tradition of the Albanian diaspora, they worked to send money back home, helping their families to survive economically during the 1990s, when all Albanians were expelled from their jobs on the grounds of ethnicity.

Throughout the 1990s, without jobs and confronted by the policies of apartheid and segregation implemented by Milosevic’s Serbia, the Albanians in Kosovo became almost homogenous. The only difference was between village and town. This particular experience in the 1990s nourished a natural culture of solidarity among the people in Kosovo, which surprised all those who visited or who have studied Kosovo in this period. Between 1998 and 1999, Kosovo became embroiled in a war with Serbia, which resulted in some 13,500 people being killed; 20,000 women and men raped; about 1 million refugees deported from Kosovo and about 500,000 internally displaced; 100,000 buildings destroyed and many properties looted. The armed resistance of the Albanians was supported by a NATO bombing campaign against the Serbian army, which led to the liberation of Kosovo and eventually to independence, as an independent and democratic state.

When Kosovo was in quarantine during the months of March, April, May and June, its people were the most isolated in Europe, as Kosovo is the last country on the continent subject to a visa regime. The conditions of this quarantine seemed similar to the 1990s and especially to the war in the micro-worlds of families and in individual psychologies: Isolation, restricted movement, fear, insecurity, the need to gather food, endless days spent together in the family, etc. The first social response that became a phenomenon was the rush to buy flour, until it became a rare commodity in the supermarket. This phenomenon can be explained by two factors: first, the culture of food in the Albanian tradition is dominated by the tradition of bread; and second, the collective memory includes periods of famine and the lack of flour.

During the quarantine, Kosovo was involved in a fierce political fight between a right-wing President, who tried to declare a state of emergency on 17 March, and a left-wing Prime Minister, who prevented this step, convinced that it was not necessary. Kosovo has not experienced a state of emergency since the 1990s, and it would have been another return to the trauma of that time. Indeed, for the first time since the war, there was serious talk about the possibility of war or armed conflict with Serbia, as the latter sought to change the facts on the ground shortly before a rushed attempt by the Trump administration to mediate a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, to be signed in Washington, in the final days of this administration prior to the US presidential election. This triggered a reaction from the European Union and especially Germany, making Kosovo a topic of discussion between Europe and America. In Kosovo, this produced a public debate over which of the two – Europe or America – should be trusted more. With neighbouring Serbia on alert, everything resembled the late 1990s, except that the situation was somewhat reversed! The political division in Kosovo produced such a rift within the country, that it resulted in a no-confidence motion in parliament, which toppled the government only 51 days after it had been formed. This government, produced by a coalition called the “coalition of hope”, struck precisely at what every country in the world was trying to sustain at that time: hope! Kosovo, the most isolated country in Europe, became the only country in the world to remove its government during the pandemic, and in quarantine. Even the public protests against these events were like a re-run of the 1990s. Isolated in quarantine, unable to gather on the street, people expressed their opposition on their balconies, by shaking their keys and banging their saucepans with spoons.

When traumas recur, the consequences of the initial trauma also reappear. This included solidarity, a virtue that took such a hold of Kosovo in the 1990s that it became an almost inviolable social norm. So, on the long spring nights of 2020, quarantined families in Kosovo remembered the 1999 war and the long-suffering decades in Yugoslavia under the communist regime of Tito, and later the fascist regime of Milosevic. For Kosovo Albanians, the Covid 19 quarantine was a time of solidarity and traumatic reminiscence. The Bosnian-American political science professor Jasmin Mujanovic posited that all residents of the former Yugoslavia live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since they repeatedly experienced severe situations of anxiety, depression and panic. According to Mujanovic, they are therefore more resilient to the coronavirus pandemic, as their brains are accustomed to crises and adapt quickly, finding survival techniques. There is some well-known graffiti on the walls of the capital Prishtina supporting Mujanovic’s thesis, saying: “He who has not yet gone crazy in this Kosovo, has never been normal!!!” Perhaps this explains how the people of Kosovo confronted all this madness with such solidarity despite multiple degrees of isolation: with raw traumatic memories, in quarantine, and in the most isolated country in Europe. Who knows!

In September 2020, in a rare interview given to the Franco-German television channel, “Arte”, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, expressed doubts about the possibility of solidarity in this time of pandemic. “I do not want to oppose anyone who shows solidarity in any way, but if you look at it from a different perspective, the model that is being presented to us seems to me like separation by distance and suspicion. This has nothing to do with solidarity, as it is contrary to the idea of true solidarity,” said Agamben, who in March had sparked a debate among Italian intellectuals about what brought the pandemic to Italy. Well known for his texts on biopolitics, man as homo sacer, and the state of emergency, Agamben seems to be the right philosopher to read in these turbulent times.

 

As this text is being written, the pandemic has not yet ended and all predictions are that 2021 will also be marked by Covid 19. In these quantifiable pandemic times and in extraordinary quantum conditions, no label for people’s experience can be secure or final. In semiotic terminology, there is a phrase for this fluid state: the floating signifier. It is a signifier without reference, a signifier unburdened with content that marks something completely undefined. Equally undefined are the histories of the time of this pandemic. The floating signifier, or empty signifier, is used to provide any kind of content or meaning. While the world is not yet free from the Covid 19 pandemic, in the conditions of human emergency, lots of empty signifiers float in chaos, waiting to name a post-covidian cosmos! The Second World War had to take place in order for the Great War to be called the First World War. When the Covid 19 virus capitulates, perhaps the pandemic it caused will be called the Third World War. One thing seems clear: nothing will be the same as before. Nothing!

Translated by Alexandra Channer