The Eagle and the Phoenix
What was once the sulfuric taste of mortar blasts or the iron tint of blood has become the taste of red peppers. Cigarette smoke has replaced burning diesel. Once-refugees are instead Kosovar exports in the form of football players and popstars. As Kosovars continue to sweep clear old minefields and bury the war, foxholes are replaced with cafés. Going to Kosovo, for me, was like visiting a new friend’s house and suddenly hearing an old song my grandparents used to sing, though the dialect’s off. It’s an alien place filled with familiar comforts and enough shared culture with its neighbors to make a surrogate home for even the most prodigal children of the Balkan diaspora. Its share of strife has been narrated in continual soundbites, news clips, and ticker scrolls of disaster in the wake of Yugoslavia’s breakup and subsequent wars in the early 1990s, and its own referendum for independence that followed. That’s the dual experience of Kosovo – the external forces squeezing around it, cutting off slices, taking ownership, and the tantrum blasts of destruction. Always, though, there is another Kosovo inside: the Kosovo that evolves, adapts, and rises, protected within the hope-chest cache of its people and their hybrid culture.
External: Shockwave rubble and mortarblast debris, the familiar war scenes.
Internal: Incubating Kosovo arisen from the burning sulfur.
My partner JH and I were invited by friends to stay with them in Kosovo for a week. Mario and Martika were both diplomats; Mario and JH worked together for the UN, in New York and in Belgrade. JH had been a legal advisor helping to set up the International Criminal Court and other tribunals for prosecuting war crimes in the Balkans and elsewhere. We arrived the week of Kosovo’s general elections. “Don’t worry,” Mario said, “they really love Americans here. And Swiss. Croatians they love the third-most. So…you’re set.” JH is a Swiss citizen and resident. Mario is Croatian, from the US, but unlike me, he speaks the language fluently and has close ties to his hometown, Split.
In high school, more than a few of my non-Croatian friends would confuse Balkan and Baltic, along with anything nearby. “Oh, like Sweden?” they would say when I told them where my family was from. “No, Yugoslavia. Across from the back of Italy’s boot.” I found this confusion even more perplexing since the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area has a thriving diaspora of 30,000 Croatians, mostly centered in my hometown of San Pedro. We had a Croatian Hall and a Yugoslav Hall (later renamed the Dalmatian American Club), and the Yugo had been featured in the 1987 film Dragnet as the worst car anyone could possibly drive.
In college too – which doesn’t speak well for high school history and geography classes – I again had to qualify former Yugoslavia as “the place with the war.”
Nowadays, thanks to Game of Thrones and modern vacation trends, few people in the West are at a loss when I mention Croatia. Croatia has thrived in a way few post-war countries have, so immediately, so popularly. Having a gorgeous coastline and a familiar religion can do that. Tourist funds paved over the remains of the war, aside from the few left intentionally as reminders.
Kosovo’s war and post-war stories are decidedly different. It’s had less time to recover than Croatia did. And Serbia still claims Kosovo as an autonomous province, rejecting its declaration of independence. Even now, a potential territory swap under negotiations – which in theory could bring peace – raises questions about ethnic cleansing via border redraws. Such a solution in Kosovo could also spell trouble for Serb claims on Bosnian territories, further destabilizing the already tenuous balance of the region.
External: First Kosovo Wars in the 19th century between the Serbs and the Ottomans over, among other things, Kosovo.
Internal: Albanian Revolt of 1912, Kosovo convinces Ottomans to allow increased Albanian autonomy.
We pulled into Pristina from the airport, entering via Bulevardi Bill Klinton, the main artery leading into the city. At the turnoff into downtown, there is a mural of Bill Clinton on an apartment building, just above a statue of him, his arm raised in benediction. The dress shop next to the statue is named Hillary. Not to be left out, there is a side street named Bulevardi Xhorxh Bush.
Mario explained the tension of the pending elections, trying to give us the bullet points: The ruling party had been under investigation for corruption and had also botched a border dispute with Montenegro. These were the old guard from the Kosovo Liberation Army who’d lost limbs in the fight for an independent Kosovo. Now, there was a chance they could be prosecuted by The Hague for war crimes – if they didn’t keep the power they had. So they recently formed a coalition with rival parties made up of old guerilla commanders to oppose the Democratic League of Kosovo, the party that didn’t want to be too antagonistic toward Serbia. From within the coalition, though, there was a push to merge with Albania, adding to the tension. All of them were worried about gains made by Vetëvendosje, the Albanian nationalist party within Kosovo.
The scars of the war were prevalent everywhere. It’s no surprise there have been difficulties moving past a war when the effects have been visible every day for nearly 20 years. As we entered the city proper, there were clearly new roads and highway onramps, and commercial towers going up. “Yeah,” Mario said, “but that building isn’t finished because it turned out to be part of a money laundering scheme.”
Inside the city was different. The main architectural feature was the pre-war, 16,500 square-meter National Library, designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković, its bubbly domes and filigree metal “fish netting” an attempt to cross Byzantine and Islamic styles. It would suit a science fiction film set in the distant future. A few steps from the library is the Sveti Spas Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. My first thought was that it was a ruin of a 16th century church, but actually it was an unfinished structure built during the 1990s by the Milošević regime on the property of the University of Pristina, at a time when Albanians were being removed from the school. Mario warned us not to go too close to it. “The site is contested. It was set on fire once, then Serbs keep trying to fix it up, and then people regularly deface it.”
My first reaction as our car bumped over potholes and unpaved sections of street in the center of Pristina was that I would keep an open mind. I was there to visit with friends and see a different part of the Balkans. I figured that if there was a crisis, I was in a reasonably advantageous position, despite my mom’s fears that I would get blown up somewhere. The tires spun up gray dust.
We met Mario’s wife Martika at Soma Book Station, a café/bar/restaurant popular among diplomats and other NGO workers. “They call us Internationals,” Martika said. “All the people who are stationed here from the various international organizations to help rebuild Kosovo.”
Soma is mostly hidden behind a high wall, and crossing through its gate is like entering a secret garden. The inside is polished and lively. The large outdoor patio leads to a hip, wood-lined bar area with small trees planted near the open windows. There is a full library and record store. They have an extensive menu of food and drinks, but they specialize in coffee.
“Pristina has the best coffee,” Martika said. “Kosovo – wherever you go here, they have even better coffee than in Italy. Just wait until you try it.” It didn’t matter which, their version of Turkish coffee or a macchiato – it was rich and soft and perfect.
“This is all people do here,” Martika said. “They can’t find work, but there is always a new café or restaurant opening up. This is what everyone does in Kosovo.”
Mario told us that unemployment was at 30%, and I asked why Kosovo struggled despite the post-war success of some of its neighbors. Aside from corruption, most of the industries that would mine, source, or commodify Kosovo’s natural resources are held back by deteriorating infrastructure and a lack of funding to revive them. There is currently one thriving national resource in Kosovo, and it isn’t tourism.
Kosovo has its picturesque natural features. The Sharr Mountains bordering FYROM/Macedonia, and the northern Kopaonik Mountain Range, as well as the Rugova Valley to the west, part of the National Park Bjeshkët e Nemuna – but these compete with the much more famous Plitviče Lakes National Park in Croatia – tourists are lured by other, better-known and more accessible locations. People simply aren’t flocking to Kosovo to hike the trails in Rugova.
And while Croatians delight in the freshly-caught natural treasure called lignje, known elsewhere as calamari, Kosovo instead has lignite – a highly pollutive form of coal exported only to a few countries. The lignite industry is propped up by a controversial policy of the US and the World Bank.
Pristina has two lignite power stations that generate all but 3% of the country’s electricity. “In winter, it gets so bad in Pristina because of the burning lignite that you can’t even see the city.” Martika googled a picture to show us. It looked like the dense smoke of California at the height of wildfire season.
“Most of the money coming into Kosovo comes from foreign aid,” Martika said.
“And they are grateful for it and also not happy about it,” Mario said. “They don’t like the international community looking over their shoulders.”
Perhaps this is why Kosovo remains in the shadow of public consciousness. The ongoing fight is over space. Identity. Much of the charted history reads like the history of the Middle East, with a major exception – there is no oil to fight over. Trillions of dollars do not sit beneath the land of Kosovo. Other countries have no desire to dig deep below the surface of Kosovo’s skin. And yet, Serbia still tries to claim it. This is a personal battle. One over pride and a lot more than an outsider can begin to comprehend.
External: Concerned citizen of the global community.
Internal: A tourist with intangible guilt and a full stomach.
The next day, Mario took us for lunch at the anarchist burger joint Dit’ e Nat’, another café in a neighborhood in Pristina that seemed to be in the demolition part of reconstruction. We entered Dit’ e Nat’ through glass doors into a wood-paneled bar where I could imagine James Joyce drinking beer and a whiskey. Bookshelves lined the side wall. A mélange of microbrews was available on tap. The dark frontage opened onto back patio, enclosed in glass panels and wood slats to offer shade, allowing in ample sunshine and only the glimpse of a crumbling roof next door. It was exactly the place where I’d want to hang out if I was still a college student.
“It’s known as the anarchist bar,” Mario said, “because this is where the anarchist party will meet to plan a protest. If there’s a vote they don’t like coming up, they’ll meet here, then go over to the government building with tear gas. They disrupt the vote, then go home.”
The comfortable and the political, the domestic and the discontented – all the boundaries of Kosovo are nebulous.
Growing up in San Pedro, I didn’t see much of the effects of the war. A pipe bomb once went off near our friend’s restaurant, and another attempt was made at Croatian Hall, but both were ineffectual. I had friends whose cousins had moved to San Pedro in the ’90s, after their neighbor’s house was blown to bits by a mortar shell. I didn’t know my relatives who still lived there, as most of my family migrated to America in the early 1900s, when the region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After World War II, a new flood of immigrants arrived in San Pedro. The Iron Curtain in Yugoslavia was more like metal window shutters. Tito wasn’t as bad as some of the other Communist dictators, but still. My dad’s friend defected by jumping off a freighter near Cairo and swimming to shore. Another family friend leapt off a boat near Bari and talked his way into an Italian visa, which eventually got him to California. They were industrious people and didn’t care that WASPs didn’t trust them because they were Catholic and vaguely Eastern European – there were enough ‘Slavs’ to surround themselves with, and they could do their own thing.
How uncomplicated my family, as well as most of the people I knew, had it. Plenty of Croatians from Vukovar to Dubrovnik had seen horrors. I wondered how much of my sympathy for them stemmed from tribalism, something ingrained in my DNA. I was fascinated with genetics, having recently taken one of those DNA tests that confirmed everything I expected: membership of a South Slav “genetic community” and a big dot located over the region of Croatia from where my family originated.
Onto another meal later that day, because in Kosovo, we wandered from restaurant to café, café to bar, bar to restaurant. A crumbling side street lined with patched-up plastered walls led us to the wooden doors that revealed a stylish restaurant with garden seating. I began to realize that on the outside, while the government hasn’t been able to invest in overhauling every street and every façade, the private citizens have been sprucing up the interiors of buildings and, from the inside, the war feels like a distant memory. We ate a multi-course meal with produce the likes of which I hadn’t seen from Wolfgang Puck or my dad’s garden (Croatians in my town pride themselves on their patio gardens, and my dad is no exception). The quality of the vegetables and the cheeses would to move me near to tears and Miltonic heights of praise for the rest of our trip. My surprise and enthusiasm weren’t just the result of the high quality of the food and the presentation – I felt connected. It was only the pockmarked outside that was unfamiliar. Everything inside, familial, domestic, culinary – these were the echoes that thrummed along my DNA markers.
Since the death of my father’s friend and the subsequent closing of his restaurant, I hadn’t had much Croatian/Balkan food. It had been a good three or four years. I missed the sarma – the stuffed cabbage rolls – that I had been too busy to make myself. Everywhere was ćevapi, or ćevapčići as I knew them, which comes from the Turkish kebab, the word imported with the Ottoman empire – another of the region’s hybrid cuisines. The stuffed peppers, speca të mbushura, and pepper dips, speca me lëngand ajvar, evoked another memory, long obscured, of my grandmother’s house and the taste of Saturday night dinners. Growing up, I never realized these dishes were Balkan. It was soul food. Every meal in Kosovo was like a balm for everything that I’d missed after my grandparents died, after our Croatian restaurant closed. These were parts of my history that I wanted to share with JH, to make him a part of my past and my always. I had never expected Kosovo to unlock all of that.
External: 1949-1999, Kosovo is an autonomous region within the boundaries of Serbia.
External: 1999, the war ends, the Kumanovo Agreement transfers governance of Kosovo to the UN.
Internal: 2008, Kosovo declares independence and asserts its autonomy.
On our second full afternoon, JH and I drifted on our own through downtown Pristina. The wide boulevards were filled, but not crowded, with people. Women in hijabs walked hand-in-hand with women in tank tops and shorts. Before the trip, I had done some research on Kosovo, especially Pristina, beyond what I had already known from my culture and the war coverage. I wanted to know what the women wore so I didn’t fall into a trap of being dressed inappropriately, and then punished in one way or another. In the end, I needn’t have worried – every kind of fashion is worn on the streets.
We ducked into the Dukagjini International Bookstore, where I bought two books translated into English by Albanian author Ismail Kadare. With so many titles in English, the store was clearly marketing to the ‘Internationals,’ but there were many in Albanian and Serbo-Croatian of everything from Shakespeare to E. L. James. Great bookstores, books lining the walls of many of the cafés. Kosovo has a 90% literacy rate, 88% for women, and almost 100% for men. In a place like this, a war that affected everyone, there would have to be engagement at all levels. Congregating at cafés and at mosques, the Kosovars seem as if they are preparing for another Renaissance, if only the politics and economics would cooperate.
We then stopped for a late snack in a full café, and it struck us – we were in the middle of Ramadan, in a 95% Muslim country, and there was more than 5% of the country hanging out in the cafés in the middle of the day. Kosovo is 92% ethnically Albanian and somewhere below 4% Serb and falling – the remaining 4% are a mix of Bosniaks, Romani, Turks, and Ashkali. Under Kosovo’s current Constitution, it is a secular state with no official religion, although the majority of Kosovar Albanians are practicing Sunni Muslims. They identify with Albania and there is increasing support to fuse Kosovo with Albania. Soccer fans may remember the ruckus caused when Kosovar-Albanian-Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri ripped off his shirt and made the symbol of the Albanian eagle after he scored a goal against Serbia during the 2018 World Cup. His family had fled Kosovo for Switzerland in 1992. Serbia has officially threatened war again if Kosovo attempts to merge with Albania. While Kosovo is recognized as an independent country by the UN and 113 member states, Serbia refutes the claim.
The Albanian eagle was everywhere, hanging from windows and balconies, stamped on top of buildings. There were monuments to Kosovar war heroes, Zahir Pajaziti, “hero i popullit” (hero of the people), looking jaunty, bold, and windswept even in cast iron, and more than a few to the first president of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, ‘symbol ipavarësisë se Kosovës’ – symbol of Kosovo’s independence. Another statue in the center of Pristina memorializes the legendary 15th century Albanian hero Skanderbeg who, not unlike Charlton Heston’s Moses, was raised away from his native home, trained with the Ottomans, led their military, then fought against them for Albanian independence. War heroes are important here, though the reverence paid to them is not unlike that of (successful) revolutionaries across the globe.
Driving, walking, it is inescapable: Men of a certain age, mid-fifties, limping on one leg, carrying a newspaper under the stump of an arm. Somewhere, a garden of limbs in a minefield, or abandoned in the hospital, the killshots that missed. The limp, the worn look, and a sensibility somewhere between fatalism and nihilism, outside the cafés, at least. The war will never be over for some of these Kosovars.
On the roads on the outskirts of Pristina, it was most notable, this brand of fatalism, and the destiny toward which that fatalism bent not necessarily a positive one. Pedestrians stepping out into traffic on a busy highway without looking. A mother pushing her child’s stroller onto the street, traffic approaching, then following behind her child. This was not the kind of maneuver seen in other places where pedestrians have to assert themselves to get the traffic to stop. What we saw were people waiting for that other shoe to drop and expecting it to drop directly onto their heads.
Other Kosovars weren’t waiting around. One afternoon, JH and I came upon a crowd of two hundred people, covering both sides of the street. There was a bus stop, but they weren’t waiting for the bus.
“Is it some kind of protest?” I asked JH.
We agreed it was odd. Until we looked more closely at the building. The Swiss Embassy. Rather than a large mass, there was a loose, informal line. People hoping for a Swiss visa.
“Yep,” Martika said that evening, “and when they can’t get a Swiss visa, they come to me and try to get one of ours.” In the last few years alone, 100,000 people have left Kosovo.
Others embrace what they can control. Aside from café culture, the other thriving business in Kosovo is matrimony. Weddings are everything, we were told, and there was plenty of evidence of it. Shop window after shop window was stuffed with fluff and tulle and beads of every color, like the stores in Downtown Los Angeles that market Quinceañera dresses. Others, the slinky pageant-queen variety. “Families will spend everything on the wedding,” Mario told us. The brimming confections behind the glass were in stark contrast to the gray of broken or exposed stone and brick. Each window – there were so many – had an urgency about it, a promise with an expiring warranty: Get your one slice of happiness while you can.
External: Saudi investments, a new mosque, a push toward conservatism.
Internal: Sinan Pasha Mosque, 17th century, Prizren – open for all visitors.
On the drive southwest to the city of Prizren, near the lambshank of land where Kosovo meets Albania and FYROM/Macedonia, we saw in the middle of a tiny village along the side of the highway an opulent mosque, gold-plated minarets ablaze in dappled sunlight, different from the typical stone and plaster mosques with painted blue roofs we’d seen around the country so far. “Those come from new Saudi donations,” Martika said. It’s a move to get a foothold in Kosovo, to entice with gifts and money the Kosovar Muslim population to the conservative edge.
New players with stakes in the game. Ultimately, however, this is a continuation of the same fight of the first Balkan War in 1912 – Serbs, Austrians, and other European countries against the Ottomans. With globalization, the effects end up being more widespread, more shared. There’s plenty to worry about. Peace is an ongoing and difficult project.
We arrived in Prizren at the beginning of a rainstorm. The city wasn’t deserted, but it seemed subdued, less fraught, maybe because of the weather. I counted three mosques and a couple of cathedrals, including a monastery up the hill. We walked from restaurant to café to escape the downpours, past posters of another national hero of the people, pop star Rita Ora, whose family fled Kosovo for London at the beginning of the 1990s. Before the Kosovo War, the town’s Albanian population – almost 80% of Prizren – fled. The more rural outskirts suffered the greatest casualties, and over a hundred houses were burned, and around 30 people were killed. But the Albanian population returned after the war, and then most of the Serbs left, in part because of unrest in 2004, during which some of the old Orthodox Churches and Serb homes were destroyed. Maybe the tension wasn’t as omnipresent as elsewhere in Kosovo because the self-segregating (or soft ethnic cleansing) eliminated the diversity that might cause contentions – a hypothesis. It’s a beautiful city, with arched bridges and an old fortress, and a small city train to motor tourists around the cobblestone streets. It feels like a typical small, preserved medieval town, until you remember that it dates back to Roman and Dardanian times in the 1st century CE.
The Sinan Pasha Mosque was the first mosque I’d ever entered. Visitors were welcome as long as we weren’t interrupting prayer and we removed our shoes. Otherwise, we had free rein to wander. The Muslim docents were affable, proud to show off their mosque and explain to tourists from all over the small details on the narrow minbar or the rain damage affecting the interior paintings.
A final lap of Prizren took us up the back hill, where parts of the streets were blocked off for construction. Destruction. The Serbian quarter. The construction of what appeared to be a new hotel cut off the rest of our path, so we dropped down to the Cathedral of Saint George, the Serbian Orthodox church that had been burned almost to rubble in 2004. The armed security guard told us they were closing, but because we were with someone who was a member of the greater Orthodox church and a couple of diplomats, we were invited on a private tour of the grounds. The caretaker explained there were current threats, that he was grateful to have a member of the church taking interest, and the instant kinship of mutual religious beliefs he felt made him hopeful that the diplomats might take up their cause. What that entailed, it wasn’t clear.
External: Six white stars and a golden map of Kosovo on a blue field.
Internal: A tale of two eagles.
In 2007, there was a contest to create the new flag of Kosovo. The winner’s design, lightly modified, included a blue field with the gold silhouette of Kosovo, the white stars above representing each of its six main ethnic groups. Between the war and the declaration of independence nine years later, Kosovo had used the flag of the UN, which was its governing body. Although the flag was designed by a Kosovar Albanian, it reminded me more of an international flag – the logo of an NGO, perhaps.
Many Kosovars felt the same. The Albanian flag might have been the favorite, but it wasn’t the only alternate flag that was raised. Plenty of buildings, mostly in the exclaves, flew the flag of Serbia instead.
Incidentally, both the Albanian flag and the Serbian flag feature a double-headed eagle; black on the former, white on the latter. Each come from the crest of their respective nationalities – the Albanian crest, which bears the Skanderbeg helmet; and the Serbian crest used originally by Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja in the 12th century. Empires may have changed, but there has been a continuity of ethnic and historic identity in each group.
Mario and Martika took us to dinner in Gračanica, a Serb exclave forty minutes south of Pristina. The restaurant could have been a California ranch home. Children raced laps over the grounds: a lawn, a playground, a small barn, a winding path with garden tables and a wishing well, overlooking a slope into an orchard and a nearby farm. Mario and Martika knew the owners and the servers, who gave us extra peppers as an appetizer.
Some people can smell lightening before it strikes. There is a charge to the air, vaguely of ozone and electrical wires. That’s what I could smell when we got out of the car. This isn’t to say I felt unsafe. But I felt as though I needed to be on my best behavior. The palpable powder-keg tension came from decades of resentment now confined to a village that had become a primary administrative center for Serbs in Kosovo, part of the self-governing association of municipalities unified under the Brussels Agreement. A tenuous balance that could easily teeter into another explosion. This sensation would follow me the rest of the trip each time we visited a Serb-majority region.
At Mario’s suggestion, we chose a drive to Peja over one to North Mitrovica, a Serb-majority city to the north of Pristina.
“Put it this way,” Mario said, “I can’t drive the UN car into there. I have to park and walk into the city.”
JH and I spent a day on our own and drove due west to Peja, or Peć, as the Serbs call it. Peja is nestled near the lush Rugova Valley. This is another of the disputed regions because of the Patriarchate of Peć, the historical seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Street signs bearing both the Albanian and the Serbian names had the Serbian names blacked out with spray paint. Along the route, the war wounds across the landscape were barely healed over. Carcasses of buildings sat in broken heaps. Façades were obliterated to reveal rotted cores. These markers of loss were everywhere. Behind the shelled-out homes and farms and former businesses, new homes had been rebuilt, a hundred, two hundred feet behind them. There were plenty of official and makeshift monuments. Statues or rocks with markers, engraved granite bearing Albanian surnames and dates all within 1998-99.
In the distance lay the fields and forests where an estimated 600 landmines and unexploded ordinance remain buried. A new or remodeled highway was a positive note, a potential harbinger of final transformation.
The Patriarchate of Peć is a 13th century monastery at the edge of the Rugova Valley, ridged by a black river that cuts through the tallest mountains I saw in Kosovo. Families out for hikes, camped along the riverbed – I would have been happy spending a couple of days wandering. Mario had asked us to pick up some šljivovica from the nuns there.
The nuns of Peć are humorous ladies. They maintain the Patriarchate, study languages, and make booze. They joke and are happy to give tours or recommend the best brandy or wines. I enjoyed all the benefits of an outsider who didn’t have an Albanian name.
After the war, more importance was placed on the physical space of the Patriarchate to add weight to Serbia’s claim over Kosovo. Armed military guards flanked each end. Despite the beauty of the architecture and the surroundings, despite the friendliness of the nuns, the visit felt somber, pushed down by the complexity of a war that might go on forever.
External: War pity.
Internal: The heart of an eagle.
Mario and Martika took us to the debut of a play written by an acquaintance of theirs. It was titled The Internationals, or Carla del Ponte Drinks a Vanilla Chai Latte in Pristina. The experimental play starred five women playing multiple roles, all spoken in English. They didn’t change their costumes, which conveyed BDSM in a fusion of Robert Palmer backup dancers and Klaus Nomi. Carla del Ponte, the Swiss prosecutor of the war crimes, was not depicted with fondness – neither were the many ‘Internationals’ who lodged in Kosovo. Each taking a piece, each denying Kosovo its autonomy.
External: 10th century Rascia – a Serbian principality – absorbs the former Dardanian region of Kosovo from the Bulgarian Empire.
Internal: The ancient city of Ulpiana, south of present-day Pristina, was with its fertile land and rich mines key to the survival of Dardania and Roman expansion.
When we returned to Switzerland, Kosovo surfaced everywhere, and not just in commercials featuring the Swiss footballers promoting supermarkets and cell phones. Our local chain market stocked jars of Kosovar ajvar. Peja beer lined the shelves next to the Croatian Karlovačko beer we usually bought. We had overlooked these products for years. When it was time to return to California, we brought several jars of the ajvar with us.
On our last day in Pristina, JH and I walked through the Emin Gjeku Ethnological Museum, on the tight backstreet named after Iljaz Agushi, another hero of the people, a Pristina-born Albanian politician assassinated in the 1940s. The structure was formerly the house of an Albanian noble who had lived in the heart of Pristina until his family was forced out. One of the buildings on the property is the only remaining structure of the Old Bazaar, the thriving centuries-old market and a cornerstone of Kosovo’s history that was levelled by Tito in a crusade to modernize Yugoslavia. Though the one- and two-story stone shops with tiled roofs are now gone, a market remains, just around the corner from the Ethnological Museum, and behind the Mosque of Sultan Makmet Fatih. The streets narrow and then open up onto a new line of shops, with small stands and stalls added to the sidewalks, shaded by umbrellas and tarps. The new market, sometimes called the Green Market, sells everything: shoes, socks, leather, vegetables, imported bananas and other fruit I couldn’t name, candies, compact disks and DVDs with faded cases. We thought we were at the end of the market, but then we took another turn and were suddenly inside a labyrinthine structure deep in the heart of the marketplace, covered by more tarps and welded sheets of metal. It all had an improvised, patched-together appearance, but when we took a closer look, there were no signs of transience. The Kosovars who made this market were here to stay. They’d put up their shops, hidden deep like a heart, crammed so full in places we had to walk sideways. The market had stayed with them, just like their stories, their history that refused to be razed and refused to stay dead in the flames, instead choosing flight.
Jennifer Carr is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.
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