||From The Borderlands: View Of Blackbird’S Field
by Krzysztof Czyzewski
remember that we were born together
where others live
where we do not know one another
Eqrem Basha is a poet for whom the parable of the apocalypse is being fulfilled right before his eyes. He’s known its words since childhood. From early on, he’s composed its poetic routes in verse. Now, he’s witnessing their incarnation.
The parable speaks of a land depopulated by cataclysm. The surrounding mountains rendered the land inaccessible and so, for the rest of the world, it remained an unknown. Time after time, its inhabitants had to climb the high, snow-capped mountain passes to escape the encroaching violence. The people took their belongings and abandoned their homes, following the stream and river upwards until the earth grew completely barren. They did not fear being torn asunder by Bjeshket e Nemura, so named because of the danger lurking in its precipices, lava flows, and cyclones. Those who made the exodus and those few who returned from exile lived in a cursed place. The house was abandoned, the father had gone mad, the garden was overgrown and wild. Only stone towers, kulle, in which the lonely people lived, jutted out from this landscape. The unusual herbs that grew here once and that healed the people’s eyes, were struck by lightning. Since then, only the blind and the mourners dressed in black have dwelt here. Since then, man has been left alone, at the crossroads, between the mountain snows and mists of the valley.
Do we know when this happened and what the cause was? Is the name of this land known? The poetic language of Eqrem Basha—particularly before he was forced to write “A Program for Political Poetry”—is the language of myth. Myth universalizes; with difficulty do we inscribe a defined here and now. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the wife in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, for example, are not registered in any specific place or time; they lay bare the drama of human existence. Nevertheless, we cannot help but read there the burdensome stamp of the tragic First and Second World Wars, the dehumanization of Western civilization, and the Soviet empire of evil. Similarly, Basha’s poetry, although it evades direct reference, although it aspires to universal expression, does leave traces that refer to a specific historico-cultural context: the man of the house who is fleeing has a fez on his head; the person with the walking-stick who calls out to someone in vain, wanders through the depopulated fields of Torviolla; Catallus, Iphigenia, and Shakespeare, the bearers of the European myth of revenge, are invoked alongside the place, Verrat a Llukes, where vengeance is renounced; the town in which the action is taking place is known best to
from tear gas shells.
There is no doubt. We are in the very heart of the Balkans; in the “ever-open charnel-house/of the hospital of Europe”, where the greatest European drama since the Second World War began and will probably end; in a land known to the world as Kosovo, and to the Albanians as Kosova.
The fields of Torviolla invoked in the poem, “The House Lost in the Mist”, seem to stretch backwards to the beginning of a mythic cycle, to an epoch before the cataclysm, when the house had its master and the miraculous herbs healed his eyes. It was on these fields, in the fifteenth century, that Skanderberg defeated the Turkish armies. This son of an Albanian prince and a Slovenian woman whose real name was Gjergj Kastrioti created the Albanian state and protected its independence for twenty-five years. When he died in 1468, the people, fearing retaliation from the Ottomans, undertook an exodus to the south of Italy from which they never returned. Since then, Turkish, Serbian or Yugoslavian armies would appear on the mountain ridges that formed the natural borders of this region, and descend upon the land—pillaging, destroying, and murdering without mercy.
That’s how it was in 1690 and in 1912, and that’s how it is in 1999. Each invasion is accompanied by an exodus of thousands of people who flee into the mountains in order to save themselves. And each time, it is not known if this will be the final wandering that fulfills the curse, or if the time will come for yet another.
Eqrem Basha was born in Yugoslavia—a country which was called first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenians, and later also Macedonians, but never Albanians, although almost as many Albanians lived there as Slovenians. He was born an Albanian and a poet in a country in which Albanian literature was ignored in books about the literature of the Yugoslav nations; in a country of Southern Slavs in which the descendants of the former Illyrians were treated as second-class citizens; in a country in which, ever since the start of the Second World War, publishing in Albanian was forbidden, and teaching in Albanian was done away with; in a country which, having annexed Kosovo by force after the mass murders and ethnic cleansing of 1912, had one program to deal with the “Albanian problem”: assimilate the Catholics and the turncoat Slavs, and chase the Muslims back to Turkey. This vision was shared by Vaso Cubrilovic (the national hero who participated in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and who later became an historian at the University of Belgrade), Ivo Andric (Nobel laureate), and professors of the Serbian Academy of Science, the authors of the infamous memorandum that was prepared just prior to Slobodan Milosevic’s seizure of power.
The turning point for Albanians in Yugoslavia was 1966. That year, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Alexander Rankovic, known for his anti-Albanian stance, was recalled. The following year, when Basha started his studies, Marshall Tito came to Pristina for the first time in sixteen years in order to say these words: “No one can speak about equal rights when Serbs are given preferential treatment in the factories... while Albanians are thrown out even though they have similar or better qualifications.”
In 1969, the independent University of Pristina was opened. Its languages of instruction were Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Basha studied Albanian and Romance philology. This was a time when, while mastering the Albanian language and creating newspapers, literary journals, publishing houses, television programs, and film and play scripts in that language, one could also immerse oneself in French existential philosophy, the latest theories of the Italian surrealist poets, and other trends in the contemporary avant-garde.
This golden age, when Albanian culture in Kosovo could evolve normally—a rare moment indeed in its history—did not last very long.
In March 1981, a certain university student in Pristina, finding a cockroach in his soup, incited several hundred of his fellow students to demonstrate for better living conditions and better food. The police reacted with brutality. Several people were locked up. The next day, thousands of protestors took to the streets. A few days later, they demanded the creation of a republic in Kosovo (up until then, Kosovo had the status of an autonomous region). The tanks rolled in, hundreds of people were killed, thousands were arrested.
Tensions escalated over the next few years. In April 1987, a communist apparatchik, who was not yet well known, arrived in Kosovo Field—Slobodan Milosevic. Following the police beating of Serbian protestors, he stood before the crowd and uttered the following words: “No one will dare to raise his hand against you!” These words have been recorded on television and transmitted many times ever since. The crowd responded with, “Slobo! Slobo!” That same year, Milosevic was elected leader of the Serbian Communist League.
In March 1989, Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked. On June 28th, on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Field, Milosevic gave a speech indicating his nation’s intent to go up against the other Yugoslav nations. War broke out.
That year also wrought fundamental changes in the political scene for Kosovar Albanians. The era of the old communist activists ended and in their place came the young intelligentsia, who were concentrated in two organizations: the Association of Kosovar Philosophers and Sociologists, and the Kosova Writers Association. Eqrem Basha was one of the writers of a petition signed by 4,000 people, “For democracy, against might”, as well as of documents about Albanian national politics that were widely endorsed by the people. In December of that year, the Democratic League of Kosova was formed (an analogue to the Pristina League, which was formed in 1878 and which, as the Albanian government, demanded autonomy for Albanians from the Ottomans). At the head was Basha’s friend, writer and historian Dr. Ibrahim Rugova. In 1992, Rugova was elected president of the Republic of Kosovo.
In the nineties, Basha became involved in the defence of Albanian national identity and in the attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the “problem” of independence. He became editor-in-chief of an important Albanian publishing house, Dukagjini. Although he never became directly involved in politics, as an intellectual and writer in a place like Kosovo, he couldn’t avoid it. Traces are evident in his poetry:
you are involved in politics
our goal is freedom
During this period, he writes “A Program for Political Poetry”, into which enter
the forbidden word V
the orchestra of dissonance
performs a symphony of hatred
in a major note
an opus of 1990.
There is no Europe, no discussion of aesthetics, no formal experimentation, no cosmopolitan loftiness... There is a land in which the inhabitants do battle for their human rights. As the head of protocol in “Audience” says of them:
they look naive...
and devoid of hope
come from a land of hatred
demand to be understood
care not for love.
Eqrem Basha’s isolation from the world is symbolized by the wall of hypocrisy and falsehood beyond no room is left for truth:
When you go out into the world
take a comb with you
comb your hair and dress yourself up
because the world wants to see you like this
(“When you go out into the world”).
Eqrem Basha’s human being, existentially and culturally condemned to isolation and imprisonment, tries to break through to the other side of the world, towards the other. He undertakes a mad effort to free himself from the stone tower, to cast off the curse.
The parable is a tale of life: one is led into a labyrinth wherein one must seek for a long time for a way out, and wherein it is easy to lose one’s way in the attempt to survive the arduous initiation rites. In the end, however, there comes a moment when
the gates open
before our eyes appears a great garden
with unusual herbs
struck, in a time of trial, by lightning
(“A House Lost in the Mist”).
This ending is hard to imagine while a terrible war is raging. The one who will emerge victorious is not the one who acquires the territory and who has killed the enemy, but the one who has managed to salvage love and who has not succumbed to hatred. Is this possible after all that has happened? Time and time again, Eqrem Basha has distanced himself from hatred. In “Nights of the Workers”, he rails:
put your hand on your heart
lock up the anger
let it lie with hatred
let them shut off the lamp
and gather their poison into a bottle.
But his frighteningly cold and enigmatic “Epitaphium (c)” inspires only despair:
above me the earth
and one post
let us part like people
I here with hatred
I forgotten in the depths.
Where is Eqrem Basha now? I have many questions for him. No one is answering his telephone. His friends say that he remained in Pristina and is hiding out in a basement.
(30 May 1999)
Post scriptum: I can’t shake the image of houses burned down from the inside... I will try to sleep now for a long time. Good night. KC (email dated 20 September 1999, written upon his return home from his latest trip to Kosovo)
Krzysztof Czyzewski is an essayist, the editor of Krasnogruda, a Central European cultural quarterly, and the Director of the Borderlands of Arts, Cultures, & Nations Centre in Poland.