On Books, Fire and the Written Word (II)

30 mars 2023 13:23

Read the first part here

The written word and the prophets of the apocalypse

During the 90s, people in Kosovo attributed an almost mythical power to books, newspapers and, generally, anything in writing. Alternativa, a political magazine, began to be published in Ljubljana, because due to its critical tone towards official politics, its publication in Kosovo was impossible. But it arrived in Kosovo illegally, as did many other products at the time, which, due to international sanctions against Yugoslavia (the little that was still left), were no longer on the market. If you were caught with Alternativa, you could suffer more or less the same punishment as if you were caught with a firearm. However, Alternativa was easy to find, read and circulate from hand to hand. People bought newspapers and magazines and, after reading them carefully, preserved and archived them. There were two widely read daily newspapers, Bujku and Koha Ditore, the latter being the first independent newspaper to appear in Kosovo.

The publishing activity of newspapers and books, during the 90s, had shrunk and reduced drastically, and this shrinkage had increased people’s hunger for the written word. People became obsessed with preserving daily newspapers and this must undoubtedly be the largest private archiving initiative in the history of mankind. The rafters of houses, basements, and wherever there was little space left were filled with newspapers. It was a biblical attempt to preserve the history that was happening before people’s eyes. The word carried no weight if it was not written. And it was the written word that had to oppose the information darkness that had gripped the country. It also had to oppose the stories and urban myths that began to circulate about the arrival of some elders or prophets, appearing on wooden bridges, deserted roads, or early mornings, giving ominous predictions about the war that would be a carnage...

These legendary elders appeared quite suddenly, at different intervals of time, and the stories and prophecies that they carried to us the living had in themselves frightening words: blood, war, carnage, fire, land, displacement, apocalypse,crying mothers, orphaned children, collapsed mosques and churches, fields with burned graves and mountains...

The horror of the war was being lived and experienced before it had even started. Past legends were exercising their full power over the living afraid of what was to come. Therefore, the written word was much needed. Who better than it, could defy fear? Who better than the written word could witness the drama that was happening and the greatest drama that was expected to happen? Because it was tangible and contained more accurate evidence of what was happening, the written word was like the antipode of those urban legends coming from the fog. 

When Kosovo Albanians seldom want to blame themselves for any omissions or shortcomings, they often stop at the lack of books and documents written from the past. They proudly mention their rich oral epic, but also as a weak point. They say, “We did not want to write down our stories and deeds, we told them orally, but words blow away.” 

And according to them, Serbs have written down everything, left documents, of course written in the manner that suited them. Albanians use this argument of their distancing from the written word to defy history and to prove the Albanian ownership of Kosovo, in relation to the Serbian written evidence. This is why, during the 90s, when they witnessed history in the making, they wanted to cling to the written word. The words coming from the books and newspapers carried almost the same ominous messages and advice as those that came from the imaginary prophets, because the reality was such and the war was on the horizon. However, people preferred the written word, the written story, because by now they were already fed up with words and sayings arriving out of the mists of time, addressed to no one…

But as people in Kosovo began to believe that good things can come from books, they also believed that bad things can come from books. Therefore, that day in the backyard, when my family members were burning the red books of communism, they seemed to want to be freed through this act from a curse that had gripped them for so many years. In reality, they had lived well in the time of socialism, almost all of them had been employed, enjoying all the privileges that that system offered. However, that period was bad, this was agreed upon at the time by most people in Kosovo, it was the same public consensus that had to be accepted as such.

And therefore, the legacy of that system had to be discarded, so history had judged. And what better symbol than that of books could represent the legacy of that system? And what better act than that of burning those books could undo the legacy of that time? The act of burning them was not public, because they did not need any excuse, even though some had been members of the communist party. The act of burning was rather a theatrical act of individual cleansing from that bad inheritance!

The nationalists’ trumpets can still be heard

Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-French writer, says, “it is no longer enough to know others in an approximate, superficial, crude way. We need to know them subtly, up close; I would go as far as to say intimately.” And according to him, this can be done only through their culture, literature first and foremost. He rightly says that the intimacy of a people is its literature. 

The trumpets of blind nationalists have constantly echoed in opposition to these initiatives. In Belgrade, in some cases, the opposition has even been violent. And while the cultural circulation between Kosovo and Serbia, due to pressure from nationalists and politicians, has often come to naught, it seems to be more on track and flowing a little more normally between other countries of the former Yugoslavia. In any case, the challenges are still there and they should not be underestimated.

First of all, most politicians are not interested in any cooperation that could bring normalcy and long-term peace. This is because the national emergency alarm, set off by any sort of internal or external attacks, works to keep the public away from the real problems the countries of the region face: poverty, corruption, the miserable state of institutions, organized crime, etc. But it is not only the politicians, there are also those full of rusty minds among the so-called intellectual elites, who hover over fragile peace like ogres, trying to scare and undo it. 

When a few years ago, in Canada, I met a university professor who said that he was Yugoslavia and that he came from Yugoslav (even though in reality Yugoslavia no longer existed), he started to blame Kosovo Albanians for all the bad things that had happened to the planet including the destruction of Yugoslavia. He said to me: “We gave you the university in 1974, we taught you to read and write, and you turned on us, showing your true colors.” By “we” he meant the Yugoslav communists. In his projection of the historical mistakes of socialist Yugoslavia, this was one of the biggest mistakes: the Albanians in Kosovo should never have been given a university, because, just like Prometheus who took fire from Zeus and gave it to the people, they took it (the university) and then the flame of knowledge, of writing, of the written word, spread and would not stop until the destruction of Yugoslavia which he continued to cherish. I believe we have all met or known distorted, anachronistic minds imbued with fascist ideas, like that of the Yugoslav professor in Canada. These are the most unique products that hegemonic politics, nationalist passion and a passion for destruction could produce. And they are still among us, with swords raised ready to march.

Lullabies that should heal our traumas

Many people in Kosovo clean their windows with newspapers. During the 90s, some poorer families who could not afford to buy newspapers came to our house and asked for some. We gave them what we did not archive. And when one of these families appeared at the door and asked, “do you have a newspaper,” it was implied that they were looking for newspapers to read, but then also to clean the windows with. It did not matter how old the newspaper might be. They first read it thoroughly and then cleaned the windows with it. As I understand it, the glass is once washed with water and then, with the crumpled newspaper, it is given one final cleaning that makes it shine. Maybe people do this in other countries, too, I do not know. And I also do not know if it is the power of the substance with which the newspaper is produced that has a cleansing effect, or the printed words! Or maybe neither, and I would not be surprised that Balkan people know how to do things that produce an effect only in their own minds. But it does not matter. I want to believe in the power that words have to cleanse. Written words can cleanse our dark minds and souls obscured by hatred, envy, and the desire to destroy the other. 

After all these books that have been burned and destroyed, we seem to have become indebted to the written words! And that debt must now be repaid, by cast a mist over the past, that deepen hatred, that still seek blood in the present and the future. We need words that testify to our common pain, words that sing lullabies to our traumas and sufferings, words that heal and try to fix the region, to make it a better place. 

We need words that evoke the horror that people in these parts have experienced, but we also need words to point the finger at the culprits, those of the past and those of the future that may come. Because as Ernest Gellner puts it in his book The Condition of Freedom, “when social ills and beliefs are destroyed, there are usually some loyal followers who fight to the last.” The ghosts of war on these sides are still in the isthmus, waiting for some rivers of blood to flow again…This is also where the arsonists of burning books reside, fewer in numbers than they once were, but there are still some—enough to ignite new flames if circumstances and opportunities arise… 

Hence the written word.


The End

*The article 'On Books, Fire and the Written Word’ was specially commissioned from Jeton Neziraj for the publication "Open Society and Its Friends", published in 2021 for the occasion of the 30 years of Open Society Foundations' coming to the Balkans.

Illustration: Bigeye

30 mars 2023

Jeton Neziraj