Flags are everywhere. The red Albanian one with the black double headed eagle, and the blue and yellow ones of Kosova. They line the streets, are hung round houses like prayer flags, or flap from flagpoles beside important buildings – the university, the municipal offices, the Europa centre and the old Ottoman-style house – now a museum - where the League of Prizren first came together in 1878.
|League of Prizren House & Museum|
June 10 is the anniversary of this gathering of people who came to be known as the League of Prizren – in this very building. I wanted to give some background information about the League but when I started thinking about it, it seemed clear I would need to go back into 19th and 20th century Balkan history. There was the Ottoman occupation of several centuries, and the Albanian population was spread over the territories we now know as Montenegro, Kosova and Macedonia as well of course as Albania itself. But ‘Albania’ as an independent country did not exist, although there were powerful Albanian rulers such as Ali Pasha, who were appointed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, known as the Sublime Porte. But the history – and geography too – is so complex that I think it’s best to leave it to those who have already studied and written about it. The League of Prizren was basically a group of statesmen and intellectuals who feared (rightly) that Albanian territory was about to be carved up by the great powers of the time, and so they came together in 1878 to set down resolutions to avoid this dismemberment of their country. This came to be seen as the first stirrings of a national movement, which led to the creation of the Albanian state, in 1912.
For a brief history you can read The Prizren in your pocket guide
You can read more by Robert Elsie whose work on Albanian history and literature, as well as his translations from Albanian, is unparalleled.
If you want to know anything about Albanian history or read English translations of Albanian writers, his site is the place to go.
The members of the League of Prizren are revered historical figures, founding fathers of the Albanian nation.
|Abdyl Frasheri, founding member of the League of Prizren, in traditional Albanian costume, painting by Rexhep Vermica|
But even though it is 135 years since these people first assembled here, they do not seem distant figures from the past, for history has a different feel to it here. This is particularly true today, on the anniversary of their meeting, but it can be felt on any day, as if the layers of Balkan history have such porosity that they slip easily through barriers of time that we have created to divide the past from the present. Paul Mojzes in Yugoslavian Inferno puts his finger on this difference when he says Time [in the Balkans] is understood mythologically rather than chronologically. Ismail Kadare further explored this different experience of time which I wrote about in an interview with him
This living reality of myth is something that poets are well familiar with, and Albanians are voluble and enthusiastic poets with a long bardic history.
These 19th century characters seem to wander through the streets, wearing their red tasselled fezes, their gold embroidered jackets, wide red cummerbunds and white kilts. Or no hat, European style trousers and jacket and cravat, with thick moustaches, sculpted shapes like two waves curling from a ship’s prow. These characters are felt in the sense of motion that glides along the pavement beside the shallow river, its water turning into beads and bells over the stony lining of its bed. In the sense of motion over the old bridge,
pointed as a Gothic arch, its surface stones irregular beneath your feet, so you are conscious of every step you make, feeling the pressure of each stone. With this sense of motion these characters from what we call the past, inhabit streets and us, passing freely in and out of doorways and thresholds, their smiles and gestures are the ones we make, it is their hands that slip into ours, their shouts and laughter circulating in the narrow streets, like the call to prayer, rising and sliding and slipping into echoes that the stones of streets and buildings seem to retain and throw back at you, rippling in the mind.
C’est trop fort says Abdyl, shaking his head, as the muezzin calls for morning prayer. We are walking towards the museum where today’s readings will be held in the courtyard. One of the new Albanian words I’ve learned is hy(singular) hyte (plural) which means, come, come, and Abdyl uses it frequently, as he shepherds us here and there. Despite their late night, everyone seems full of bounce and energy. Fuelled by a breakfast of omelette, bread, jam and coffee, we set off for the museum, passing a colourful bean shop.
Riza gives us a quick tour of the museum, before it was time to join the others in the courtyard outside, for that day’s readings. My short speech in Albanian is just to let people know that I don't speak Albanian so I'll be reading in English! Professor Shyqri Galica (also pictured) reads Agim Morina's Albanian translation.
The readings are followed by another wonderful meal, in a restaurant outside the town, by the Drini river. Speeches and presentations afterwards.
|By the Drini river, windy|
In the city centre that evening, folk dancing and traditional music.