Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The League of Prizren – Past and Present

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.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Prizren, Day 1

I was invited by the Writers League of Kosova to read at their literary festival, Drini Poetik, in the historic and lovely town of Prizren. I’d heard and read a lot about Prizren, dreamed of visiting it one day and then quite unexpectedly, I was invited there.

Prizren's old bridge and fortress on the hill

Just arriving at Pristina airport reminded me of times spent in Albania, for although it is a different country, a very young country, this Republic of Kosova, these are Albanian people, share the same language of course, but also the characteristic Albanian energy, enthusiasm, hospitality, respect and truly remarkable generosity of spirit. I was reminded more than once that the guest, to Albanians, is treated almost as a sacred being.

My hosts are Professor Shyqri Galica and Abdyl Kadolli, President and Vice-President of the Writers League, who met me at the airport. We drove through the green and lush countryside of Kosova, along the new autostrada as I was told, recently built, smooth surfaced and almost empty, that leads to Tirana. Shyqri drives and talks on the phone at the same time. When we turn off on the Prizren road, this also involves changing gear, but it is done with supreme skill and nonchalance. Along with my luggage, I handed over my autonomy, for now my life was going to be completely decided and arranged for me. My struggles to pay for anything, even a coffee, were met with fierce resistance, and it is a battle that cannot be won unless one resorts to subterfuge which was the only time I was successful, sneaking up to the counter and paying before the others noticed.

Sinan Pasha mosque, Prizren

In Prizren the weather was sublime, hot and sunny. I was taken to the hotel where I left my luggage. There’s a throng of people there, Abdyl says to me preparez, preparez, (he means get ready to go as soon as possible) while also talking to people at reception, and various other conference members who have arrived. We are late, and we need to get to the centre soon. Because he is the organizer everyone needs to talk to him, and he ushers me around like a benevolent and distracted shepherd.

Abdyl was determined to find a taxi, as Shyqri’s car now refuses to start. But after spending hours in a plane the day before, managed a few hours sleep in a hotel with windows that didn’t open, up at 3 am to be taken to the airport at 4 am, then hours in the airport (the flight to Pristina was delayed) and then on the plane, I longed to walk in fresh air. Vous voulez aller a pied? said Abdyl in disbelief. Oui, says I, and begin walking. Abdyl’s French is basic, and he often does not understand what I am saying, but he got the message, and we walked in the sunlit streets to the conference centre. 


The Festival opened with an art exhibition, followed by various speeches which I cannot say I fully understood, my Albanian being extremely basic, but I got the gist of the fulsome welcome extended to everyone. Riza Lahi, a writer from Tirana, who speaks good English, was assigned to me as translator, a lively and friendly man, who was a former military pilot and interpreter. Riza laughs, gesticulates, seizes my elbow to usher me here and there, and I joke with him that Abdyl is the shepherd and I am the lamb that follows him around. He roars with laughter at this and tells Abdyl. We Albanians love to tell jokes, he says.

Cafe above the Centre Europa

After the speeches and talks on the theme of ‘The Author and Literary Publications’ we go to the outside café next to the centre, and there I meet various other writers, including Arben, a young man who lost a leg while fighting for the Kosova Liberation Army. I ask him if he is happy now that Kosova is independent. Pa djeter (of course) he smiles. When he smiles, says Riza, the warmth of his heart shines on his face. And it is true, when he smiles, his face is suffused with a warmth that is modest and shy, almost a blush. Arben tells me later that he never wanted to be a soldier, he was a writer, but during the war, when people were being killed, their homes shelled and burned, he felt he had to do something for his country, so he joined the KLA/UÇK and for 3 years lived and fought in the mountains around Prizren. Albania and Macedonia lie just beyond these mountains.

From left, Riza, Arben and Salajdin

We are then driven outside the town to a restaurant surrounded by the green and forested Sharr mountains, by the side of the river Lum Bardhe. This wonderful meal went on for hours, before we were ferried back to Prizren, for the evening readings, with musical interludes, fiddle and flute playing. I read in English while Shyqri read the Albanian translation, kindly provided by Agim Morina.

Outside in the warm night, we strolled around the pedestrian area of the city centre, then headed to a cafe by the riverside for a final coffee, before I prevailed on my hosts that I had to sleep, and we headed back to the hotel. While I stumbled into bed, the Albanians stayed up talking and drinking for hours...

Friday, 7 June 2013

Les arènes, la fontaine

The Camino actually runs through the middle of Vauvert, passing the fountain and the bookshop La Librairie Fontaine.

There’s to be a reading in the arena at Nîmes, finalists in the competition for the Prix Hemingway, organized by the publishing house, Au Diable Vauvert. I say I’d like to go and Peggy says she’ll ask a member of the Association who lives in Vauvert, if he can give me a lift.

The mistral is blowing and it is cooler than before – I even have to wear my jacket as I cycle into town along la voie verte. When I get there I chain the vélo to some railings and walk the couple of blocks to the market. I’m so used to cycling now, it feels strange to walk! After buying vegetables, I go up to check out the bookshop, as I've noticed that they have a café littéraire once a month and the next one is in a few days time. I ask the bookshop owner about this, say I’m in residence with Au Diable Vauvert, and it turns out that he is the person Peggy was going to ask to give me a lift to Nîmes! So that’s arranged, and he says they will come and pick me up in the early evening.

By this time it's much warmer and on the way back to the vélo I follow the curve of a hill, lured by sunlight and shadows on a wall, up a street I don’t remember walking up before, the rue des Juifs. These house fronts and shutters, moving patterns of shade on walls, heat and silence, all have a dream like atmosphere.

So we drive to Nîmes, four of us in the car, in the early evening, in the bright sunlight, under the huge blue roof of sky. In the middle of a roundabout approaching the town, a large Cathar cross. 

Les arenes, Nimes, from the outside

I’d never been inside the Nîmes arena before. A great privilege so I thought, to have it all to ourselves, rather than be part of a guided tour. The drinks and nibbles before the readings were very welcome, (especially the Ricard). 

The readings took place in the chiqueros, the boxes on the perimeter of the arena. This surely has to qualify for the most unusual place to have readings. But the chiqueros are so small I felt claustrophobic and after a couple of readings, 15 minutes each, I wandered out into the arena again, watching the sky grow dark and talking to people I’d only just met and who feel like good friends already.

There are so many chapters of life in the Camargue still to be written, many places I visited I have not had time to write up, for life has started to behave a bit like a whirling dervish (though with much less grace) and I've had to focus on the future. I'm going to be away from my computer for a few days but when I get back I hope to have time to write more about this endlessly fascinating place .... and to look at other people's blogs too!