Way Ahead of Politics: Literary Bridge between Belgrade and Pristina by Sasa Ilic

With a thirty-year delay, on 25th August 2015 the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo signed four agreements in Brussels, as part of the Brussels negotiations on normalization of the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina. Namely, the following agreements were signed – on Association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, on telecommunications, on power supply systems, as well as on the bridge over Ibar in the divided town of Mitrovica. The bridge is a border rather than a link, representing communication breakdown between Albanian and Serbian communities in Kosovo. We have yet to see if these agreements will bridge the existing gap, but a much more stable bridge between Serbia and Kosovo had already been built some time ago, before political negotiations became part of the Brussels agenda.

The fabrication of negative stereotypes between Serbs and Albanians has a long history. In Serbia, it dates back to 1844 and Ilija Garašanin’s “confidential“ document which shaped both Serbian domestic and foreign policies in the 19th century, through to Vasa Čubrilović’s memorandum in 1944 for resolving “The Problem of Minorities in the New Yugoslavia“, all the way to the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science’s Memorandum in 1986. It’s worth mentioning that the author of 19th century programme was the then Minister of Internal Affairs, and that the Memorandum from the late 20th century was the work of academics and social scientists. Given that the very essence of the two documents – in the ideological terms – is almost identical, it should be questioned how it is possible that the Serbian intellectuals in the 80s were thinking pretty much in the same vein like the Minister of Police – or in many aspects even more negatively – 150 years earlier.

The book Serbs and Albanians Through the Centuries by Petrit Imami, among other things, meticuluosly takes account of the cultural exchange between the two nations. Translation of the works by Serbian writers started immediately after the Second World War. Radovan Zogović was the first author published in Albanian (Poems of Ali Binak) in the literary magazine Novi život/New Life. The first translated books from Serbian were children’s books (1950). The first translated novel from an already established author was Impure Blood by Borisav Stanković in 1953, and from contemporary writers it was Far Away is the Sun by Dobrica Ćosić in 1954, the year when Ćosić received the NIN Award. Books by Branislav Nušić, Ivo Andrić, Meša Selimović and others were translated shortly after. On the other hand, Albanian writers were represented for the first time in Serbian language in the anthology from 1951 Kosmet writes and rhymes. In 1962 a selection of poetry Poems, bitter and proud by Albanian poets was translated into Serbian by Esad Mekuli. The last more comprehensive selections of literature from Kosovo written in Albanian were published in the 70s: Rain in a Legend – contemporary Albanian poetry in Kosovo, selected by the great poet Ali Podrimje from Kosovo and published in 1972, and Trees – selection of stories by Albanians in Yugoslavia, selected by Hasan Mekuli (1977).

However, after the mass prostests of Kosovo Albanians in Pristina in 1981, the interest dramatically declined on both sides not only for the literary production, but for the cultural production “on the other side“ in general. During the 80s, one of the rare Albanian writers still published in Serbia was Vehbi Kikaj. His children’s book White Palace was included in the primary school literature curriculum. The last edition of this book was published in 1989. From that moment up untill Slobodan Milošević’s regime was overthrown, only two more books by Kosovo Albanians had been translated into Serbian. Both are poetry collections – one is Call me by your name by Flora Brovina (2000), the poet who was imprisoned in 1999, and the other is Freedom of Horror by Dzevdet Bajraj (2000). In the 1990s all cultural exchange between Belgrade and Pristina was halted. In line with Slobodan Milošević’s repressive policies in Kosovo, not a single book was translated from Albanian during the 1990s. However, there was one book that was translated from Serbian into Albanian: the diary of the Milošević’s wife, Mirjana Marković’s Night and Day (1996), whose translation and distribution was financed directly by the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In such impossible circumstances, only the Center for Cultural Decontamination managed to organise and host an exibition of contemporary artists from Kosovo in 1997.

A “new wave” of literary translations had to wait until 2011, when the Belgrade’s publication Beton and Qendra Multimedia in Pristina collaborated on two anthologies – From Pristina, with love (selection of contemporary literature in Kosovo) and From Belgrade, with love (contemporary short story in Serbia). International Literature festival POLIP was founded in Pristina in 2012, where the authors from the two anthologies met for the first time. Also, writers’ residence programmes in Pristina and Belgrade started bringing together two literary scenes, something that was unthinkable until recently. The collection of poems Beasts Love the Fatherland by Arben Idrizi, Albanian poet from Kosovo, was published in 2013 by Beton in the TonB series. Idrizi’s poetic voice is one of the most authentic on Kosovo’s contemporary literary scene. He writes poetry in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict – about transition and the horrendous shadows of the war. As a contributor to Pristina’s newspaper Express, Idrizi caused uproar in 2013 with his sharp critique of Kosovo’s recent past. At the same time when Idrizi’s book was published in Belgrade, Miloš Živanović’s exquisite poetry collection Poetry of Dogs (translated into Albanian) was out in Kosovo. The two poets participated in POLIP and their joint interview was published in newspapers, both in Pristina and Belgrade.

By publishing the anthology of contemporary plays One Flew Over the Kosovo Theatre (LINKS, Belgrade) and the memoir Kosovo and the Demise of Yugoslavia by Shkelzen Maliqi, the leading intellectual in Kosovo, the process of peace-building and understanding has been continued between the two, until recently, separated worlds. This year’s Romeo and Juliet, the Serbian-Albanian theatre collaboration and coproduction of Radionica integracije/Integration Workshop from Belgrade and Qendra Multimedia from Pristina, had its premiere in Belgrade and it was then shown in Pristina too. This theatre collaboration may be seen as an event made possible by the literary bridge that was established in the recent years between Belgrade and Pristina.

By Sasa Ilic

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 25 November 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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