Dancing With Skeletons

by Rafaël Newman

Brick repository, Barilevë, Kosovo, May 2019. Photograph by the author.

It was Ramadan on Mother Teresa Street, so the professor and his wife were discreetly abstaining. Their daughter, an aspiring YouTuber, had been granted special dispensation and was gorging herself on chocolate ice cream and Coca Cola, along with me and my colleague, an Israeli poet who had won an award from the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Youth the evening before, both of us treated to refreshments at one of the many outdoor cafés that lined the pedestrian zone in the middle of Prishtinë.

It had taken us a while to reach the café, constantly interrupted in our progress from one end of the mall to the other by passersby greeting the professor – colleagues from the local university and its sister institutions elsewhere in Kosovo; relatives and well-wishers, offering our host “respekt”; and an instrument vendor, who insisted on the professor’s demonstrating his prowess on the qifteli, a long-necked, two-stringed local guitar – so I was delighted when I heard myself greeted, as we took our place at the café, by a Kosovar of my own acquaintance from the French-speaking region of Switzerland, who happened to be in town to visit family.

The Israeli poet and I were in Prishtinë on the last leg of a three-day stay in Kosovo. Our time had been spent not in the capital but in the town of Pejë, in the northwest of the country near the borders with Montenegro and Albania, once a significant stop on the trade route between Dubrovnik and Istanbul. We had been attending a literary festival there, taking part in readings, lectures, and a dizzying round of awards ceremonies. Most of the writers in attendance – largely poets – were “ethnic” Albanians, from the eponymous country to the west, from the significant minority community in Macedonia, to the south, as well as from Kosovo itself, our host.

The independence of that republic had been famously won in the waning years of the last millennium, by means of a NATO-supplied intervention; had been declared in the first decade of the new millennium, in the face of virulent, occasionally murderous opposition from the Serbia of which it was a de facto exclave; and existed now effectively as a protectorate of the European Union and the United States. This recent history was evident in the republic’s official iconography: a statue of Bill Clinton, arm raised prophetically like a jovial Lenin, greets motorists entering Prishtinë from the airport, while streets bear the Albanicized, and thus uncannily estranged names of local/global figures like Uesli Klark and Toni Bleri.

I had been invited to attend the festival as a Swiss poet – by residence and adopted citizenship, if not by birth – by an old friend, a writer and cultural functionary from Tirana whom I had met years before at an international conference on minority languages in Macedonia and who had subsequently translated and published some of my poems in Albanian. She had also asked a number of other “international” writers, the Israeli as well as an Austrian, an Italian, and a mini-delegation of two Frenchmen. Our role was evidently to leaven an otherwise exclusively Albanian program, featuring on several occasions poetry of nationalist lament and raw protest at the depredations of the Serbian oppressor, as well as to bear witness to the refined and civilized, “European” nature of the proceedings, interspersed as they were with visits to art galleries and performances by local musicians and dancers, and serving as a showcase of provincial talent and refinement.

And that is what the professor’s wife would ask us later that day – or rather, what she would ask me, since we alone shared the one non-Albanian language she had learned as a medical student in Germany, while the professor and the Israeli poet had to make do in English, easy enough for her, halting for him: “Did you think we were barbarians,” she asked, from the back seat of the professor’s car: “did you think the Albanians of Kosovo were barbarians, when you read about the fighting in Prishtinë?”

From the café we had headed for the airport – or so I thought – where the Israeli poet and I had planes to catch; and I replied reflexively, in a conciliatory mood dictated in part by my gratitude for their mobile hospitality, that no, of course I hadn’t: I was not in the habit of judging entire peoples by the actions of their military, their government, or their political representatives. The more truthful answer, however, would have pleased the professor’s wife even more, while transgressing the very same noble principles I had just espoused: because in fact, if I had thought about the Kosovo conflict for long at the time, during a period of my life preoccupied by finishing graduate school and becoming a father, I would likely have applied the label “barbarian”, if to anyone, then to her people’s adversaries, the “Serb” citizens of what is now ex-Yugoslavia, intent as they had apparently been on stymying their ethnic Albanian fellow citizens’ project of self-determination by any means necessary, the legitimacy of the “Serb” campaign tainted in the west, then as now, by the dreadful stain of “ethnic cleansing” and the murderously nationalist campaigns of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, as well as of Slobodan Milošević, one of whose last acts in power had been to decree the construction of an enormous orthodox church to lower over the faculty of arts and sciences in downtown Prishtinë. Now, as we sped past the US Embassy, with what looked like a military encampment adjacent to it, and as I glimpsed yet another black marble memorial to fallen Albanian militants, their heroic profiles etched into the stone above the date of their death at the hands of Serbian militia, I wondered if I had ever understood the nature of the conflict, and whether I wasn’t currently subject to a partisan historiography.

The professor’s wife, at any rate, was satisfied with my response, and sat back next to her daughter, who resumed regaling us with renditions of chart toppers, dancing in her seat to the music of various bygone stars, while the professor explained to the poet and me that, while we would of course eventually arrive at the airport in good time for our flights, he wanted to make a detour to his father’s village first.

We acquiesced, uneasily, as we watched the highway before us bend away from signs bearing the international icon of a departing aircraft and take us farther into the undeveloped countryside. On the horizon were the cliffs we had driven into two days earlier, with the rest of the conference attendees, to visit the famed Rugova Gorge and to enjoy a luncheon in a mountain lodge served by staff sporting the traditional local costume, below wooden carvings of eagles, the eponymous heraldic fowl of the Shqip, as Albanians call themselves. One of our waiters there had reappeared the next day, swaddled in the same rough woolen shepherd’s gear, onstage at the municipal theatre, where we had assembled for a gala poetry reading-cum-final awards ceremony and danced tribute to the festival’s late honoree. On that subsequent occasion the waiter had accompanied every reading with improvised music produced on blades of grass, lending the proceedings the rustic, handmade tone of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Tintin’s adventures in the fictional Balkan land of Syldavia, even as we international poets were summoned to receive tokens of appreciation from modishly dressed municipal attachés and cell-phone brandishing state deputy ministers.

Here was the twin burden of Kosovar public relations, I had thought as I sat in the audience that evening, awaiting my call to the stage: to insist on the ancient and venerable roots of the once oppressed and vilified Albanian culture in Kosovo while at the same time proving the young nation’s legitimacy, indeed viability among modern nations, not only in the eyes of the international community, its military birth-helpers, but more crucially under the baleful gaze of its elder siblings in the Shqip homeland on the Adriatic, ever alert to missteps by the fledgling satellite in its precarious roundelay with former foes and the ghosts of its own history. And our current detour, as our distance from the airport increased now, served the same dual purpose: to demonstrate the republic’s all-mod-cons cred, emblematized by the efficient system of highways that would allow us a jaunt in the country on our way to a punctual departure from a well-functioning international airport, even as we were given evidence of ethnic autochthony and patriotic sacrifice, emblazoned in the very soil and performed in newfangled “folk” traditions, like the dance we had taken part in the night before, on a town square surrounded by reminders of the valorous dead.

This autochthony had been the gist of a lecture at Pejë town hall on the first day of the festival, delivered by a specialist in Illyrian history from the University of Prizren, in southern Kosovo: not only had the Shqip people, she maintained, in their ancestral territory stretching from Kosovo across Macedonia and Montenegro to Albania on the Mediterranean, been subject to centuries of occupation by Ottomans and Serbs; not only were their expatriate communities in northern Greece currently threatened by demographic decimation (AKA linguistic assimilation); but they may in fact, suggested the ardently nationalist, not to say revanchist historian, have been the descendants of the legendary Dardans – their name a patronymic derived from the son of Illyrius, the eponymous father of the race, himself the son of Cadmus, the first king of Thebes – and thus a species of Ur-Hellene.

Perhaps, I reflected later, when the lecture, delivered in Albanian, was summarized and related to me in English by a helpful fellow attendee, this was the reason for my translator friend’s insistence that I follow the lecture with a reading of a poem I had written some years before, and which she had rendered in Albanian for a collection of poetry by authors connected to PEN International. It was her favorite of my poems, she told me.

“A Cistern Full of Greeks” had been composed in 2004 in Istanbul, during a tenth-anniversary visit there with my wife that had featured a frustrated attempt to locate the grave of a celebrated dervish, and had been inspired by a trip to the Yerebatan or Basilica Cistern, a subterranean Byzantine reservoir near the Hagia Sophia in central Istanbul, built by Justinian I in the 6th century CE when the city was still the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.


Down here you see your breath, if not your feet.


A wooden gangway leads you, once descended, through the gloom,

From portico to watery portico

Along a street below the street above,

The Turkish afternoon of cigarettes and tea

Receding brightly with each careful step.


Not far beneath the boards, a brackish pool

Malingers on despite Byzantium’s demise:

The advent of another thirsty horde

Of visitors preserves it, 16 centuries beyond its birth.

The walk meanders, left and right-angling along

Through all the stone preserve, past awkward pedagogy and

Attempts at rendering this place more mythic

Than the workaday container that it was:

A store of ghosts instead of drink.


Until you reach the leftmost port,

Where ghouls robbed from their homes do double duty:

Medusas brought to heel by ancient practical hands,

One rightway up, the other sidewise laid.

And notice now the voices all around you:

The colour-coded umlauts you’d begun to beat in time to

Lost now amid the hiss and rattle of another shore, the ex and pros

And brekekekex that claim this cellar for its attic space,

This topsy-turvy forest petrified by topsy-turvy fiends,

This final headland of a vanished empire, gone aground against

The ceaseless rushing of a world that would not turn to stone.


Perhaps what appealed to my friend about this poem was its account of the persistence of a submerged, allegedly vanquished or “cleansed” identity – in this case the Byzantine, personified in the Greek tourists clustered around a toppled statue of a deity, beneath the Ottoman city; the Greek standing in for the Albanian, similarly submerged for centuries beneath an “alien” occupier. That Albanian identity had now been revived here in Kosovo but, unlike its Greek avatar in my poem, chagrined at the failure of its monuments to withstand the pressures of history, it was busily erecting durable memorials to its heroes: a stone statue of Skanderbeg, the 15th-century champion of the Albanians against the Ottomans, sits astride his horse on a central plaza in Prishtinë across from a gigantic likeness of Ibrahim Rugova, the nascent republic’s 20th-century first president. In my friend’s case the situation was further complicated by the fact that she is the child of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, and had come of age in Enver Hoxha’s hermetic Albanian communist state: and was thus heir to a multiple legacy of cultural clandestinity.

In the meantime we had passed through the professor’s ancestral village and were following a tertiary road past an escarpment to follow a slight rise in the terrain, until we were crawling along a dirt track between overhanging bushes and negotiating a sharp turn into what had once been an estate, encircled by crumbling brick walls and offering entrance through a rusted iron gate. There were no buildings visible as the professor drew the car to a halt, bade us all climb out, and began unloading the provisions he had collected during two extra stops on our way: a heavy bag containing börek pastry and cartons of ayran, a buttermilk drink, from a local bakery; a rough army blanket and a qifteli, the instrument on which the professor had earlier demonstrated his proficiency, from the family home in a hill above Prishtinë; and a small carton of books. We began to trudge into the stand of trees that crested the estate.

We passed a number of peculiarly squat, windowless brick structures, evidently newly built but tumbling into piles of loose bricks on one side, as if molting: and in frustration at his inability to explain their purpose in English, and our inability to understand his explanations in Albanian, the professor relented and began speaking to the Israeli poet in Serbian, the language of his people’s quondam oppressors, in which he was of course fluent, having been raised and educated in what was then the Serbian Socialist Republic in Yugoslavia; and which the Israeli poet could understand, since her parents had been Slavic Jews from Sofia. She responded to the professor in Bulgarian, a near relative of Serbo-Croatian, and relayed to us his account of the place: once his father’s home, until the buildings that had stood there had been razed by Serbian tanks during reprisals for the Kosovar declaration of independence in the 1990s. The windowless structures were in fact repositories of the very bricks from which they were made, fired and stored on site for the eventual renovation of the estate.

We found a clearing in the woods, spread the rough blanket on the grass, and decked it with the treats we had carried: the börek, the ayran, and the books, which were volumes of essays and poetry by the professor himself and by his father, also an academic, intended as gifts for us. And as we sat there, surveying our renatured surroundings, the professor hoisted his qifteli, tuned it, and began to play a series of airs, by turns melancholy and spritely.

And as he played, favoring us with a display of finesse, erudition, and hospitality amid the souvenirs of sectarian brutishness, I recalled a much earlier episode in my life in which I had encountered a similarly genteel response to incivility. Many years ago, on a rainy summer day in Basel, my wife and I – this was long before our tenth anniversary; we may in fact not yet have been married – having been in quest of the Totentanz mural were now wandering along the Rhine, looking for a place to have a late-afternoon drink. We stopped into a likely-looking Beiz, or pub, in a small side street off the riverfront, only to find that there were no tables free; and as we were turning to leave, a party of three men noticed us, and beckoned us over to join them at their round table, where there was still place for at least two more guests.

The trio were cousins from Turkey, they explained, and were in town because their uncle was in hospital in Basel; he had in fact just that very day been subject to a complicated ophthalmological procedure, and they were currently celebrating the successful completion of the operation. They frowned slightly at our order of two lowly Stangen, small draught beers, and from a bag beneath the table produced a large bottle of rakı they had brought with them from Turkey: the strong anise liquor, they insisted, would make a more appropriate toast to their uncle’s health; and they called the waitress over, to explain the situation, bid her bring us the appropriate glasses for their liquor, and offer her a share as well.

To their consternation, however, though not to ours, inured as we were to Helvetian punctiliousness, the waitress not only refused their request, but summarily commanded them to leave the pub, citing a municipal ordinance of the 1970s that prohibited the import of non-licensed alcohol into a commercial establishment.

The crestfallen Turks gathered their belongings, settled their bill – as well as ours, over our abashed protests – and were on the point of departing when, apparently heeding a resolution reached in silent confab, they invited us to join them for dinner, which they proposed to take at a restaurant nearby run by yet another relative.

We agreed, anxious as we were to disassociate ourselves from what seemed suddenly a pack of xenophobes and to demonstrate solidarity with our ill-treated brethren, and followed them to their kinsman’s premises. There, over the next few hours, we enjoyed a lavish dinner composed of dishes not on the workaday menu, enlivened by several supplementary bottles of rakı and the sort of light-hearted, inconsequential conversation in which strangers may indulge who are eager to prove their goodwill and civilization. (An emaciated belly dancer may also have been on hand, if memory serves.) Nevertheless, in the course of our friendly badinage, enflamed by drink and emboldened by the recent acquisition of a master’s degree in classical literature, I cockily reminded our hosts that the Istanbul they called home, and of which they were currently singing the praises, had not so very long ago been named Constantinople, and had been the pride of the Hellenistic world, until the Ottomans had laid siege to The City, or “Polis”, and allegedly bestowed its current name by chanting in Greek outside the walls “Eis ten polin!” – “Into the city!” – as they battered away at its venerable gates, frightening the wits out of the inhabitants of what would become “Is-tan-bul”.

Upon which one of the Turks, with a wink at my wife and a glint of benevolent mischief in his eyes, asked me whether I knew who had been living in my own native homeland of Canada before the arrival of my European forebears, considerably less long ago than the 1453 of Sultan Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople; indeed, who were the indigenous people living there still, and under what straitened circumstances.

I was chastened. I am to this day. And when I recall my visit to Kosovo, and the civility to which I was treated there by survivors of one of the 20th century’s nastier “civil” wars, I am inclined not to inquire too openly into the popular accounts of how this or that present-day polity came to exist, lest I be exposed in my own mythopoeic bricolage. Writing about the reconstruction of nations in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder cautions historians against an engagement with nationalist myth-making: “Refuting a myth is dancing with a skeleton: one finds it hard to disengage from the deceptively lithe embrace once the music has begun, and one soon realizes that one’s own steps are what is keeping the old bones in motion.” In Kosovo, those skeletons live in curious windowless structures dotting the landscape of a former family estate, the repositories of the same bricks out of which they are made. The skeletons are revealed as their dwellings are disassembled, with the rise of a new world in ancient stone.