e enjte, 24 dhjetor 2009

Who Killed the Sultan?
by Robert Murray Davis
7 December 2009
Translations of little-known Albanian oral epics add another dimension to the endless conversation over the Battle of Kosovo.

The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic. Introduction by Anna Di Lellio; translations by Robert Elsie. I. B. Tauris, 2009.

Rudyard Kipling may have been right when he wrote that “There are nine and 60 ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right,” but as Anna Di Lellio shows in the masterly introduction to these translations of eight Albanian variants of the story of Sultan Murat and a Balkan Christian hero, there can be at least as many ways of understanding, interpreting, and using or misusing them.

Di Lellio, a sociologist, journalist, and university professor with extensive experience in Kosovo, thinks that some of those ways can be politically and psychologically damaging. She has several related purposes in her commentary on these poems sung by Albanian preservers of a centuries-old oral tradition, about (sometimes admittedly) legendary events grounded in the historical battle outside Pristina in 1389 that cleared the way for the Ottoman empire’s further expansion into the Balkans. First, and possibly least important for the general reader, is to present these poems, in facing pages of Albanian and English, to a broader audience. More broadly, she tries “to rescue them from marginalization as folklore, or from turning them into a new prison for collective memory,” managed by “memory entrepreneurs” with axes to grind. Given the complexities of Balkan history, the second is probably, and unfortunately, impossible, since many Serb commentators “have reduced Serbian history and politics to a story” in which facts must give way to “uninterrupted remembrance.”


Most important for the observer of contemporary politics is Di Lellio’s analysis of the significance for Albanians of the ways in which the story of Murat’s death helps to create a national narrative by establishing their nation, and more broadly their people, as a part of Balkan resistance against Turkish invasion and, by extension, as part of European Christendom – and, not incidentally, resident in Kosovo from prehistoric times. Strategically this is important because, she says, Serbs have used Albanian allegiance to Islam to support an exclusive claim to Kosovo that “goes almost always undisputed in western diplomatic and intellectual circles.” The counter-claim by a young Kosovar I recently met that his country (greater Albania?) is 40 percent Catholic, 40 percent Muslim – figures that would be a surprise to the compilers of the CIA World Factbook – is clearly an attempt to refute the Serb position.

The complementary Serbian and Albanian poetic narratives pose many contradictions, most obviously the name and nationality of the hero who killed Murat even as the Ottoman forces were victorious on the field of battle. No historical authority seems to support either side. In Serbian epics, he is a Serb called Milos Obilic and early in the last century and during and after the battles following the dissolution of Yugoslavia he “evoked a medieval past of national greatness.” In Albanian, the hero is named Millosh Kopiliq, an Albanian who was for centuries a local folk hero who became part of the national narrative during the Kosovan struggle for independence, useful as indicating a Western identity before what is referred to as the long parenthesis of Islamic domination and conversion, and a complement to the contemporary figure of the slain Kosovo Liberation Army commander Adem Jashari as a symbol of armed resistance.

Of much later date, this painting glorifies the Ottomans’ enemies in the
Battle of Kosovo even as it captures the convoluted course of that day’s events.

As might be expected in the Balkans, since we are dealing with human beings, neither side can fully agree among its own cohorts. Albanians are ambivalent about whether Islam is bad in the West/good, East/bad Manichean dichotomy or whether “multi-confessionalism” and religious tolerance (which much resembles indifference) is the more profitable stance, especially if it is vaguely Christian. Or, as De Lellio puts it, whether “Muslim identity … is conceived as foreign, or as constitutive of the nation.” At one point, there was some discussion in Kosovo about mass conversion to Catholicism, though it came to nothing. Especially in the period after 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, that discussion was likely, and perhaps calculated, to appeal to the European Union and the United States.

The Slav-Albanian battle over facts and interpretations extends far beyond the use and misuse of these epics from the oral tradition. Di Lellio points to the controversy over entries about Albania in the Enciklopedija Jugoslavije, published in Croatia in 1980, after which the Serbs demanded that the reference to Albanian descent from the ancient Illyrians be deleted in an obvious attempt to demonstrate the Albanians had no historical place in and therefore right to Kosovo. Almost 30 years later, a similar battle has erupted over the new Macedonian encyclopedia which refers to Albanians, who make up about a quarter of Macedonia’s population, as Shqiptars – a term that Albanians consider derogatory when used by outsiders – and as primitive people who came from the mountains.

The prime minister of Albania condemned “the racist, anti-Albanian doctrines of our neighbors [which] are based on the need to find an identity, because those who fake history just confirm that they are searching for their own identity. Albanians are not.” An Albanian rights group spokesman said the reference work “jeopardized interethnic harmony in Macedonia.” Cynical observers will be surprised that he has been able to find some. In any case, the offending entries will be deleted.

In the 1990s, a friend joined me in Vienna to travel to Hungary. She asked, “Why can’t these people over here just get along with each other?” “We’re only going to be here two weeks,” I said. “I can’t possibly explain it in that short a time.” More than a dozen years later, I still can’t. Anna Di Lellio deals with some of the causes, but she is really interested in furthering “the democratic project” of “deconstructing a national creed.” People of good will, not always easy to find in any region, can only wish her luck.
Transition Online

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