Fear: A Style Guide

Posted on February 2, 2014

I always enjoy it when Google News goes democratic and features, right below something from the BBC or New York Times, blog entries from the sort of sites that allege (in green Comic Sans) that the Queen of England is a reptilian shape-shifter.

Today’s example greeted me when I loaded the “Kosovo” section of my newsreader. Though (unfortunately) offering no paranormal speculations, Julia Gorin’s “Our Muslim Kosovo: Throw Mormons From The Stairs” column — published at a U.S. outfit called “Right Side News” (get it?) — was a treasure in its own right, as charmingly mid-2000s as a white studded belt.

Written from a “War on Terror” perspective for a U.S. Mormon/Evangelical audience, Gorin’s column connects a 2013 incident in which two Mormon missionaries were assaulted in Prishtina to the 2004 unrest, concluding that Kosovar Albanian “usurpers” (the country having been stolen at gunpoint, it is implied, from Orthodox Serbs) represent a terrifying new front in the global war between Muslims and Christians.

“Who’s sleeping less peacefully at night,” wonders the Right Side News columnist, “Kosovo’s Albanians? […] Or Kosovo’s non-Albanians, because the Albanians habitually set their houses, schools, and churches on fire?”

The absurd masks the malevolent. When Goya painted The Witches’ Sabbath in 1798, he did it to mock the fanatics who were escalating their Inquisition in his native Spain. Do they really, the grotesque, infant-sacrifice depicting work tempted one to ask, believe this shit? Lunatic religious inversions tempting peasant women to leave their beds at midnight (don’t forget your keys) and go consort with bloodthirsty goat-gods? The necessity of wars of faith?

I read these sorts of things about Libya, but I wasn’t there. I read them about Iraq, but I wasn’t there. I am in Kosovo, however, and remember the incident in question. It was a sad and squalid event, and it was reported as such. It did not reflect broad cultural trends, and was condemned whenever it was mentioned. It is difficult for outsiders to research the incident now, because it has entered the geo-folklore of sites like jihadwatch.com and creepingsharia.wordpress.com and been canonized as just another Islamic incursion on all that is good in Christendom.

Here’s the narrative: The war of 1999 was a shabby little sequel to the glorious struggles of Europe against Ottoman Islam. A corrupt cabal of traitorous world leaders allowed a chunk of Orthodox Europe to return to the nefarious Turks. There is no point wondering about the role played by the protests of 1981, or the push for the status of a Yugoslav republic during the 1970s, because this narrative has no room for those things. It has room for two things, two religions, and it derives its power from their constant war.

If these narratives weren’t appealing, they wouldn’t exist. The desire for an eternal and cosmic conflict is at the foundation of our greatest myths. God and the Devil, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, He-Man and Skeletor. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always conform to this template, offering ambiguity where we wish for precision and isolated data-points where we want symbolic connections. It takes a great deal of rhetorical effort to crush the solitary incidents of one’s Google News feed into a satisfyingly mythic mold — but it can be done. It’s actually interesting how it’s done, which is why we have, using Ms. Gorin’s column as our reference, compiled this brief but serviceable style guide. This is how to employ fear, repulsion, and panic — all reliable and useful human qualities — so as to transform a bare-bones wire story into the stuff of legend.

1. Start Strong 

The headline is the first point of entry for your reader and hopeful war-ally, so it needs to be nice and robust. You cannot equivocate; there is no room for words like “some,” “might” or “allegedly.” For this to work, the headline must be a story in and of itself. In the case of “Our Muslim Kosovo: Throw Mormons From The Stairs,” we find several potent narratives intertwined in the space of eight words. First, Kosovo is “ours” (why do we have that?); second, it’s Muslim (9/11!); third, they are apparently throwing Mormons down the stairs over there. That’s horrible. Why would anyone throw a person down the stairs? Someone could get hurt. In terms of concision, Right Side News’ headline approaches haiku. It’s a masterpiece.

2. Shadowy Saboteurs

We humans only have five senses, and they — especially when compared to those of our animal counterparts — can seem limited and inaccurate. We don’t always know everything that is going on around us, and this produces anxiety and unease. To further this sense of disquiet, it is useful to imply that the information you are getting is a special communiqué, or that shadowy and evil agents may have tried to prevent you from receiving it. In Ms. Gorin’s case, this effort takes the form of a warning that reports of the 2013 assault were “kept quiet and out of the news” for almost two weeks. But who would do such a thing? Who would conceal such an evil act for their own purposes? This question forms the essential clay from which one’s personal devil will be molded, so it is important that it be raised.

3. Everything Is Weird And People Are Lying

By now, you are entering the rabbit hole. You are aware that a bad and perplexing event has happened, and are becoming concerned that its truth is being warped by forces in the darkness. The next step, then, is to increase the reader’s suspicion that they were lied to. This undercuts one’s confidence, and furnishes the sense of lost-ness in which panic occurs. In Gorin’s piece, this sensation is provided by a dispute concerning the designator “Albanian”; essentially, she becomes upset that the original news report called the perpetrators of the assault “Albanians.” Calling the 600-year-old, used-in-this-region-forever term an “oh-so-controversial identifier,” Gorin wonders why they weren’t referred to as “former Yugoslavs,” “Kosovars,” or “people in Serbia.” This last option, of course, is a little much, and threatens to reveal her mythic structure as the simple war-bias that it is… but it’s effective. For a provincial U.S. audience, all of these terms will be foreign-seeming and confusing. Who are these people? What is an “Albanian”? What’s going on? Once you attach the confusion and fear outlined above to an actual group-signifier, you can move on to the creation of the next emotion: Disgust.

4. Give Details

Fear and unease are satisfying, but like so many primordial feelings, they have a nagging tendency to request climax. It is not enough to know that bad things are going on and that bad people are doing them — that’s too vague. On it’s own, fear will merely leave your reader feeling disoriented and purposeless. This is hardly the stuff of good soldiers. In this as in other titillating genres, you need the “money shot.” You need that point when unseen and powerful compulsions erupt suddenly into the physical world, and in this article it takes the form of a flashlight. The missionaries were beaten with flashlights. As climaxes go, it’s sort of disappointing — maybe even comical, after the fact. But isn’t that the case with so many climaxes? The important thing is, a hard object struck soft flesh and pain occurred. The direct impact is a proxy for the larger impact, like how an idol is a proxy for a god. These things can and will hurt people. The establishing of this point is crucial.

5. But That’s Not All

It would hurt to be hit with a flashlight, especially one of those big Mag-Lite ones. Those things are heavy. But whatever your choice of physical climax, it is important to remind your reader that the event depicted is actually the least of their worries. You are lucky if you only get hit by a flashlight, fortunate if you merely need your head shaved and stitched (the inclusion of this detail, derived from the medical treatment received by the assault victims, is genius: the shaving of womens’ heads is an ancient humiliation-tactic, and was used on women suspected of consorting with Nazis in occupied France. The older your symbols, the more power they will have). In this case, the mysterious “Albanians” who assaulted the missionaries were also arrested for planning a terrorist attack. Police (also Albanians, but including that detail detracts from the required dualism) found handguns, sniper rifles and explosives at the suspects’ houses. In a way, thank the Lord that it was only flashlights! These guys are up to way worse things than that. Something should really be done about them.

6. As Above, So Below

The quote “as above, so below” comes from alchemist lore, and refers to the idea that all things are connected, that very large things are reflected in very small things and vice versa. When creating your myth, don’t actually say it like that (it seems weird and esoteric and like the sort of thing most people aren’t involved with) but you need to mold your story’s conclusion to its contours. In “Our Muslim Kosovo: Throw Mormons From The Stairs,” the writer did this very successfully: Albanians, she reminds us, are Muslims (this, of course, is neither universally true nor any matter of policy or law, but she is telling a story here). Not only are they Muslims, but they are very, very big Muslims. Quoting a source who apparently requested that her name not be mentioned (good tactic), Gorin’s article states that “Kosovo is a Muslim country…religion is not just a faith for them — it is a culture”. If this sentence was ever actually spoken, anyone familiar with this area would probably conclude that it reflects the curious status of Islam in Kosovo, how it often serves as a cultural touchstone or component of Albanian identity rather than an observed-to-the-letter creed. Gorin’s column is not for people familiar with this area, though, and to them it would reflect the idea that these “Albanians” are some of the most whole-heartedly Muslim of all Muslims and that everything one might normally associate with Muslims (almost all bad things, for this audience) is doubly true in terms of these “Albanians.”

Thus the mythic circle is completed and the devil revealed: Kosovo is ultra-Muslim, is Muslim in the worst way, and everybody is trying to hide this from you. Where you were once full of confusion and unease, you are now full of martial certainty: Let’s do something. Let’s solve this problem. Let’s get up and fight. Unlike the murky, suspicious emotions that surround disquiet and fear, the ones surrounding actual violence are brisk and satisfying. There is an enemy. The enemy has tried to hide itself and confound us, but we have seen through its charades. We know who and what it is, and now there is only one thing to do.

In the best stories, and for the worst audiences, there is always only one thing to do. Are not our favorite stories the life-like ones? Shouldn’t stories behave in the way that lives do?

Shouldn’t they end?

(This post originally appeared at kosovotwopointzero.com)


Kosovo Quits Smoking*

Posted on June 3, 2013

The Power Stations at Obilic, Kosovo.There are times, here in Kosovo, where it can be nice to be reminded of home. I will confess that I derive a comical and inordinate amount of satisfaction from the tiny Petro-Canada logo at the corner of a billboard near Qafa. I get a kick out of seeing a small boy rocking a Montreal Expos cap in the traditional red, white, and blue. But sometimes it’s not quite so warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s annoying as hell.

On April 4, Kosovo – in keeping with modern norms and prejudices – adopted a series of anti-smoking laws that prevent people from smoking in cafés, bars, and “public areas”. As has been the case in Canada (or at least my part of Canada) since 2008, dépanneurs (or, “corner stores,” for those not from my part of Canada) must conceal their racks of cigarettes and tobacco products beneath a blank expanse of cardboard. This has the double effect of preventing, in a Victorian-ladies-covering-table-legs fashion, the seduction of the innocent by entities such as Joe Camel, as well as the potential recognition that these products are not being sold out of mere sadism, but rather to satisfy demand.

Smoking is a vice, and as such it is dangerous. This should almost go without saying. Smoking belongs to that category of human behaviors that begins with staying up past your bedtime and ends with Aztec sacrifice-parties. It goes against the desire to sustain oneself and dips its toe into some dark and chilly waters, exciting the nerves. It has a little death in it.



We have always known this. One of the great conceits of the modern world is that we are only now escaping from a long period of benightedness and ignorance, and that an enormous number of ancient folkways must be overturned in light of our new knowledge. It’s a revolutionary idea, of course, and it comes from revolutionary times – from 18th-century France, to be specific. It’s an exciting, emboldening concept whose only drawback is that it prevents us from deriving any custom or confidence from our past. According to this idea, it’s always a bright new day; the perfect time to cast off shackles and reverse course. This is how modern people, as well as goldfish, live their lives.

Photo Credit: Angie Hu, Flickr.com

“The personal is political!”

In 1575, in Mexico, the Catholic Church banned smoking in places of worship across the realm. In 1612, Chinese authorities banned the cultivation and use of tobacco products by Royal decree. Five years later, in Mongolia, the Khanate introduced the death penalty for smoking. In 1633, Turkish Sultan Murad IV found himself executing up to 18 people per day for this particular crime.

These were not anomalies. The 17th century saw the introduction of broad and heavy-handed smoking bans in Switzerland, Bhutan, Connecticut, England, and Russia. In 1904, before Mike Bloomberg was even born, A New York woman was sentenced to one month in jail for smoking in front of her children. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany gave us the term “passive smoking,” which is still a favorite of those championing the current round of laws.

Flying in the face of the “everyone thought it was great but now we know better” narrative, these laws predate the many studies that have linked tobacco smoking to lung cancer, hypertension, emphysema, and heart disease. Many of them predate the scientific method itself. So why did they exist?

We all know what vices look like. We have always been able to tell the (placid, complacent) pleasures that derive from self-upkeep from the (spiky, subversive) ones which do not. We have always known what it looks like to enjoy a little death, and it seems like both the desire to do so and the desire to prevent people from doing so are essential and deep-rooted aspects of our nature.

There are aspects of the current legal situation that I do not find unpleasant. It is nice, for instance, to return home from a few rounds at the pub and not smell like Tom Waits’ curtains. It is perhaps acceptable for abstaining café employees to be able to maintain both their health and their employment. There is no doubt that part of the current anti-smoking craze derives from real issues of personal well-being and public salubrity.

There is also no doubt, at least in my mind, that it contains a sizeable measure of good old-fashioned moralism as well.

Witness, for example, the furor that surrounds the “e-cigarette”: a device which allows smokers to enjoy their particular vice without inhaling or exhaling any actual smoke. In France, Health Minister Marisol Touraine has confirmed her intention to ban the public use of these devices, citing things like “the example it sets for children.” In California, officials have cited unnamed authorities who “share concerns” that the water vapors emitted by these devices “may” be harmful in a similar manner to second-hand smoke, even though a 2009 FDA study concluded that this is definitively not the case.

Taboos and customs change more rapidly and more dramatically than do our bodies. In places, for instance, where smoking has become socially undesirable, I notice that many people seem willing to insist that they suffer from unique and powerful conditions which cause cigarette smoke to cause more bother to them than it presumably does for the rest of us. In Toronto and San Francisco (two of the most self-consciously “modern” of modern cities), people cough ostentatiously and claim mysterious allergies. In Belgrade and Pristina (and even Vienna or Paris), where smokers have not yet attained the public status of plague carriers, such terrible ailments are visibly rarer. In the Toronto of 1985, my own mother smoked widely, regularly, and without being reduced to an object of pity and scorn.

"Wide-open town, baby."

“Wide-open town, baby.”

Perhaps evolution has, in accordance with recent public health studies, decided to accelerate from its usual glacial pace, causing rapid, conveniently-timed mutations to arise in the space of decades. Perhaps an oppressed majority have been suffering in silence for much of the 20th century, and only now have been (to use another great modern trope) “given a voice.”

Or perhaps we just enjoy and derive status from enforcing taboos.

"It's really for the children, more than anything."

“Think of the children.”

There is something anarchic and unstable about vice. In Europe and North America, vast numbers of people live without any sense that there may be an “afterlife”; without any suspicion that the consciousness within us may be part of something greater than the momentary flicker of our individual lives. In such an environment, it is perhaps inevitable that the public ethos will disproportionately favor the prolonging of life, conflating good health with goodness itself.

Even in the past, though, where the endless, haunted twilight of traditional life promised angels and devils and eternity to all, we still perceived something malignant about smoking, and about the general sub-grouping of human pleasures to which it belongs. For rulers, would-be rulers, and those who prioritize the stability of self-upkeep over the raw, jagged thrills of vice, there is something about the smoking of tobacco that has always seemed dangerously disordered. Once we admit that people desire something other than (to borrow a phrase from a particularly utopian modern fiction) to “live long and prosper”, a vast, dark gulf opens up beneath the foundations of our self-understanding, and threatens to swallow us whole.

"So is this, like... someone's birthday?"

“So is this, like… someone’s birthday?”

Kosovo wants nothing more than to be modern. At the center of her capital, a towering sign informs both locals and visitors that this country is “Newborn.” In the place of the strange and ancient double-headed eagle that adorns the Albanian flag, Kosovo’s Albanians have chosen, for their own banner, a vague, EU-aspiring combination of a map and some stars. A state-funded promotional campaign has branded the inhabitants of this old and fractious land as “The Young Europeans.” So it’s not surprising that the smoking taboo, which is strongest at modernity’s enervated frontlines and weakest where traditional life still reigns, has come at last to these shores.

At the moment, people in Pristina seem to be greeting the new circumstance with a mixture of frustration and resignation. It’s not the first time that a foreign taboo has been imposed on this land, and it won’t be the last. Additionally, as noted above, it can – in certain cafés and restaurants – be something of a relief.

Just over the hill from Pristina, however, the twin power stations of Obilić continue to belch out fumes toxic enough to remain responsible for 63% of this country’s infant fatalities, and a huge contingent of ancient Mercedes diesels still force you to (essentially) smoke two packs of unfiltered Camels every time one changes gear in your vicinity. There is barely any public transport, and everyone drives everywhere. Depleted uranium from the wars of the 1990s contaminates the water supply.

So we’re not exactly healthy. Not yet. But we’re modern. Bar and restaurant owners can be fined thousands of euros if a stray Marlboro is consumed on their premises, and a telephone hotline has been set up to allow anonymous tipsters to voice their complaints.

In the absence of any particular respiratory or personal health benefits, I suppose we will just have to learn to enjoy the new circumstance for the mere taboo that it is.

But we’re good at that. We’ve always been very good at that.

It’s probably the oldest vice of them all.

Here Comes The Money

Posted on April 24, 2013

Photo Credit: kijasek / Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit: kijasek / Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Yesterday, I wrote about the recent agreement between Serbia and Pristina, and about how perhaps not every Serbian person in the world is totally over-the-moon about it.

In Mitrovica, 20,000 people gathered on Monday to say “No To The Brussels Agreement.” At the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, Patriarch Irinej told press that the deal “appears to mark the pure surrender […] of our most important territory in spiritual and historical terms.”

So it’s obviously kind of touchy. Not everyone is happy. The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch isn’t happy, and Tom Hanks (seriously) isn’t happy either. And even though the talks were sponsored by the European Union, Brussels is not the sort of entity to really delve into things like this, or to have officials make speeches about the theological nature of Serbia’s relationship to Kosovo. But that doesn’t mean that they’re doing nothing.

Early this morning, Bloomberg Media published a story detailing how the market surrounding Serbia’s benchmark bonds is responding to the agreement in a sharply positive manner. Bonds are kind of complicated, and what has actually happened is that the yield-to-maturity rate has fallen, making Serbian bonds less directly lucrative. In the occult world that is international finance, though, this is a good sign, as it means two things: money is flowing out of government bonds and into the markets, reflecting investor confidence, and the government can now borrow at a cheaper rate. Reflecting this good-if-ridiculously-complex news, the Serbian dinar made significant percentage gains against the euro as well.

These weird little equations and calculations, are, to a far greater degree than speeches or expressions of principle, the signals of power in the globalized order. Indeed, politics can sometimes be seen as a grand effort to hide the workings of this truer-than-words regime; though George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for instance, excite very different constituencies, the overall economic structure of the United States has not vastly changed between their presidencies. Things like gun laws, homosexual marriage, and the theological underpinnings of disputed European regions are worthy issues to debate, perhaps, and they do a lot to help politicians gain the support of whatever group of people they’re after… but the world of power remains one of numbers.

You have to follow the money. If you are curious about where political actors fall on certain issues, you have to follow the money. Because, in terms of the Serbia/Kosovo agreement, the powers-that-be have made their feelings known.

Quietly, indirectly, and in a strange and difficult code, they have spoken.

We Have A Deal

Posted on April 23, 2013

Photo Credit: inpristina.com

Photo Credit: inpristina.com

Last Friday, Belgrade and Pristina agreed to “normalize relations” between Serbia and its breakaway, independent-with-an-asterisk former territory of Kosovo. Like so many supposedly certain things here, this newest declaration is full of ambiguities, mismatched definitions, and opportunities for plausible denial.

It’s easy to be cynical about these things. When I arrived here, I was astonished at the degree to which Kosovo was willing to depend on vague assurances, “dialogues,” and other such questionable things. But it’s better than the alternative. When, I have come to realize, you see major world powers and organizations giving their imprimatur to these sorts of labored, dishonest-seeming constructions, its because they are concerned that guns will fire in their absence. All parties remain, for the moment, able to see their directly-opposed claims as being somehow independently true. This is the crucial thing.

Kosovo, for its part, is championing (officially, anyway – many Kosovars remain both distrustful and displeased) the current deal as a de facto recognition of its independence by Belgrade. If the protests in that capital, and the claims by the Serbian Orthodox church that the deal represents a “clear surrender” are anything to go by, this contains at least a measure of truth. In disputes such as this, you cannot call something a success merely because it is being lauded by its champions; you also have to check whether the other side is pissed off. And Serbia’s citizens and its historic national church most definitely are. According to one protester, the most important question raised by this resolution is how Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Daçic sleeps at night.

On the other hand, one can also claim that Serbia has exchanged a nominal and symbolic defeat for a vast array of practical, day-to-day, boots on the ground-type victories. In Kosovo’s north, which centers on the bifurcated city of Mitrovica, Serbia has been promised a series of permanent and far-reaching powers which ensure that Belgrade will have a significant say in the public life of Serbian North Mitrovica (and environs). In many ways, the Serbian population of that region will be able to essentially live and regard themselves as Serbians for perpetuity.

The talks that produced this deal were hosted, of course, by the European Union, and the incentive for both Kosovo and Serbia to come to terms with each other is the promise of eventual EU membership. In light of recent issues, one might wonder exactly how excited Brussels (or Berlin) is to welcome two countries with per-capita-GDPs (PPP) of $10,500 (Serbia) and $7,400 (Kosovo) to the union, but in this part of the world, the EU represents the best show in town, and so any hope is better than nothing.

The fact that this is an EU-sponsored deal, however, means that the question of partition – of Kosovo’s abandoning the disputed North to Belgrade in exchange for recognition of the remainder – is entirely off the table, and conspicuous by its absence. Europe has too many fractious states, too many local independence movements to set this type of precedent. In recent history, any mass movements toward the shifting of European borders have tended to take the form of world wars.

As a Canadian, and a citizen of a country whose history is short, pragmatic, and largely absent of ethereal claims, it is easy to tell oneself that this is all much easier than it is. On the streets of Pristina, the claim that “Kosovo is Serbia” seems strange, deluded, and pregnant with denial. But this isn’t Canada. This isn’t (what was once called) the New World. When Serbians say these things, they are not claiming that they, for example, set tax codes in Prizren, or operate the buses in Pristina. They are saying that, in the shadowy realm of national “essences,” Kosovo is tied to the Serbian state in an existential and dissoluble way. It goes back to the Middle Ages, and is essentially religious in nature. It’s a European thing, old and intractable. And it’s not going to vanish just because a group of elected officials say that it is otherwise.

It’s so easy to be cynical. But cynicism is abrupt and absolute, and qualities like abruptness and absoluteness, in the realm of politics, lead us to the point of conflict. As these negotiations continue, they are going to lead both Kosovo and Serbia to points at which both parties will have to abandon certain central claims. These talks will unavoidably produce a circumstance in which each side will have to redefine themselves in a far-reaching and existential manner. And they are unwilling to do this.

So we have a deal, I guess. We have an agreement.

But we also have a standoff.

Unchained Melodies

Posted on January 22, 2013

Photo Credit: B92

Photo Credit: B92

As per Edmund Burke, those who cannot remember the past may well be doomed to repeat it. But so are those who do remember it; who remember it obsessively and minutely, who pore over its many defeats and setbacks, who almost savor the righteous grief provided by its catalogue of shrieks and horrors. The recent spate of vandalisms, desecrations, and passive-aggressive incursions around Kosovo and Southern Serbia is not due to any failure of memory.

The other night, I went with a group of internationals (to use the Pristina shorthand) to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained at ABC Cinema, and it was entertaining. A Spaghetti Western with mythic overtones, let’s say, or an exquisitely realized cartoon. A Siegfried fresco in bloody watercolors. A fun night out.

It also, of course, was a graphic illustration of the doctrine which holds that severe maltreatment justifies fantastical and gory acts of vengeance. After the movie, when we adjourned to Paddy O’Brien’s for the requisite beery round-table, a professor friend told us of his students’ near-total reluctance to see their own (Kosovar Albanian) heroes and myths as being at all similar to those of their historical opponents.

Is this a luxury, maybe? A self-doubting equivocation available only to the rich and peaceful? To the “West”? For these kids, the very idea that their stories and those of their enemies were in any way related, in terms of rhetoric and structure, to those of the Serbs was entirely unacceptable. Ridiculous on its face. A spectacular blasphemy.

In Kosovo, it seems almost socially necessary to believe that one’s own people have, for a series of cruel and unjust reasons, been defamed and assaulted in a near-infinite fashion by an essentially demonic opponent. An opponent that has no motivation save the perverse desire to inflict suffering. This is true, of course, for people on both sides of the conflict, and it is this supposed truth that serves to turn destructive actions into justified retaliation.

In the last week, an array of Serbian Orthodox cemeteries were desecrated, in the dark of night, by (one can only assume) Kosovar Albanians. Not to be outdone, Serbian gendarmes in the southern border region of Presevo took it upon themselves, at seven in the morning, to remove an “illegally erected” (quotes placed not to deny the claim, but to emphasize its innate ambiguity) monument to 27 ethnic Albanian insurgents killed during the Presevo Valley uprising of 2000.

This arguably cowardly series of events all take place as the leaders of both Kosovo and Serbia meet for a series of historic talks whose goal is to come to a solution regarding Kosovo’s still-unofficial independence. Though it is difficult (read: impossible) to imagine a solution that would satisfy the demands of both factions, it is encouraging to see this discussion happen over a table rather than a battlefield.

You have to wonder, though, why these things are occurring at the same time, and after months of relative quiet. Is there some sort of symmetry that we, on whatever internal level, require of these situations? If we apply a certain degree of calm and measured “dialogue” (to use the currently fashionable term) to a situation, must it be counter-balanced by a soupçon of late-night explosives and early-morning bulldozers? Is this how people are? Is this what can’t help but come into being?

As always, I guess, we want it all. We want peace and prosperity – in this case symbolized by international approval and promises of EU membership – but we also want victory and glory. We want calm and order, but we also want the spectacular destruction of our enemies.

These recent occurrences are unsettling. As they were designed to be. On one level, they feel like skirmishes, or minor conflagrations, but on another they feel like a prelude.

I don’t know the difference between these two circumstances, or these two states of being. It seems like one of those paradoxes, one of those zombie cat things. It seems like it is not yet determined, and that it will only become clear after some future action.

One can’t help but be somewhat worried. We like to think of ourselves as masters of our own histories, or our trajectories, but all too often we are slaves. We are slaves to our slanted memories, we are slaves to our selective readings, and we are slaves to our battle-hardened hearts. In situations of any complexity, we are very often slaves to ourselves.

What do slaves wish to do to their masters?

Kosovo 1.0

Posted on December 19, 2012

Concerning the violent shutdown of Kosovo 2.0's "Sex" issue party.quoteLast Friday, a remarkable thing happened in Pristina. I mean that in the original sense, of course: a thing worthy of remark, or perhaps created solely to prompt remark, occurred here, and now everybody is talking about it.

As all of my local readers are already aware, I am referring to the violent cancellation of Kosovo 2.0’s “Sex” issue party, which was shut down by a mob of club-wielding thugs whilst police – according to eyewitness reports, if not official record – did noticeably less than they may have been expected to do, or less than they may have done in another jurisdiction. People got hurt. Things were destroyed. Luckily, it did not go any further than that. Because sometimes these things do.

What happened here? To speak very broadly, it was a skirmish; it was a fast and unexpected (to a degree) little incursion by the forces of traditionalism against those of (the circumstance we have largely agreed to call) modernity. It was a small, localized battle in a war that is global in scope. It was a raid.

What else was it? Well, this is where it gets a little more complicated. Multi-layered, fluid, pregnant with questions. This is where it gets… Balkan.

Let us first define it by its official response: According to Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, as well as a broad array of the acronym-organizations (UNMIK, EULEX, OSCE) that define Pristina’s institutional sphere, what happened on Friday was an organized attack on press freedom and on LGBT rights.

This is nearly impossible to argue. Following the raid on the Kosovo 2.0 party, the mob subsequently attacked persons associated with two of Kosovo’s (rare and embattled) gay-rights organizations. They screamed slogans beginning with “Allahu” and “Death to”. These people are not mysterious. We know who these people are and we know what they stand for, societally speaking. They are not pro-press freedom and they are not pro-gay rights. Everyone who has lived through the past few decades knows exactly what this particular cultural faction wants and doesn’t want to happen.

Women in Tehran, Iran, c. 2010

Women in Tehran, Iran, c. 2012.

But what did Kosovo 2.0 want to happen? In what manner did they choose to address the fact that Kosovo 1.0 – the actual Kosovo, the fraught, tenuous, “newborn” Republic of Kosovo – contains a certain number of individuals who will go to great lengths to prevent things like gay-rights groups and sex parties and cultural modernity from gaining any sort of foothold here? To what degree were the various best- and worst-case scenarios considered? And what were they?

Two days after the event, I found myself sitting with a friend in Pristina’s Dit e Nat café – a conspicuously “European” corner of the fractious and fractured city –discussing how it all went down. Things were fresh. People were talking, telling stories, repeating things. The grapevine was swollen with intoxicating wines.

The thing to remember here, I was told, is that while Kosovo 2.0’s efforts might have seemed merely “progressive” in Paris or Berlin or (my native) Montreal, in Pristina they were nothing short of radical. To propose a party like this was a radical act. To send out invitations – as they did – mentioning things like “masturbation bars, the prostitution industry […] Albanian male adolescence, homosexuality and war […] having sex while disabled,” was a very direct and very radical gesture toward a part of this city and region that they had to know was watching.

And that, in one sense, is OK. It’s OK because these sorts of cultural skirmishes really are part of a greater war, and in war, radical gestures can and must occur. Sometimes, these are the only things that move the front-lines, that gain ground and cause one’s enemy to lose face and to lose support and to diminish. Because Kosovo is still very much a “1.0” sort of thing, there is this enormous sense that its future nature has yet to be defined. Will Kosovo, in this particular area, possess the public mores of Berlin? Or will it default to the more circumscribed ones of, say, Istanbul? Will the traditionalists win, or will the modernists? Because “dialogue” and “sensitivity” and public-statements-of-acronym-organizations aside, someone always wins. And someone always loses.

Women in Tehran, Iran c. 1976.

Women in Tehran, Iran, c. 1976.

The trouble at this juncture, though, is that it’s hard to see any directly-involved parties as having “won” very much at all. I will state my own sympathies: I am a press-freedom absolutist. I am also a supporter of gay rights, both at home and here in Kosovo. As such, I rejoice in circumstances that advance these causes, and am troubled by those that imperil them. And I am not yet sure where this particular event will ultimately fall on that continuum.

Historically, one of the great blood libels leveled against homosexual men by religious conservatives has been that they support pederasty – sex with adolescent boys. “Pederasts” was one of the many words that followed “Death to” in the mob-cries of Friday’s raid. As such, I think one can reasonably question the responsibility of including “Albanian male adolescence” in a list of things that one’s “Sex” party is going to celebrate. Was this too much? Was this a dog-whistle meant to inflame traditionalists while internationals heard only the familiar language of LGBT rights? Or was it a well-aimed lancing of traditionalism’s stubborn boil, a principled act of defiance meant to communicate that no subject, no matter how taboo, will be silenced or suppressed in the new Kosovo?

This is where it gets difficult. Because though we are on one hand speaking of vast historical changes, of cultural shifts and radical actions and principled stances, on the other we are talking about a sexy holiday party held to promote a glossy magazine.

This is not to say that magazines cannot be political actors. They can. But they can also be opportunistic. They can benefit, in the sense of drawing publicity and public attention, from cultural schisms and divides, and they can benefit from remark-worthy events. They can benefit, sometimes, from things that end up hurting people.

I don’t believe that this is Kosovo 2.0’s intention. But now that the violence has occurred, now that the factions have identified themselves and the battle-lines have been drawn, it’s time for further action. For the sake of both Kosovo 2.0 and Kosovo 1.0, it’s time to be clear.

If one is going to be radical, one must be fearless and direct. That’s the price. Though I am relieved to know that the heads of Pristina’s various acronym-organizations deplore the violence visited on last Friday’s party, and I am glad to know that the reported lassitude of the police does not reflect the official stance of Thaçi’s government, this isn’t over yet. Reprinting the assurances of these institutions is not sufficient; though they may serve to legitimize, they cannot serve to protect. There is still one piece missing.

What do the editors of Kosovo 2.0 and the organizers of last Friday’s violently aborted party have to say to the mob itself? What do they say to the imams, to the hooligans, to the thugs?

Because this hasn’t run its course. For the gay men and women who are the supposed recipients of this act of goodwill, things are not yet over. Things are, in fact, tense and unfinished and dangerous. How will Kosovo 2.0 address the vast cultural fault-line that it has exposed? How directly will it counter the claims of the fundamentalists?

We need to know what the publishers have to say. Not the government, and not the international organizations, but Kosovo 2.0. Tell us what this means.

Tell us what is going to happen.

Cycling In Germia Park

Posted on October 10, 2012

Cycling In Germia Park / Photo Credit: inpristina.comCycling gets the monsters out. It really does. It works. Now, I can see why, say, Trek Bicycles (“come out and play”) might not want to use that as their marketing slogan, or why cycling advocacy groups might choose to emphasize the environmental benefits of cycling (“What carbon emissions?”) over the “personal demons”-related ones – but between you and me, I’m onto something. There is just something about the combination of balance, of speed, of covering distance, and of capital-S Suffering that does the trick. It really gets them out.

Sometimes you can even see them sort of emerging. Look closely.

When I was much younger — a million years ago, you know, back in the era of land lines and Archers of Loaf concerts – cycling was something I spent a lot of time on. I got pretty good, in an amateur sense. Though never particularly gifted at any of the team sports (imperious, perhaps; uncooperative for sure), I was a rail of a kid and I had just a shade of that gaunt and graceful endurance common to all bicycle racers, just enough of that penitent’s act. I traveled across the continent and I rode, sleeping in vans and motels, in Vermont, Quebec, Arizona, B.C.  I ached in the Rockies; fell down into oxygen debt outside Sedona; threw up my arms at impromptu and sparsely-attended Nova Scotia finish lines. And then I forgot about it. I came of age, met a girl, sunk into the cities. I became a writer.

Now writing, it can sometimes get the monsters out – but a lot of the time it puts them in as well. When you write, you find yourself searching for illustrative comparisons, you know, ways to encapsulate vague or difficult concepts in terms of known things and practices. “Just imagine if we…”; “That would essentially be like…”. Sometimes, you make it to the finish line — you get a metaphor out. You turn a phrase. It ends up funny. Other times, even if you get it built, it’s just not that funny, or it’s kind of ghastly, and you have to leave it half-finished; a bad connection; a broken prototype squirming fruitlessly around the back of your mind. A monster.

Oh Francisco… sometimes it seems like you have a Capricho for everything.

It is for this circumstance that the city of Pristina provides a beautiful escape, one that I think is worth mentioning. I know that sometimes I can be a little hard on the place – one commenter even asked me “is it as terrible as you make it sound”?, which made me feel guilty and inaccurate. Pristina is a small and self-contained city, and though its urban life is as busy and intense as even the largest North American metropoli, one can leave that all behind very quickly.

To the city’s east, and to its credit, the Pristina municipal government maintains the gorgeous Germia Park. It is a place of playgrounds, of chateau-styled restaurants, of a (somewhat depressing) zoo, and of miles and miles of cycling trails, from winding mountain roads to narrow, remote little goat paths (side note: watch for actual goats) that require dedication to find, concentration to avoid falling from, and a very familiar sort of suffering to successfully ascend.

As you may or may not be surprised to hear, Canadian Thanksgiving is something less than a society-consuming affair here, but every time I ascend the three peaks of Germia Park, I give a little thanks that this city has returned cycling – with all its monster-suppressing qualities and cardiovascular benefits – to my life. When the pressures of the desk, or of homesickness, or of mental turmoil or angst or whatever other product of unnatural stillness clouds my view, I remain able, in this city, to surmount it in a matter of pedal strokes.

The word “monster,” just as a curiosity, comes from the Latin root “monstrum,” meaning a portent, or an omen. Our English verb “to demonstrate” shares this root, and I like to keep in mind that the presence of mal-formed thoughts, beings, or ideas should at best serve as a call to action. In my case, in Pristina, I heed it by going cycling in Germia Park. Your mileage may vary.

Premature Exasperation

Posted on September 30, 2012

“That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.” – Naked (1993)


I feel like I sort of fucked up a little. I was off by a day or two. I mis-calibrated. Here’s the thing: You know that expression “first world problems?” That irritating little consciousness-raiser of a trope that employs Egyptian prisons, Bolivian cocaine peasants and fly-covered Ugandan babies as parts of its grandly dismissive effort to convince you that your hangnail doesn’t hurt? Well, it has its uses. I hate to admit it, but it does. Check me out: I went on a giant European vacation and I got sick of it. I travelled to the ornate and ancient capitals of my own ancestral Continent,

Pictured: Where white people come from.

wandered in a state of utter leisure among the monuments and archives of epoch-defining civilizations, and decided to go back to the hotel for a nap. I rested on pillows not two miles from Ireland’s National Museum and watched reruns of Geordie Shore.


It’s a little embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing, actually, that I can’t even just let it lie there like that – I feel compelled to add that I am not (read: am often) that type of person, that I toured the Palais des Nations, that I viewed the Trinity College Library, that I ate raclette and took the tram and unfolded the map and stood on the goddamned corner and pointed… but I just couldn’t quite make it to the finish line. It was too much. Too much leisure, too much walking and looking, too much rich food and dark beer and too many desirable things in general.

What Dublin giveth, Dublin taketh away…

It’s a dark truth about us humans, but we’re built to suffer. We flourish in situations of violence and labor, and grow fat, scabby, and diffident in times of protracted wealth. As nations grow more peaceful, more sophisticated, more humanistically-inclined, their birth rates plummet and their suicide rates skyrocket. So there I was, you know, Exhibit A, standing in the cake shop on Dame Street, bitching about my stupid feet and deciding not to go to Dublin castle.

“This sucks. Let’s get out of here.”

I know this entry isn’t really about Pristina, or about Balkan life, but it’s not entirely unrelated. When we moved to this part of the world, one of the main things on the non-“still a lot of land mines around” side of the scale was its relative proximity to the capitals of Western Europe; we came here, in part, so that we could do a lot traveling – and we are doing a lot of traveling. And in the course of doing so, I am learning about what traveling, as a human activity, actually is.

Reflective, no?

The pleasures of traveling are pleasurable only insofar as they differ from the trials of everyday life. As a Westerner in Pristina, my particular trials include things like “ramstek,” comically inadequate produce, and the aforementioned land mines (Germia Park holla!). Yours are likely different, and probably have less to do with rotten tomatoes and bees, but the mechanism remains the same: Travel, and the activities of travelers (sightseeing, shopping, wandering, waiting), are thrilling and energizing for as long as you are able to compare them to the more mundane activities of your day-to-day life. When you begin to forget, and these activities start to become a day-to-day life of their own, the sights blend together, the streets grow long and tedious, and the shops seem crazed and frivolous.

“Sixty-nine francs. Get it? Plus tax. Plus duty. Fuck you.”

It was a great trip, not least because I learned this thing, but also for the things that I saw before succumbing to angst and decadence. As for the actual places, well, I have said already that the proudly pragmatic tradition of travel writing is not a strength of mine… but I can claim to have received certain impressions. There was Geneva, closed and beautiful, a Rapunzel city; locks and windows and intrigues. Then came Basel, the kindly old Doktor of the Rhine, dreaming among the instruments of his study… and finally there was Dublin.

Dublin is difficult. Though initially welcomed, after one too many Continental eccentricities, as a mere repository of upper-middlish Anglosphere delights (farm to table!), after a few days I came to recognize a strange little quiver that told me something else was up.

I never got it before. Not in any pastichey “Irish pub,” not in Boston or Montreal, not studying Joyce or Yeats in university. I never really, viscerally, got it – but now I begin to see. Ireland is a very particular realm of the collective human mind. Haunted; feverish; martyred; ill-adapted. Ireland left me not with a pastoral, homey feeling, but with one of wounded ferocity; of self-consumption. Strange people, the Celts. Voices in that air.

If this is all sounding a little occult, here is a picture of the time we went to Starbucks:


It is kind of an insane project, this “doing” of ancient cities in three to seven days, this dutiful trudging, this stubborn demand to be awed. Though I navigated the old towns, though I queued for the monuments, and though I photographed the symbolic-at-the time curiosities,

It seemed like we were on this street forever.

I can’t say that the impressions of “placehood” noted above were definitively linked to any of these landmark experiences. Similarly, though I ate at the airport restaurants, though I waited under familiar billboards, though I took guilty comfort in the bland trans-national competence of Starbucks, I can’t say for sure that any sense of distinctiveness or essence was altogether absent, even in these places.

What I can say is that I got tired. I got worn out. I walked and looked and ate and drank and consumed things both material and discarnate, and I flew back to Pristina in ruins. I suspect that tourism is actually sort of bad for a person, that we are not meant to simply wander around just looking at the world, but are instead meant to live in it. To struggle, to want, and to make our way. I suspect that travel is actually a mild vice.

Fine. Good. I can do vice.

Paris is booked for November.

The Dog Days Of Dogana

Posted on September 7, 2012

So “Dogana” means “customs” in Kosovar Albanian, and “customs” means “four loosely related offices between which you are sent in patterns of increasing complexity and cost” – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Mere delineations of procedure don’t really tell the whole story. Here’s what happened. Here’s how a couple of naïve, online retail-enjoying North Americans were again reminded that they are very, very far from home.

It began with a purse. A bright yellow purse on a cutely named American shopping site for girls. It was a grey humid afternoon, all of our neighborhood restaurants sucked (and continue to suck – more on this to come), and our heroine was in need of a little cheering up. “Just buy it,” I said, thinking, you know, dash-of-retail-therapy/sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day/don’t-really-want-to-back-and-forth-over-this-for-very-long type thoughts. I thought it would be a fun thing.

You have to give the Americans credit: they are very good at what they do. Qualms about capitalism aside, Texas-sized PVC islands in the Pacific ignored, they are really good at selling you things — and in the land of surly, post-Communist clerks (is storage! Is no store! You leave now!), you sort of stop taking that for granted.

Within a few days of the purse order, we received this bright orange envelope informing us of what great people we were, what astute shoppers we had proved to be, and how much we had to look forward to – both in the specific sense of the soon-to-arrive purse, and in the implied sense of life in general. This is what U.S. retail types call the “Total Shopping Experience;” it’s a collection of little communiqués and corporate gestures that combine in such a way as to make you feel like part of a select human grouping, a fun, good-purse-having little family that never forgets the niceties. In Toronto or Los Angeles, this stuff works. We would have smiled at the cute little card, leaving it to animate our hallway shelf for a day or two before the actual parcel arrived at our door. It would have been a nice touch, a thoughtful policy, a shrewd bit of marketing. In Kosovo, though, it just became sort of sad.

The note came shortly after the bright orange envelope, but it was not from the cutely named American shopping site for girls, and it did not communicate any aspect of the “Total Shopping Experience.” Instead, it was official-looking, and told us to go to the fucking airport because maybe our goddamned purse was there. Maybe. And so we went. To the fucking airport. With our fun little orange envelope crushed morosely in a stack of papers, protesting in a strained Midwestern accent that this wasn’t supposed to happen; that it really didn’t know what was going on here at all.

Here is how customs in Pristina works when you want to pick up a thing at the airport: First you go to a little room with a bench and a framed portrait of national hero/accused terrorist Adem Jashari. There are two men there, and they are having a good time laughing at something on their computer screen that you can’t see. When you interrupt them, citing the purse that by now doesn’t seem like such a good idea, and isn’t really any fun anymore at all, they wait 15 minutes before sort of tersely pushing some papers at you.  Receipt of these papers requires you to go to another little room with another bench and the same aforementioned portrait. In this room, you give them money – and the amount of money they demand is not the exact same amount that is printed on your form… but it’s close. It’s pretty close. You light a cigarette and you wait for them to print the form that says that you have given them money. You think about other purses, other cities, other lives. You inhale.

The next guy is kind of the joker of the pack, and he lives in a third little room with a third iteration of the typical bench/Adem Jashari aesthetic combo. He’s really nice; seems kind of understanding, even sort of does a little proto eye-roll at the complexity of all this. Unfortunately, his task is to send you back to the money room, as there are further (and seemingly invented-on-the-spot) taxes to be paid.

What can you say? Sales tax? Sure. Handling charge? Seems reasonable. “Stipend of the Barometic Pressure?” Probably just a bad translation. “Propeller Fee?” Sure. Fine. We’ll just stand here like this. Let us know when it’s over.

I think the term “Kafkaesque” is somewhat overused. This situation wasn’t Kafkaesque. Were it Kafkaesque, the story would end with us being packed into the purse’s tiny box and shipped back to America via cargo plane, while the fun yellow purse was placed in a cab and sent to our apartment in Pristina. It doesn’t end like that. We got the purse, exited onto the highway, and vowed to never do something like that again.

It is no accident, though, that Franz Kafka was not from (say) California. Gregor Samsa did not peer from his beetle-y room over the palm trees of Santa Monica. This sort of blind proceduralism, of obdurate officiousness, of Less-Than-Total-Shopping-Experience has Eastern Europe as its home, and the Balkans as its capital.

The next purse will probably be purchased locally, rhinestone double-headed eagle or not.

On The Road: Montenegro

Posted on September 2, 2012

I was worried that the car might break down. OK, no, back up: I was worried, having pushed our rented, lime-green subcompact up a half-paved, near-vertical goat path in the middle of the wilderness that something would go terribly quiet; that we would lose all forward momentum; that I would pull over, pop the hood, and find a fly-encrusted grapefruit in place of an engine. I was worried that my girlfriend would realize I was lost.

In the Balkans, I have come to realize, there are no shortcuts. Isn’t that nice and aphoristic? There are no direct routes. If you wish to go to Montenegro, say, or to Macedonia, or to modernity, you have to just accept that the circuitous, meandering path is probably the best, and that routes that may appear temptingly concise on paper are probably either dreadfully steep, impossibly debris-strewn, or infested with giant bees – which brings me back to Montenegro.

As charming (read: hot, landlocked, and culinarily inept) as Pristina in August can be, sometimes you have to take a little break. According to the local fashion, we chose to do so on the Montenegrin coast, basing ourselves in the late-Venetian town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor.

Excepting the work of people like Paul Theroux, or the asides of gifted novelists who happen to be elsewhere for a second, I have never really liked travel writing very much. It’s a form which allows too much of writing’s innate vanity to shine through; it tends toward triviality, toward bloat, toward a very middle-class, Whole Foods, aren’t-I-interesting form of self-regard.

By this, of course, I mean that I find it difficult. What happened when I went to Montenegro? When speaking about this ancient country, what in the world do I have to add?

Five revealing facts from memory:

* Residents of the nightclub-heavy town of Budva call their city “BU2,” referencing the Montenegrin word for “two.” The local nightclubs are of the type that would appeal to people fond of such abbreviations. Think energy drinks; “bottle servis;” those sunglasses with one big lens.

* Perast was the last city to lower the flag of the Venetian republic in 1797. Befitting its mercantile heritage, the town maintains one small market on the Campanile square at which suntan lotion costs twenty-five euros.

* If you take the direct-on-the-map-but-infinite-in-real-life “shortcut” into Kotor, you will be greeted by one of the most stunning maritime vistas that you will ever see. You will then be greeted by 44 cliff-side hairpins, 43 visions of your own grisly death (official metaphor of the descent: “tomato in a tuna can”), and the smell of vanishing brake pads.

* Unlike in Pristina, the waiter does not visibly wince when you order the fish.

* When you first arrive in Perast, you can’t help but come to the (disastrous) conclusion that the place is infested with giant bees. Fortunately, this is not quite the case: Instead, the Kotor region just has a lot of these “Macroglossum stellatarum” things, which are hummingbird-sized moths that have the general coloring of bees. They don’t sting, and they don’t ruin your trip – but don’t get cocky: There are a lot of actual bees there as well.

Given my limited experience, I can’t really say anything categorical about Montenegro – save for the fact that it was able to provide a fairly crucial cluster of European qualities that Pristina notably lacks. Ancient architecture, a dramatic coastline, and a selection of interesting, modern, would-even-be-good-in-London-or-L.A. restaurants go a long way when you’re growing weary of concrete and rump steak. The fact that golfball-sized bees aren’t actually a real thing is just a bonus.

We will be back to Montenegro, and we will take the long route – if only to save some time.