In Kosovo, people still have babies. Not as many as they once did, perhaps, and not so many that nobody wishes for more, but they still fill the bunkbeds around here. They make sure that my front stoop, for instance, has the tell-tale hearts and scratched-out names of fickle teen romance carved into its side, and it seems required that my bedroom window be hit (hard) by a football at least once every week.
Note the plural: in Kosovo, they have babies. With an “s.” These are not the long-shot, fertility pill-aided one-offs familiar to (say) New Yorker subscribers back home near the Empire’s center. These are not the lonesome little Augustens and Caits we see peering from the rear windows of Audis as they are shepherded from jazz piano to Mandarin (it’s the language of the future) at seven-thirty in the evening – these are just kids. The sort you have four or five of, starting in your early twenties and naming them after dead relatives. The sort who you allow to have little crushes, and who are free to kick footballs in the alley.
That isn’t to say, of course, that little Artan and Vija (and Engjell and Vitore and Vojin and Yllka and so forth) are not the subjects of intense and intrusive parental speculation – they are, and the equivalent of “internship in Manhattan” is pretty much “job in Switzerland, with money sent home every paycheck.” It is only to point out that in the case of children, as with so many other human requirements, mild abundance decreases neurosis. There is, for instance, no “helicopter mom” ready to sue the building manager when her precious Besnik catches a rock in the eye… but if his brothers find out who did it, they’ll make him eat dirt in the back lane (if not dogshit, or part of a dead bird – you know how brothers are).
It’s not unusual to have an aesthetic preference for the instinctive over the fraught, or for North Americans of a certain type to indulge in xenophilia when confronted with traditional life (so long as it occurs in foreign and GDP-deprived lands, of course – we despise it in Alabama). Focusing on the birth rate as proxy for some difficult-to-pin-down vitality, however, is a troubling exercise, not least because it places one in dubious company, and forces one to consider the consequences of what we call freedom, and what others call decadence.
In order to have a high birth rate, you tend to require a few key ingredients – and they’re not ones that are terribly popular in Western capitals these days. To start with, you need robust taboos concerning gender roles and extramarital sex. This is best aided by the ordering presence of a strict religion – preferably desert-derived, and at best Abrahamic. If you really want to reach for the stars in this area, a bloody cocktail of war, disorder, famine, and chaos is what you should be ordering. The superpowers here are places like The Democratic Republic Of Congo and Somalia; the pitiable laggards are Germany and Japan.
I sometimes worry that the perceived necessity (among liberal Westerners) of “questioning privilege” and “problematizing perspectives” comes from a much stranger and more occult place than we realize. Why do we so dutifully do this thing, which transforms instinctual sources of pleasure into considered forms of shame? Why must we — must I — place this enjoyment of the alley kids in a prim, wary context of ruthless taboo and god-haunted poverty? Why do we still seem to feel that virtue is best achieved at the end of a (self-administered) whip?
It is Sunday afternoon as I type this, and the daily game, with its attendant hecklers, cheerleaders, bystanders, and heart-carvers is loudly gathering steam (where does an Albanian-speaking Kosovar learn the term “motherfucker?” And at, like, six?).
The kids are out and the parents are only intermittently watching. From the perspective of my first-floor balcony, it is almost like theatre; it has the properties of a created thing, of art. It is a lot of fun.
There can be no art, however, without a frame – which is to say that, in this area of Balkan life as in so many others, the borders create the circumstance. A Sunday like this one is probably not very fun for the girl locked in her room by her brothers, who dislike whatever thinly-mustachioed Romeo has started to come by her balcony. It can’t be particularly fun for the young boy who has realized that he likes other young boys. It’s not terribly rewarding, I suspect, to be the 19-year-old woman who wants to be (for example) a botanist, and who has no desire to marry.
These are the metrical constraints that define the daily poem of the alley, and they are ones that Western Europeans and many North Americans have judged to be unnecessary, or even cruel. We have also, and indirectly, judged that the beauty of the alley-poem is not sufficient, does not outweigh the curtailed freedoms and heavy expectations that form the crucible of its creation.
In this regard, it seems that the West will win — again. The birthrate in Kosovo is falling fast, and full membership in modernity (as symbolized by the coveted prize of EU admission) is the defining goal of the Thaci government.
In time, the pressure to have babies, to have families, will slow significantly, and the pressure for those who are already alive to express their individual wants and preferences will intensify. The small square of concrete that serves as my alley’s Wembley Stadium will be painted, lit, and eventually supervised, and the crowds of football-playing children (and cat-callers, and cigarette-sneakers, and name-scratchers) will thin and decline.
Eventually, the footballers will grow too old for their games, and the next crop of would-be window smashers will be smaller, and watched over more closely. Seeking stability, the now-of-age alley kids may purchase their apartments, turn the building into condos, and form some sort of neighbors’ association which will watch out for things like cigarette butts, insensitive language, and football-damaged windows. The square will be replaced by a parking lot or a decorative hedge, and the games will be replaced by nothing.
At this point, Kosovo will have grown up.