Baby, Baby (Or: Why Birth Rates Matter)

Posted on July 29, 2012

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.

“It’s my driveway and I’ll decorate it however I want.”

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?).

Falimenderit, Quentin.

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.

Reductio Ad Abserbum

Posted on July 25, 2012

In yesterday’s post concerning UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Kosovo, I addressed SG Ban’s late arrival by cynically noting that “the first rule of power is make ‘em wait.”

I wasn’t wrong, really — just a little sunburnt and surly — but new reports from Koha Ditore indicate that my aim may have been a bit off. There’s a first (not first) time for everything, I guess.

According to the Pristina daily, the power in question was not exercised by Secretary-General Ban at the expense of us rapidly reddening journos, but instead by Serbian border authorities at the expense of the UN.

Though Ban’s meetings with the Nikolić government in Belgrade were characterized by calls for “dialogue” (that grandly disingenuous modern favorite!) and UN-supervised negotiations with Pristina, Serbia’s border guards allegedly took a harder line with the Secretary-General.

According to Koha Ditore, the UN plane waited for 45 minutes on the tarmac in Belgrade before being denied clearance to fly to Kosovo. Despite the energies of UN officials, all diplomatic requests for clearance (see: “dialogue”) were rebuffed, forcing Secretary-General Ban to take an indirect route through Macedonia.

Of all the sunburns I have ever received, this is by far the most cloak-and-dagger.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Visits Kosovo

Posted on July 24, 2012

In the course of my unrelated-to-Disney-movies-from-the-‘90s duties, it sometimes happens that I attend media events – such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Pristina International Airport earlier this afternoon. Here’s how, loyal reader, it went down.

First rule of power is you make ‘em wait, and so there we waited, shuffling and tripping over camera wires as incremental delay after incremental delay was announced. A mixed crowd of local and regional journalists (plus yours truly), we buzzed around in a collective, multilingual “nic fit” until the UN turboprop taxied in, depositing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon into a crowd of flower-bearing courtiers whose hands were shaken in (presumable) order of seniority as he made his way to the dais.

The speech itself was fairly pro forma, and archetypically late-globalist in its repeated calls for “dialogue” and “mutual respect” between parties who don’t really wish to speak and who have no respect for one another. What else can you really say? It’s the only thing that doesn’t bring the guns out.

Today’s visit marked the first time that a United Nations Secretary-General has visited Kosovo since the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was issued by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership. As such, the (non-Albanian) minority-protecting aspects of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 were emphasized early in Secretary-General Ban’s speech, which closed on a conciliatory note by commemorating the recent death of (Kosovo-born) Albanian poet Ali Podrimja.

As there were no questions permitted, the five-minute address concluded with us journalists disassembling our gear and filing down toward the free bottled water in the Arrivals lounge.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon exited toward a phalanx of UNMIK Land Cruisers, past a display of international flags in which the emblem of the Kosovar republic and that of Albania flew at equal height.

The Lion King: Balkans Edition

Posted on July 21, 2012

So last night I was persuaded to watch Disney’s The Lion King for the first time ever. I know it’s meant to be a classic, you know, a modern myth and a watershed moment as far as big-budget animation goes… but it came out in 1994. I was 16 then, and at that age you tend to be reflexively scornful of mass-market blockbusters, and intent instead on making sure the record-store clerk is aware that you knew who the Smithereens were before Kurt Cobain started talking about them (untrue in my case, and yes, it’s consumerism all the way down).

In any case, I watched it a bit too late in life, I guess, or maybe I’m just in a Kosovo state of mind. Though monkey sorcerers and implied polygamy are great and all, I couldn’t help thinking about those hyenas.

You know who I am talking about here: The slavering, undifferentiated mass of barbarians who could not ever be allowed representation within the leonine power-structure? The backward, mindless bundle of flesh and sinew who were permitted only to slither around the polluted wastes at the edge of the kingdom, lest they overwhelm the polity with their destructive impulses and short-sighted demands?

Isn’t this kind of… non-democratic, message-wise? Aren’t these sorts of portrayals dangerous? Don’t we have a bad history with this sort of thing?

Or maybe I’m just old.

Thanks a lot, adulthood. And thanks, the Balkans.

Kosovo & The Destruction Of The Pyramids

Posted on July 12, 2012

Yesterday morning, a small outlet known as the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) released a story indicating that “prominent Muslim clerics” within Egypt have begun to call for the demolition of the Pyramids at Giza. This, of course, was instantly seized upon by the right-wing media as yet another symbol of the failure of the Arab Spring, the fanaticism of Egypt’s clerical class, and the crazed, demonic intolerance of Islam in general.

A few hours after the wide dissemination of this frightening and off-putting news item, it was revealed to be a hoax of the lowest order, having been sourced from a “parody Twitter account.” In a previous post – my first – I warned of the danger posed by “worldview-confirming lies,” so consider this Exhibit A. It’s funny how things show up as if on cue sometimes; it is almost as if history contains discernable patterns from which knowledge can be gleaned – but that’s enough metaphysics for the moment.

The Assyrians of AINA are no longer the fantastical swarm of conquerors described by Jonah and (later and more rhythmically) by Lord Byron. Fortunes change. They are now a small, Christian people based primarily in Syria and Northern Iraq, where they are routinely persecuted and oppressed by the Muslim majority in those nations. When one peruses the news archive of the ANIA’s website, one is struck by an insistent (and understandable) note concerning the perfidy of Islam and Islamic regimes; recent stories include “The Danger In Dealing With Islamists” and “Egypt’s First Sex Slave Marriage.”

This visible bias does not mean that these stories are necessarily inaccurate, or that the concerns of the Assyrian community are unfounded. Christians really are persecuted in Muslim nations sometimes, and Islamic regimes really have been known to destroy monuments of the greatest antiquity. This is Partisanship 101: You can’t just make up any old thing. It has to follow from a pattern of extant truth.

Propaganda can be hard to parse. It is crafted to flatter our biases, and it is designed to slip quickly through the conscious mind, entering the great mass of our unexamined prejudices like a thief in the night. But what does this all have to do with Kosovo?

In a divided country such as this one, nearly all media, and certainly all politics, consists of people reporting on the actions of their enemies. Can, for instance, the situation in North Kosovo be solved by further talks? Or should all existing agreements between Belgrade and Pristina be scrapped due to corruption and ill-intent? Do said discussions represent “the necessary steps to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 1244,” or are they merely “an alibi for [Albanian] terrorists”? It depends, of course, who you talk to, and it depends what side they are on.

In Assyria as in Kosovo, there exist grievances so old and bitter that their partisans are constitutionally unable to avoid indulging their darkest suspicions. They are not always wrong – the statues at Bamiyan, for example, really did fall, and Middle Eastern Christians do have cause for concern – but they are always motivated, at least in part, by the old grievance.

When someone speaks about an ancient foe, you can’t entirely trust them. You can listen, of course, as their allegations will betray things that you don’t know, that you weren’t privy to, that you have never before heard. You should listen closely, actually, as every situation, every injury described is a living fragment of their history and – whichever side they are on – of the divided state of affairs in which they live.

It just may not have actually, you know, happened.

Hello, Pristina

Posted on July 10, 2012

My first view of the city; Pejton district.


I arrived at Pristina in the middle of the night, descending into a heat wave on a lightning-troubled plane – but wait. That’s so dramatic. Can we say instead that I took a points ticket from Vienna, reading American magazines and devouring the complimentary sponge-cake? Both seem accurate, but truth tends to lie between the extremes. Or does it? For a million reasons, this place seems designed to test that theory.

Had you told me a year ago that I would be sitting here right now, drinking “Lasko” brand beer and waiting for the water to come back on, I would have thought you were crazy. Interesting, perhaps, but equipped with one of the cloudier crystal balls. Six months ago, I could not have pointed to Pristina on a map. Had you done it for me, I would have guessed wrongly. Transylvania, maybe? The westernmost part of Turkey? I wouldn’t have had a chance. Now I live here, and as you might guess, this is more due to circumstance than intention. Serendipitous circumstance, definitely – but circumstance nonetheless.

So what is there to learn? The place is confusing, multi-layered. It is “Europe’s newest country,” but it betrays its antiquity at every corner. It is a beachhead for Islam in the heart of the Continent, but there are no niqabs on Nene Tereza Street, only skimpy ‘80s rock tees displaying slogans like “Young Free America.” It is the Independent Republic Of Kosova, but it is also Albania (just ask) – and a few will still allow themselves to whisper that it is Serbia.

One of the benefits, I’ve always found, of the naïve approach is that you sometimes get a straight answer. You might not score any best-line-of-the-night points with a wide-eyed question, but you are at least marginally less likely to be flattered with worldview-confirming lies. And for me, at this point anyway, it is as much a question of necessity as of style.

Where am I? What is going on here? What on earth are these people doing?

I think it is best to start off with the basics.