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The Young Turks of Prizren

Less than 20 years ago, the streets of the southern Kosovo town of Prizren were filled with military checkpoints and paths muddied by the boots of fleeing refugees. But today, the city is more famous for its thriving café scene. Garden restaurants and teahouses line the Bistrica River in the city center below a hilltop fortress, and every night the boulevard fills with crowds of all ages out for the nightly promenade beloved by Albanians the region over.

Until 1999 Kosovo—which has an ethnic-Albanian majority—was a part of the remnants of Serb Orthodox-dominated Yugoslavia. But after years of discrimination, culminating in an attempted ethnic cleansing that forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, Kosovar rebels successfully achieved autonomy and finally independence after a NATO-backed war of liberation. Almost two decades later, Kosovo is undergoing a cultural renaissance, and while Pristina may be the political capital of Europe’s smallest and newest republic, Prizren is its soul.

Prizren has long fostered an open, tolerant, and sophisticated vision of Albanian culture and was the heart of the Albanian nationalist movement beginning in the late 19th century. It was seen as Albania’s most important city until 1912, when it was brutally conquered by Serb forces, its connections to the rest of Albanian lands severed overnight. The city went from a cultural and political capital to a Serbian backwater. Since Kosovo’s liberation, Prizren has emerged once again as a cultural hub in its own right.

For a city at the heart of Greater Albania, it might seem strange how much Prizren turns to Turkey for inspiration. TVs in cafes, hotels, and restaurants are tuned twenty-four hours a day to Turkish television and soap operas, while gleaming new buildings housing Turkish-language schools sit prominently on major boulevards. If you’re looking for directions but don’t happen to speak Albanian, Turkish is your best bet.

Gufran Shehu is a Sufi cleric who tends to a shrine on a riverside path just outside central Prizren on a popular trail for those looking for a bit of privacy. Shehu comes from a family of sheikhs going back nearly 500 years, to the establishment of the first Sufi lodge in Kosovo in the 1520s. Under Communist rule, the Sufi lodge next door was demolished and the cleric in charge killed after his family was accused of involvement in political activity. But Shehu’s family protected the shrine beside it, and Shehu himself is now working to rebuild the lodge, which served as a community and cultural center in addition to its religious role.

Known as a türbe in Albanian and Turkish, the shrine holds the graves of clerics who taught at the Sufi lodge next door throughout its history. For Shehu, the Turkish cultural revival is part of reconnecting Kosovars to their past. “History is written by the victors,” he explains, “and Albanians lost a lot. As a result, others have written much of our history, and much of the rest has been lost or obscured.”

The prevalence of the Turkish language in Prizren is due to more than 500 years of Ottoman rule which began in the 15th century, during which time elite Kosovars identified closely with Turkish culture. To speak Ottoman Turkish—with its poetic blend of Persian, Arabic, and Turkic words and syntax—was to be refined, and those aspiring to social mobility were obliged to learn Turkish. As a regional hub and cultural capital, Prizren fostered an extensively Turkified elite culture to a greater degree than most other Albanian-majority regions.

The building in central Prizren where the League of Prizren, the first organization espousing the aims of Albanian nationhood, was declared. Photo: Alex Shams

In other regions, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the expulsion and emigration of millions of Muslims, fleeing ahead of Serb, Croat, and Greek nationalist armies that adopted the European practice of identifying themselves in exclusionary ethno-religious terms. But even after Kosovo was joined to Serbia, it retained a strong attachment to Turkish culture and local elites continued to use the language privately. Estimates of the number of people identifying as ethnic Turks in Prizren today range as high as one-fifth, though assimilation as well as emigration due to the war and continuing instability may have affected this number. But after centuries in which Kosovars of all backgrounds led their lives in Turkish, the boundaries between Albanian and Turk are hardly clear.

The persistence of the affiliation has reaped economic benefits for the region amid Turkey’s attempts to expand its influence across the Balkans. The Turkish government has funded development and aid projects and helped rebuild mosques in Kosovo, as part of what some analysts have called “Neo-Ottomanism.” The meteoric rise in popularity of Turkish popular culture—especially soap operas, but also music, which has strongly influenced the wildly popular Balkan music trend known as turbofolk or tallava—have added to the country’s appeal. But for Kosovars, the connection goes much deeper.

After living nearly half a century under Communist rule before being persecuted by the Serb Orthodox nationalist rule that followed, many Kosovars today see the Ottoman era as a nostalgic golden age, when the country was an important center for the Balkans and the wider world. Efforts to revive that past allow for a reimagining of Kosovo not as a tiny, fiercely nationalist, and extremely corrupt micro-state with limited international recognition, but instead as a cosmopolitan land with a long history that sees no contradiction in being Muslim and European, secular and spiritual. This is particularly true given the Ottoman Era’s centuries-long traditions of tolerance through the millet system, which recognized and protected each distinct religious community and is a source of pride for Kosovars even today. While Christian-controlled Europe was wracked by centuries of intra-Christian as well as anti-Semitic persecution, the Ottoman Balkans were in comparison a model of coexistence, even taking in refugees—like thousands of Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492—from the West when needed.

This longing for the past is manifest in two main ways today: through the renewed interest in learning Turkish as well as in a nascent religious revival. Across Eastern Europe, religious institutions have been revived after the fall of Communism. “During the atheism campaigns, authorities would interrogate children at school to see what they knew about religion, since they knew that children would repeat what their parents told them,” Shehu says. “Parents didn’t share their knowledge with their children, and centuries of collected knowledge was lost as a result.”

In other countries, it has often been fundamentalist and nationalist interpretations of religion that gained momentum, but the form of Islam surging in Kosovo and Albania is Sufism, especially the Bektashi branch. Bektashism, which flourished during the Ottoman Empire and was associated with the famed Janissary Corps, is famously syncretic, blending mystical Islamic beliefs with practices that existed across the region before the religion’s arrival, including Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and various nature-based folk traditions. The branch, which is also heavily influenced by Shia Islamic tradition, is based in Albania’s capital Tirana and is seen by many as a quintessentially Albanian form of Islam. Perhaps the most famous aspect of Sufi culture today is the dervish, a term referring to worshippers who engage in spiritual chanting known as dhikr and often whirl around or dance as part of their quest to enter into a trance and draw closer to God.

In a land exhausted from decades of extremist ideologies of the secular kind, Bektashism is a welcome respite. Although missionaries from a number of sects, especially of the puritanical Salafi or Wahhabi branch of Islam, took advantage of the situation to spread their own interpretation of Islam, Sufi sheikhs like Shehu have been active in asserting the legitimacy of beliefs that have much longer roots in the country.

Shehu points out that while belief in Sufism never faded completely in Kosovo, there has been a strong resurgence of interest since the end of Communism and liberation from Serb rule. He estimates that around 40 percent of Kosovars identify with Sufism. In recent years, the major tarikat, or branch, of Sufism united to lobby for political support, and they are currently awaiting a Parliament decision that would recognize them as such.

The ceiling of the Mimar Sinan Pasha Mosque in central Prizren. Photo: Alex Shams

Shehu studies at a Turkish language school and hopes that knowledge of the tongue will offer opportunities to young Kosovars beyond the country’s borders. But his enthusiasm about the revival of Kosovo’s culture and Sufi past is tempered by the reality of his country’s more recent demons.

Just a stone’s throw away, in the hills above the grandiose 17th-century Sinan Mosque in central Prizren, is Pantelija. Although only a few minute’s walk from the bustling riverside cafes, the neighborhood is a maze of abandoned or burned out homes below the steeple of a half-destroyed Orthodox church a little further up the mountain. Between the ruins sit new, gaudy mansions belonging to Prizren’s nouveau riche.

Pantelija was once the heart of a 10,000-strong ethnic Serb community, composing just over 5 percent of the city’s population before the war. But when Kosovar rebels beat back the Yugoslav army with NATO support in 1999, they also chased out Serb civilians, who were widely viewed as collaborators. Thousands of Roma were also forced to flee, both due to suspicious ethnic Albanian neighbors and opportunistic land grabs against a community that had never been fully accepted, in Kosovo or anywhere else.

In neighboring Albania and Macedonia, ethnic Albanians are either atheists or Sunni Muslim, Sufi Muslim, Catholic, or Orthodox. The lack of importance afforded to religious difference is noted in the common refrain, “The religion of Albanians is Albanianism,” meaning that Albanians may follow any faith or creed but in the end are united by their language and nationality.

But in Kosovo, the Serbian government’s identification of Orthodoxy with Serbian identity has made the idea of Albanian Orthodoxy—the second largest faith of ethnic Albanians elsewhere—unthinkable.

“The Serbians manipulated the fact that they shared a religion with Albanian Orthodox,” Shehu explains, “and as a result, many Albanian Orthodox in Kosovo converted to Catholicism. The Serbs took over all the Orthodox churches in Kosovo, even though they were originally Albanian. But most people don’t realize this, and today all those churches are associated with Serbs.”

Between 1999-2008, at least 140 Serb Orthodox churches were attacked or destroyed, and those that remain standing are under heavy guard. Shehu argues that the vast majority of these churches were newly-built in the 1990s and were attacked not out of religious hatred but because they had been constructed specifically to assert Serb political claims on the land, using Kosovar tax dollars no less.

A case in point is the large Orthodox cathedral that dominates the University of Pristina fifty miles north of Prizren in the capital. The structure is today just a large, bombed-out shell whose construction began in 1995 but was never finished. In a reminder of how caught up religion always is with politics, the church was planned under Slobodan Milosevic’s regime to project Serb Orthodox control across the most prestigious educational institution in Kosovo’s largest city.

Today, no one knows what to do with it. To demolish it would be a provocative and belligerent act and a signal to ethnic Serbs who previously lived in Kosovo and, despite all that happened, still dream of their homes. But finishing construction would be tantamount to national betrayal, allowing the dream of a genocidal madman to be realized long after his death.

The Kosovar cultural revival and attempts to spread a spirit of coexistence and tolerance are very real, but the exclusion of Serbs from this model is given concrete form in the empty Orthodox churches.

It is indicative of Kosovo’s uneasy relationship with the idea of tolerance. The multicultural Ottoman past has been resuscitated in popular memory, but Serbs remain beyond the bounds of toleration. The reasoning is clear. Albanians lost a lot during the 20th century, their lands eaten up by more powerful neighbors. The seemingly outsized sense of pride that ethnic Albanians feel in their identity—especially in Kosovo, but also in Albania and Macedonia—makes more sense when understood through the lens of modern Albanian history.

This sense of historical loss undergirds the often hostile expressions of ethnic Albanian nationalism that have become de rigeur in Kosovo. But the hope that at long last Albanians will be in charge of their own future has fostered a cautious optimism, which can be seen in the concerted attempts to foster Kosovo’s Ottoman and Turkish cultural legacies with their emphasis on tolerance and syncretism. Nostalgic memories of the past are nurturing alternative visions of a brighter future, offering the possibility of hope in a region where continuing political violence and economic dysfunction have left far too many without any. Whether that may one day extend to include ethnic Serb refugees, however, remains anybody’s guess.

Alex Shams
Alex Shams is an Iranian-American writer, a PhD student of anthropology at the University of Chicago, and editor-in-chief of Ajam Media Collective.
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