Review of Aleksandar Pavlovic’s book “The Imaginary Albanian: Symbolism of Kosovo and the figure of the Albanian in Serbian culture,” Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory, 2019
Let’s start with the title of this review, which, translated into another language, would probably sound strange, maybe even meaningless. Instead of the Albanian, we could say a Turk, a New Zealander, a Surinamese. If there was anything to say, it would be a description from folklore and social geography. However, posed in Serbian, in this part of the world, the question makes a lot of sense, as speaking about the Albanian is not the same as spelling out general data on the population numbers, economic potential, and customs of a neighboring group. The Albanian is our “great Other”, our greatest other. Talking about “him” means talking about a symbol, about a figure interspersed with countless other figures. The Albanian is, so to speak, a permanent epithet of discourse in Serbia.
Aleksandar Pavlovic isn’t confronting us with the Albanian himself, but with what is said about him. The imaginary Albanian is a character that we invented, that we imagine and are afraid of. We assign to him the characteristics of imaginary beings that even heroes are afraid of, but at the end of the fairy tale, the heroes ultimately defeat him. An imaginary Albanian is a character who came to us through stories. Stories, rather than actual encounters, shaped him. Our knowledge is modest, but the stories are numerous. Therefore, these stories, or rather, the way they were woven, are the subject of this book. It should be noted immediately that this is a book written with a specific intention. The intention is certainly academic, and fairly major at that. Pavlovic reveals to us that there is a trope, a pattern of speech about the Albanian, and he calls it Albanism, thus playing with the famous term “Balkanism” coined by Marija Todorova. But this book was not compiled just to offer the academic community a new lethal weapon in the ancient wars of the pen. Borrowing words from Crnjanski – “it’s time to strike at completely different strings, whether I or someone else” – Pavlovic wants to offer us a different discourse, by re-evaluating tradition and introducing a conscious, clear, and determined search for closeness and friendship, which would “finally, take that burden off the shoulders of future generations.” (15)
That different discourse is different from this one:
“As long as the Patriarchate of Pec stands, Kosovo and Metohija belongs to Serbia. Kosovo and Metohija will belong to Serbia, as long as a single Serb is alive to walk on its territory. As long as a single Serb, born anywhere, carries Kosovo and Metohija in his heart – it is ours, it is Serbian.” (Milorad Drecun, 2015)
“Kosovo is Serbia, and that fact does not depend on the Albanian birthrate, nor on the Serbian mortality rate. There is so much Serbian blood and so many Serbian shrines there, that it will be Serbian even when no Serbs remain there.” (Matija Beckovic, 1989)
“As long as there are old Serbian churches, monasteries and graves in Arnaut villages, there are no Arbanasi people or Arbania.” (Todor Stankovic, 1910)
We are all quite familiar with this discourse. It is renewed in the public appearances of both those in power and those against it. It has worn out, been spent, and now it echoes in the void, although it is still full of the most expensive words. It is based on the premise that Kosovo could be completely deserted, without a single living soul living there – Arbanasi or Serb – as long as it is Serbian, that is, as long as it belongs to the state of Serbia. It is from that point that Pavlovic begins to wonder: has it always been like that? Is the Albanian a Serbian synonym for enemy, one whose life is worthless and can be annulled, if needed? Is the territory, no matter who lives on it, more important than social ties that can be built on it? How can a mythical land, even if it is empty and desolate, remain fertile for that seed of enmity that shapes our imagination about the Albanian?
This lifeless territoriality is not strange because, as Pavlovic shows, the Albanian was enthroned as an enemy just when Serbia became internationally recognized as an independent state, when the Albanian national movement emerged, when Ottoman influence in the Balkans weakened, while Austro-Hungarian influence grew, as did Serbian pretensions towards today’s Kosovo and Metohija and northern Albania. This enthronement as the enemy took place, therefore, only at the end of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century. This has not always been the case and many things had to happen before Albanism could be used as a justification for war campaigns.
To shed light on what happened before the Albanian became the enemy, Pavlovic didn’t look at minor, unimportant texts from dusty archives. On the contrary, he turned to Karadzic and Garasanin, showing that the territories inhabited by Albanians were not at the center of the Serbian national program at the time. Albanians themselves were not enemies. Local knowledge about Albanians was modest, little was known about them. That which was known – and here Pavlovic relies on the oldest, exemplary Montenegrin histories and Dositej’s memories of his stay in southern Albania – speaks far more about mutual respect and cooperation, similarities and kinship, rather than about timeless enmity. (Reading the character of Musa Kesedzija as a hero equal to or even better than, Marko Kraljevic, is a small gesture that would significantly change the national consciousness of young generations in Serbia who encounter him regularly in their textbooks.)
That Albanian – an honorable highlander primarily connected to the north of Albania, with whom we fought against the Turks – disappeared from the narrative and was replaced by an Albanian from Kosovo who is “worse than the Turks themselves”. For that to happen, Kosovo had to become a territorial issue, a war goal, even (33), instead of the poetic symbol it was within the Serbian national-romantic discourse at the beginning of the 19th century. And to justify the dehumanization of the population in the territories that are metaphysically ours, an intensive “mediavelization and mystification of Kosovo” was needed. (121) Resolutely refusing to side with both “Serb-lovers” and “Serb-haters” – that is, agreeing with neither the interpretation of the Kosovo literary tradition as the very core of the ethical and metaphysical values of Serbs, nor with its proclamation as the core of Serbian chauvinism (36) – Pavlovic chooses to read that tradition in the manner of Hobsbawm, trying to see how it was invented, by what means it was created. His approach to Vuk’s inventive editorial actions is worth noting. Vuk “returned” folk culture to the people, while also putting Kosovo in its center. Vuk’s formative role in canonizing Kosovo epics in their current form tells us something about the role of learned people, intellectuals, in today’s words, in establishing the national memory and values, which could then be used to legitimize political ambitions.
The formation of folk culture into what the people really think also took place in another area. At a time when historiography was being established as a discipline in our country, compulsory schooling was introduced, which included “history” often derived from folk poems. Pavlovic found evidence of this in the first generations of textbooks which were used by young schoolchildren in a newly independent state. His comparative examples of additions and changes to history textbooks published from 1882 to 1912 are instructive. Contrary to earlier perceptions of Albanians as fierce warriors and occasional allies, the textbooks now refer only to Kosovo Albanians, whose character is changing in line with the political demands of the time. An illustrative example is the story of the migration of Serbs. In the first edition from 1882, the history textbook said that Patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic “did more harm than good to the Serbs by starting the migration… The Turks settled the Arnauts in empty Serbian villages, so now there are only a few Serbs in southern Serbia, and instead there are only Arnauts, although Arnauts have never lived there before.” In the next edition, published only four years later, this sentence is substantially changed: “These migrations were harmful for the Serbs, because they scattered them throughout distant lands. The Turks settled the Arnauts in their villages, who committed worse evils against the Serbs than the Turks themselves.” (85) The political circumstances had changed and so did the necessary knowledge and desirable discourse which had to be adopted for new circumstances to be understood and justified.
According to Aleksandar Pavlovic, this discourse of enmity was being intensively created during the period from the Berlin Congress until the end of the First World War. In the words of Dimitrije Tucovic, whose statements are featured prominently in the book as different from the overall discourse, “today it has become very risky to advocate for the need to cooperate with the Arbanasi. In a disastrous attempt to justify a wrong-headed policy, the bourgeois press has created a whole tower of lies and tendentious opinions about them, and the conquering policy of Serbia with its barbaric methods had to fill the Arbanasi with deep hatred towards us.” (109) Tucovic wrote this in 1914, after the Albanian campaign in which he himself participated, which the Serbian state leadership and the mainstream press celebrated as a settling of debts from medieval times and as vengeance for Kosovo. The war was about regaining “the great throne of the mighty Dusan” and was led by “our glorious knights.” (99) The left-wing press reported differently from the field, conveying images of horror (“women went into labor out of fear”, 102). These images, however, remained out of the spotlight, because the campaign, just like all others, was ruthless, but also because these victims were no longer considered people, but aliens whose bodies occupy a territory that embodies a myth, and which has become the purpose of a historical settling of scores. To achieve this, the Albanians had to become worse than the Turks.
Tucovic’s words that “our border towards the Arbanasi shouldn’t be guarded by our troops on Pastrik, Senjit and other mountains, but by better and more cultured policy towards them” (103) fell on deaf ears in his time, as well as our own. Pavlovic breathes new life into them in the name of a different patriotism, one which doesn’t put motherland “above law and guilt, above morality, above virtue, and which doesn’t justify the crimes of the representatives of that same motherland.” (110)
The Imaginary Albanian leaves us wondering about the things we say and the resources we have to help us understand: what are the facts, how was the history that we learned put together, could it have been put together differently and what does that depend on, how is that mixture conveyed and taught to us, dividing us into Serbs and non-Serbs according to how readily we jump to the imaginary call of tradition. This book is not a story about facts, but a story about stories, which makes us contemplate why we see things the way that we do, how these stories have influenced and framed our view. Finally, it gives as a new discourse which has the potential to shake our frame and paint a different picture. So, the answer to the question “how do we speak about the Albanian” – the very answer this book aims to provide – becomes an act of an academic rebel, a theoretical outlaw, and a praiseworthy attempt to call for peace in the midst of the same endlessly repeated warmongering.
Translated by Marijana Simic