Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Kosovo fieldwork: religion and identity politics

Kosova/Kosovo fieldwork notes extracts

This entry included one of the single most significant experiences I had in Kosovo and one of the more darkly comic reflections; both are tied to religion and identity politics - and the politics of identity. (The two are, I think, distinct, as identity politics are practices and the politics of identity are the philosophies and ideologies of those practices.)

I noted, at 1.40am on the 18th of July 2005, that:
tomorrow, (today in about six hours' time), I have a meeting with the KFOR MNB SW HQ PO - Kosovo Force Multi-National Brigade South-West Headquarters' Press Officer - about Prizren's [cultural] heritage, KFOR's responsibilities towards it and the local population, what they would regard as safe, productive heritage work (if any at all in Kosovo at present), whether I can use my photos(!), etc.
Sounding disappointed but actually relieved, having had encounters with police and military personnel elsewhere, I observed that,
they do, inconveniently, confound your stereotypes - as the Italian carabinieri do for police [at least in Iraq] and deny you the opportunity to continue to hate the military (and its visibility, which is high here, far more than in Prishtina, though that may be a product of their military, rather than (UN) white, design).

The KFOR troops were initially defensive and untalkative, but became friendly and helpful when they understood what I hope to do (which is encouraging, if only in terms of expected cooperation in my current time here, even if they warn me off working here).

Walking up a 'Roma street' today, (I can't think of any other way to identify the Roma-populated ramshackle houses terraced on the outskirts of town), I finally found a large number of people who wanted to talk to me - aside from the infrequent 'hello's of unsupervised local children or the frequent silent stares of the local adults.

Roma children and adults gathered round speaking a confusing mixture of languages I've forgotten (like German) or never learned (like Serbian - which is similar to Russian, the little of which I had learned I have also forgotten).

It's very difficult - socially as well as linguistically - to explain that although there is no work for them in Kosovo, there is for me - even without the UN, UNMIK, KFOR, et al.

Whilst talking to them, they found a German-speaking Albanian, who was employed building on of their houses, to talk to me. It started off in a friendly manner, as it had done before, but when he asked me where I was going and I told him, he twice 'corrected' me, telling me I meant I was going to the Catholic church, before realising I really did mean the Orthodox church [the Church of Saint Saviour]; then the atmosphere changed.

Gloating, laughing triumphantly, he revelled in telling me that 'there's nothing Orthodox here now'; when I retorted, 'there is - the church is still here', he laughed, repeating his assertion that 'there's nothing Orthodox in Prizren now'.

When my face did not change, his did; he fumed, 'that's not Kosovan'. Wishing now I had used the little Albanian I know (and knew), I was at the time thinking in German and I answered in German (so not that many of the surrounding crowd could have understood), 'everything in Kosova is Kosovan', 'everything in Prizren is Prizreni'.

When he repeated his assertion that the Orthodox church, that 'Orthodoxy is not Kosovan', I responded, 'the Orthodox is Kosovan too; the Orthodox is Prizreni too'. An icy silence fell [during which a fleck of wet cement landed on my toe, though it could've been accidental] thankfully broken by one of the Roma children trying to converse with me in Serbian/Russian.

Someone tried to explain to me that I was not allowed in the church, but I said, 'I don't know, but I think I can - I think it's only Albanians who can't'; I should go back tomorrow and tell them that they were right and I was banned from - could not even take photographs of - the church. [I did go back and tell them the next day - and they were pleased, if surprised that I had bothered.]

It's gone 2.30am; I better get some (five hours') sleep. I'll have to have a full catch-up session - soon. I shall leave by noting one local's protestations that 'burning churches - it's unheard of [amongst Albanians] - 10-20% are Christian... That was wrong - it was burning the House of God!'; he distinguished it from war, as, 'in wartime, no-one knows what's going on, there are no rules'.

While I remember, I also ought to note that I have had the 'Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew?' dilemma put to me - and the difficulty of talking round it made manifest.
The reference is to a story or a joke, depending on who you hear it from, that a Jewish person gets off the boat in Belfast in Northern Ireland and is immediately pinned up against a wall and asked, "are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" He replies, "I'm Jewish!", only for them to persist, "we know you're a Jew, but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?"
A senior UNMIK official asked me, 'what are you?' and when I replied, 'humanist', assuming he was asking out of curiosity, said, 'Protestant then'. I expanded that, 'my family purged religion from its traditions a long time ago', he responded wistfully, 'you're Protestant - you're in Kosovo now'.

Trying to explain my 'neither... nor...' position to people has proved nearly impossible, entailing endless rounds of, 'Catholic or Orthodox?', 'Muslim?', 'you're not Muslim are you?', 'so you're Protestant?', 'so you are Catholic?', 'so you are Muslim then!', before, at least with the Roma, someone appreciates your stance and nods sagely; still, I may say 'Protestant' from now on, anyway.
So, are you a Catholic Protestant or an Orthodox Protestant - or a Muslim Protestant?

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