Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kosovo fieldwork: banal nationalism and Decani Monastery

Kosova/Kosovo fieldwork notes extracts

In these three entries, I detailed a visit to Decan, Decani Monastery and Peje, which afforded me many moments in which the conditions of everyday life in Kosovo were shown to me and in which community division and the banal nationalism that reproduces it were exposed.

At 1.25am on the 21st of July 2005, I noted two encounters I had before I discussed the visit to Decani Monastery. The first encounter was one I'd had with some local kids who'd befriended me; I saw that "they were bullying one of the mentally ill adults".
I told them 'he isn't bad' and that 'it isn't good' to do that to him [at which point] they asked me, 'are Albanians bad?', to which I replied, 'no, Albanians aren't bad, but it isn't good [to do that]';
still, I didn't know what to make of primary school-aged children asking that question.

The second encounter was one I'd had with the staff of the bus from Gjakove to Decan, who double-charged me and "once we were a mile outside of town... stopped, signalled for me to get off and go back the way we'd just come" (either because they thought I was a rich international or because they thought I was a Serb, as I mispronounced the place name).

I was infuriated when I walked back under the summer sun, but it did mean I saw the sign at the town limits, where the Serbian language spelling had been spray-painted over and only the Albanian language spelling remained.

Writing it down as I remembered it, I noted that,
I actually saw a piece of Albanian (or maybe Turkish) cultural property that hadn't been restored in Peje (which could be explained by it being Turkish and therefore unsupported - though Turkey has invested in the restoration of some cultural and historical material); unfortunately, I saw it from the bus and it didn't stop near enough for me to get to it to photograph it.
Finally, I recorded that,
I went - or, rather, tried to go - to Decan(i) Monastery today. I had the usual conversation with the staff at a local restaurant - 'I like Kosovo, but there's no work', 'Kosovo's good, the people are good, but, there's no work - I earn E150 a month - what can I do with that?', etc.

A friend of a member of staff who'd sat with us while we had our coffee gave me a lift to the KFOR checkpoint; however, he couldn't go in because he was Albanian, so he dropped me off and went back to the cafe.

I, also, couldn't go in, because I didn't have a car; evidently, it's one of the rules. I asked if I could get a taxi to take me up, but the monks said (through the checkpoint guards) that I couldn't as I had to be able to descend at a moment's notice - I couldn't even go in other visitors' cars.

This, obviously, doesn't even touch upon the difficulties of hailing a Serb taxi, whose driver would be allowed to deliver and collect me (or, obviously, buying a car). Even though they would've had to escort me anyway, KFOR were not allowed to transport me themselves.

Basically, the monks wouldn't let me see the monastery or speak to them, knowing only that I was an English archaeologist researching the destruction of cultural property and ways to reduce it.

I really don't know what that tells me, though I'm confident it tells me something; it could be the monks' geography of friends and enemies, or it could [be] the internal wrangling over the control and the direction of the monastery and indeed the [Serbian Orthodox] Church.

I did, at least, have a really interesting conversation with a local translator. He showed interest (and the local Italian KFOR soldiers showed support) when I identified myself as an archaeologist researching 'the destruction of cultural property and how you can work to prevent it'.

The translator and I started chatting. When he asked if I were looking into what happened in March 2004, I answered, 'yes, but at the destruction of other cultural property too - churches, mosques, monuments...'. 'You should look at the kullas', he said, 'they're a traditional Albanian house; a lot was done to them'.
At 3.55am on the 21st of July 2005, I continued,
his response (or as much of it as can be remembered), ran as follows: 'it's a result of too much modernism, too much industrialism, too much commercialism... It's too much modernism - people don't appreciate the old, the antique...'.
He opined that,
'that's why I like Scotland - the Scottish folk music, the folk costumes... They keep everything there... Here, people don't appreciate the old - everything has to be new, everything has to be modern... They don't see that there is beauty in everything old, they don't see that the past has beauty for all of us, so they destroy it, or just throw it out...'.
The translator addressed nationalists (who destroy the old) and modernists, consumerists and capitalists (who discard the old), but here, I want to focus upon nationalist extremists and the logic of their destruction of cultural heritage.

In "on beauty and being just", Elaine Scarry (1998: 39) meditated that, "it may even be the case that far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, it [beauty] instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries", both emotional and social.

Weaving the translator and Scarry's ideas together, if Kosovo Albanian or Kosovo Serb nationalists saw the beauty in "everything old", which we could read as Kosovan cultural heritage (as opposed to Albanian cultural heritage or Serb cultural heritage):
  • they would work to protect Kosovan cultural heritage;
  • they would work to reconcile Kosovan communities; and
  • they would try to reconstruct Kosovan society.
As it is,
  • nationalist extremists do work to protect what they conceive of as their own, Albanian or Serb, cultural heritage, but they destroy what they see as other communities' artefacts and sites;
  • nationalist extremists do work to unite those people whom they categorise as members of their own community, but they also work to undermine alternative constructions of community and to eliminate those people whom they categorise as members of other communities; and
  • nationalist extremists do try to reconstruct society, but, rather than trying to correct the complex constellations of social, political, economic and other problems that enabled the segregation of society, they reduce problems to cultural differences or Huntington's (1996) clash of civilisations and try to solve them by committing ethnic cleansing or genocide, an important part of which is urbicide (the elimination of heterogeneity through the destruction of cultural heritage and community architecture).
Scarry (1998: 61) argued that, "the beautiful object, has conferred on it by the beholder a surfeit of aliveness: even if it is inanimate, it comes to be accorded a fragility and consequent level of protection normally reserved for the animate".

If we accepted these premises, we might infer certain aspects of nationalists' ideologies:
  • nationalists would not see the beauty in everything old, but only in the cultural heritage of what they consider to be their own, Albanian or Serb, community;
  • nationalists would come to treat what they consider their own community's cultural heritage - their artefacts and sites - as living;
  • as living, nationalists would treat their artefacts and sites as subjects who have rights in themselves (not as objects that subjects have rights to);
  • as rights-bearing subjects, nationalists would conceive of their artefacts and sites as equal with other rights-bearing subjects (specifically, human subjects).
In terms of their treatments of other communities' cultural heritage:
  • nationalists would in fact see ugliness in (some) other, non-Albanian or non-Serb, communities' artefacts and sites;
  • nationalists would regard other communities' artefacts and sites as non-living objects;
  • as such, nationalists would not recognise other communities' cultural heritage as rights-bearing subjects;
  • so, nationalists would not recognise any direct obligation to protect other communities' cultural heritage.
We can see that nationalists' relationships with other communities' cultural heritage are products of their relationships with those other communities, as:
  • although nationalists would not recognise other, non-Albanian or non-Serb, communities' cultural heritage as rights-bearing subjects; and
  • although nationalists would not recognise any direct obligation to protect other communities' cultural heritage; still,
  • they would recognise a direct obligation to respect the other communities' rights to participation in cultural life, including access to cultural heritage; hence,
  • their actions upon other communities' cultural heritage would be actions respecting or violating other communities' rights to participation in cultural life, including access to cultural heritage.
I reject the notion that artefacts and sites could be seen as rights-bearing subjects and accept that their protection should be a product of the duty to respect the right to participation in cultural life.

I challenge the nationalist construction of cultural heritage, then, not because it relegates other communities' cultural heritage to the status of a non-rights-bearing object, but because it elevates its own community's cultural heritage to the status of a rights-bearing subject.

I challenge the nationalist treatment of cultural heritage, not because it violates other communities' artefacts' and sites' rights, but because it violates other communities' rights to those artefacts and sites.

Elaine Scarry does not deal with the kind of violent destruction that nationalists visit upon other communities' artefacts and sites. Scarry (1998: 48) states that:
Of course it is imaginable that someone perceiving a beautiful garden might then trample on it, just as someone perceiving beautiful persons or paintings might then attempt to destroy them;

but so many laws and rules are already being broken by these acts that it is hard to comprehend why, rather than bringing these rules and laws to bear on the problem, the rules of perceiving need to be altered to accommodate the violator.

Excluding the beauty of gardens and poems from perception would more swiftly destroy them than any occasional act of trampling.
I'm not advocating excluding beauty from perception, but, instead, extending the approach to encompass ugliness. Artefacts' and sites' ugliness and lack of intrinsic rights, still, do not seem sufficient to account for active aggression.

After all, as has been demonstrated, nationalists would still be bound by the direct obligation to respect other communities' rights to participation in cultural life and hence to the indirect obligation to respect the cultural heritage essential to those other communities' participation.

Wolfgang Sofsky (2003: 12) proposes that individuals identify with groups and kill others to approach immortality:
Nothing gives you more vitality than having death in your hands. Those who are still alive while others are dead feel that they are more alive.... Those with the power to kill have subdued their worst enemies. They can feel invulnerable, revived, full of life.... Killing, then, is rooted in delusions of immortality.
There are questions as to whether nationalists experience delusions of immortality or illusions of invulnerability and whether they commit acts that constitute ethnic cleansing in order to be immortalised or commit acts for which they will be immortalised in order to achieve ethnic cleansing; still, that Sofsky may have struck upon a useful tool in understanding nationalist violence I can see from my own fieldwork.

When the Albanian builder gleefully proclaimed that "there's nothing Orthodox in Prizren now", the unspoken declaration may have been that the Kosovo Albanian community had outlived the Kosovo Serb one, that that community was still alive while the other was dead; nonetheless, he did go on to say that "Orthodoxy is not Kosovan", which might alter the interpretation of his previous statement.

Significantly, for the matter at hand, Sofsky (2003: 54) analyses Serb nationalists' massacres of Albanians thus: "the murderers were by no means satisfied with killing their victims" - "their actions aimed at total elimination, the complete eradication of the dead".

Sofsky (2003: 168) addresses urbicide directly:
The destruction of memorials, the burning of flags and straw dummies, the smearing of tombstones and religious monuments with filth, forced entry into sacrosanct precincts - these acts of desecration strike at the enemy's very core.

The destruction of the enemy's emblem is meant to extinguish his (sic) history. Whether such acts are a sign of victory, protest or terrorism, their point is their emotional and not their material value.
Intriguingly, Sofsky (2003: 168) states that:
They do not leave an empty space behind; they aim to disfigure and defile what is sacred to their opponents. Since the desecration can be recognised only by what it leaves behind, destruction must never be complete.

Ruins of the synagogue must be left, the dome of the tomb, the torso of the statue. There is no desecration unless something of what was once sacred is left. Only then does the violation achieve its aim, exhibiting what it destroys.
Although this analysis does hold true in some places, it is clear in Kosovo and elsewhere that there are also ruins, rather than empty spaces, not because nationalists want to exhibit what they destroy, but only because their local enemies and the international community have prevented and continue to prevent those ruins' complete destruction. If the nationalists had their way, there would be empty spaces - car parks and plains, rather than walls and wastelands - throughout Kosovo.

Erich Fromm sets out a typology of defensive and malignant aggressions, including:
  • a self-assertive aggression, "moving forward towards a goal without undue hesitation, doubt, or fear"(1997: 256);
  • a "desire for freedom" (1997: 268);
  • a "[reaction against] the wounding of narcissism" (1997: 271);
  • an instrumental aggression, "obtaining that which is necessary or desirable" (1997: 280);
  • a vengeful destructiveness as a "spontaneous reaction to intense and unjustified suffering" (1997: 362);
  • an ecstatic destructiveness "from the awareness of his (sic) powerlessness and separateness" (1997: 366);
  • a worship of destructiveness by "chronic dedication of a person's whole life to hate and destructiveness" (1997: 369); and
  • necrophilia as a "passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly;... to destroy for the sake of destruction;... to tear apart living structures" (1997: 441).
Each may be seen in nationalist violence, particularly vengeful destructiveness, but the most significant element is narcissism.

Fromm says that:
Narcissism can then be described as a state of experience in which only the person himself (sic)... everything and everybody pertaining to him (sic) are experienced as fully real,

while everybody and everything that does not form part of the person or is not an object of his (sic) needs is not interesting, is not fully real, is perceived only by intellectual recognition, while affectively without weight or colour [1997: 275]....

and because of this double standard the narcissistic person shows severe defects in judgement and lacks the capacity for objectivity [1997: 272].
Pointing out that group narcissism "sounds like the expression of patriotism, faith, and loyalty", which "appears to be a realistic and rational value judgement because it is shared by many members of the same group" (Fromm, 1997: 275), Fromm explains that:
Group narcissism... furthers the solidarity and cohesion of the group... makes manipulation easier by appealing to narcissistic prejudices... [gives] satisfaction to the members of the group and particularly to those who have few other reasons to feel proud and worthwhile [1997: 275].
I believe that by enabling Kosovo's autonomy from Serbia and by (vastly) improving Kosovan citizens' economic and social quality of life, the international community could undermine some of the key foundations of Kosovo Albanian nationalism and thereby the nationalist extremism that feeds off it and the organised crime that hides behind it.

Obviously, it is an incredibly difficult enterprise, as, simultaneously, the international community needs to protect Kosovan minority communities and establish their day-to-day security and freedom, so that their suffering and the possibility of further homogenisation are minimised and so that the foundations of Kosovo Serb nationalism, too, are eroded.

Noting that group narcissism mirrors individual narcissism, Fromm (1997: 276; see also Sofsky, 2003: 73-75) observes that:
one's own group becomes a defender of human dignity, decency, morality, and right. Devilish qualities are ascribed to the other group; it is treacherous, ruthless, cruel, and basically inhuman.
Cultural heritage, then, may play a key role in attacking individual and group narcissism, as it challenges conceptions of distinct or bounded groups and thereby conceptions of one's own group's superiority and another's group's inferiority.

Critically, here, Fromm (1997: 276) observes that:
the violation of one of the symbols of group narcissism - such as the flag, or the person of the emperor, the president, or an ambassador - is reacted to with such intense fury and aggression by the people that they are even willing to support their leaders in a policy of war.
Notwithstanding that groups' symbols need to be protected simply in order to minimise the risk of vengeful destructiveness, groups' symbols need to be protected in order to demonstrate those communities' longevity, coexistence and cooperation and, indeed, to demonstrate their negative heritage(s) too.

Christopher Catherwood (2002: 36) maintains that:
In destroying the famous Bosnian library of Sarajevo, the Serbs were deliberately attempting to wipe out the ethnic memory of the Bosnian Muslim peoples. The same applies to the wholesale destruction of both Christian churches and Muslim mosques by the different sides in the conflict;

they were obliterating the physical symbols of the other, the group whose very existence and identity they were aiming to cleanse from their own sacred space.
Grounding his analysis of the Bosnian War in the understanding that "the physical and social landscape of a region is more than a palimpsest of long-term settlement features; it is an imprint of community action" (Chapman, 1994: 120), John Chapman (1994: 125) asserts that:
the war is based on a false ideology of perceived historical pasts, manipulated by political elites (Halpern, 1993). The basic falsity in these perceived pasts is that each contested part of the west Balkans once upon a time was ethnically homogeneous and can be once again.
Economic and political conditions, particularly, ground nationalist understandings and fuel nationalist actions; still, what creates the illusion of their coherence and correspondence with reality is their culture-historical narrative.

Cultural heritage may be used, instead, to rewrite that narrative, to sever that alleged correspondence with reality and to unpick the fabric of truths, half-truths and lies that confer a false coherence upon nationalist histories:
  • archaeological, historical and cultural artefacts and sites disprove theories of any one group's shared origins (as first, all individuals and groups maintain multiple, overlapping identities and second, all communities' artefacts and sites, overwhelmingly, if not always, reveal interactions between and mutual influences upon supposedly distinct groups);
  • artefacts and sites provide material evidence that each allegedly homogeneous ethnic group or culture is in fact a community of communities (for example, reference to "the Albanians" encompasses Albanians from and/or in Albania, Britain, Australia, Israel and elsewhere, Albanians who are Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, atheist and other, ones who are socialists and others who are nationalists, ones who are rich and others who are poor, et al); and
  • cultural heritage makes manifest that some individuals and groups from all communities have acted justly and some from all unjustly (for instance, whilst some Serb nationalists attacked Albanian communities, some Serb monks protected them and while some Albanian nationalists torched the very sites that had given their community sanctuary in the past, some Albanian workers rescued the site's artefacts and put the fires out).
One of my foremost interests, currently, is in learning how we may reinterpret histories in order to forge multicultural narratives that form the foundations for multicultural communities. I want to contribute to work developing community histories that document all people's pasts and that truly speak for and to all communities, in a spirit of coexistence.

At 4.30am on the 21st of July 2005, I continued relaying the translator's observation that,
'it's too much modernism - we're being turned into robots, not humans anymore - you work twelve hours and then what?... Go on the computer? Not talk to anyone - you see? We're being turned into robots, not humans any more.'

When he enquired, 'have you spoken to many colleagues here?', I responded, 'yes, but they all insist they're 'professionals', they 'don't do politics', which is good, because they look after everybody's heritage, but not good for my work'. He questioned, 'but your work isn't political is it?'.

When I answered, 'well, it shouldn't be [inasmuch as in Kosovo, "political" means "sectarian"], but all the sides seem to think it is', he held that, 'that's the problem - here, people don't appreciate that the old has beauty for all of us... but it's your story - if you don't know your past, you don't know who you are anymore...'.
I concluded by noting that,
I still haven't talked about what went before. When I get refused access to Archangel Monastery and get to Mitrovica early, I'll have an early night and write everything up, so I can document Mitrovica without flashes of fading memories disrupting the semi-narrative flow.
I never made any notes about my trip to Peje, which I took using the time I would otherwise have spent in Decani Monastery. I just walked through the town, saw the Hotel Metohija and the Bula Zade Mosque, which, at the time, I didn't know the recent history of, then went home.

The Hotel Metohija - 'the Hotel of the Land of Monasteries' - had had its sign smashed, so it read 'the Hotel Met'. The Bula Zade Mosque, originally built with a multicultural architecture in the Seventeenth Century, had been subjected to destruction and reconstruction in an Orthodox Muslim style as a result of conditional Saudi aid.

Catherwood, C. 2002: Why the nations rage: Killing in the name of God. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Chapman, J. 1994: "Destruction of a common heritage: The archaeology of war in Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina". Antiquity, Volume 68, 120-126.
Fromm, E. 1997: The anatomy of human destructiveness. London: Pimlico.
Halpern, J M. 1993: "War among the Yugoslavs: Introduction". Anthropology of East Europe Review, Volume 11, Numbers 1-2. Available at: Available at:
Huntington, S P. 1996: The clash of civilisations and the remaking of world order. London: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd.
Scarry, E. 1998: "On beauty and being just". Paper presented at the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, New Haven, USA, 25th-26th March. Available at:
Sofsky, W. 2003: Violence: Terrorism, genocide, war. London: Granta Books.

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