The father is nearly the same age as his daughter. From the outset, something feels wrong, but it is difficult to determine why in the beginning, because what we see appears to be the normal routine of a normal family.
Everything is a daily routine for Din (Bujar Ahmeti), Sara (Ilire Vinca) and their daughter Lola (Kosovare Krasniqi). Their love, their dinners, their conversations. Their pain is routine as well. Their routines are simple, as is the pain –– they are simple in essence, but severe.
“Father and Father,” written by Jeton Neziraj and directed by Kushtrim Koliqi, is one of those plays that suffocates you with its simplicity. No one, not Dini, nor Sara, nor Lola, cry, laugh or shout loudly. Everything is calm, straightforward and very honest. The pain spreads slowly, word after word, song after song. It spreads, engulfing every corner of the room, of the stage.
The venue, Prishtina’s Ethnological Museum, allows you to be alone while sitting among the audience. You have the freedom to be honest with yourself and the freedom to remove the characters from the role of the victim, where they are usually placed. Instead, we are permitted to see them as people who laugh, love each other, make jokes and have agency. If somewhere a laugh slips out, the play allows you to overcome any conflicting feelings you may have, because after all, pain can be colored sometimes even jokingly.
Soon enough, you find out what brings Din and Lola, the father and the daughter, together, who look out of the window that wraps around the stage, through which is only darkness. Slowly, their small age gap begins to become clearer.
Din is gone. He went missing at a young age, almost at the age that Lola is today, so for him, time has not passed. As they look outside, it seems as if they are both trying to get away from the darkness they face, and Sara, Lola’s mother, Din’s wife, faces the audience and stubbornly insists that the darkness outside has not entered their house. She rejects the presence of the darkness. She tries to withdraw from it, even crawling, in a humiliating way.
Every day she works hard and diligently to preserve the past, the only place where Din still lives.
The audience sees the darkness, but she doesn’t. She fights it, not by avoiding it, but by completely denying its very existence. She has carefully constructed her reality, in which everything is fine. As a disciplined seamstress, she has meticulously stitched the skewed reality inside that room, where she lives with Din and Lola, same as before. This is why she does not look outside, because from that window she could see the truth, which would destroy her hope. The truth is that Din is not there, he is missing.
Every day she works hard, diligently and from time to time even cries out, to preserve the past, the only place where Din is still alive. She inhabits the past she once knew in order to preserve it, so as to not leave Din alone. In reality, she is the one who is alone.
Din is meek. He doesn’t take up much space. He’s always behind Sara, her shadow. He apologizes when he gets nervous, he is affectionate and with a smile that conveys an odd sense of nostalgia he drowns out the darkness that surrounds his former home. Din smiles as if guilty.
He seems to feel guilty that he’s no longer there, blaming himself for not being near Sara and Lola. Din, the land surveyor, whose theodolite remains on stage, is not there. He is not even a ghost. He is an “administrative problem.” Neither alive nor dead. His passport has expired. He cannot even change a light bulb. He stands between life and death, the place where all the missing people in Kosovo exist.
Where is the father?
The songs that are sung softly by the three of them from time to time accentuate the quietness –– traditional music masterfully reworked by Adhurim Grezda that compounds the silence. Din breaks it, shouting “Do I exist?” “Do you see me?” “Do I exist?” You cannot help but think, does Din exist? These questions wear you down, because of Din’s sincerity, his brokenness, the way he exists without making a sound, without upsetting anyone, makes you feel like you owe him something, you owe him an answer. And yes, we owe an answer to Din and to the others who are missing.
Just as we owe an answer to the relatives of the over 1,600 people who are still missing from the period during and after the war in Kosovo. You cannot help but think about their questions. You cannot just ignore all of the women, children and men wandering around their family homes asking “Do you see me?”
There, the quietness is disrupted. There, the usual family routine begins to break down. There one realizes that Din cannot change a light bulb because Din is not there. He exists, but is not there physically. This is why he is almost the same age as Lola, his daughter, who carries the burden of the past and the future. Din’s life is frozen. Din has remained the former land surveyor, he has remained Sara’s young and playful boyfriend.
Din has been deprived of the time he deserved. His right to grow old has been stolen. With this, Lola’s youth has been stolen, which she would have loved, and Sara has been left to live neither here nor there, in the midst of memories of what once was and an unfed hope that perhaps, one day, Din will be back.
Even though it is obvious that she is home alone with her daughter Lola, she asks him "did you like the food?"
So, yes, Din exists. Inside their heads. Even just in the heads of Lola and Sara. In the same liminal space where all the people who went missing during and after the war in Kosovo are known and exist, in the minds of their family members. The same way that the mother and four sisters exist in the mind of Bekim Gashi from Tërnje. The same as her husband Salih, and sons Sahit, Xhavit, Driton and Nait exist in the mind of Ajshe Shehu from Krusha e Vogël, and as her son Driton and husband Muhamet exist in the mind of Ferdije Hoti, from Krusha e Madhe, not that far from the hall where “Father and Father” is performed.
They know what it is like to have a house full of family and then to lose it. How can one forget this? How can one forget the vividness of someone who is not dead but is not alive, either?
Sara cooks dinner for Din too. Even though at home she is alone with her daughter Lola, she asks him “did you like the food?” Sara is not alone, because she cooks for both Din and Lola. The same as Ferdonije Qerkezi from Gjakova who cooks for herself and for Halim, Artan, Armend, Ardian and Edmond.
The father exists, yes. Surely. But he exists to show us that he cannot forever exist in memories, in the dishes cooked, in pain, within the walls of the house where he once was alive. He exists to haunt the conscience of those who should have resolved this issue and who still have not.
Of course, Din exists. How can Ajshe’s sons not exist? Ferdije’s sons? Or Ferdonije? How can they not, when in the whole narrative of missing people in Kosovo, almost the only thing that remains true is the pain of their family members. This, apparently, has an inverse relationship to the work done in searching for them –– as the pain increases, the search for them fades, by those who must seek and find them. It is no coincidence that Din says more than once that they are an “administrative problem.”
An administrative problem
When someone’s pain turns into an administrative problem, the thing that needs to be challenged is the administration. Sara and Lola are involved in this administrative problem. Daily, they are exploited by it. Sara, who also works in a garment factory, and Lola, who has no money to pay for her studies–– both are victims of an “administrative problem” that has not been addressed since the war in Kosovo.
No one has managed to solve this problem. No one has told Sara that this wasn’t her destiny. No one came out to tell Lola that she deserves to get out of this vortex of darkness and live her life. No one came out to ask Lola and Sara in the play, or Ferdije and Ajshe outside of it how this “administrative problem” can be solved.
No one gave Lola and Sara other options. “Between two choices, we always have to choose the lesser evil,” Lola says in the play. They weren’t given any good options.
No one convinced Lola, after 20 years, that she has the right to be the reasonable person in her house. No one has told Lola that she could have a life beyond comforting her mother, who, like clockwork, calls for Din every time she sinks into longing and pain and.
She needs answers. To know which father to love.
Sara looks for Din, Lola pulls Sara back into the dark reality where they interact with Din, who both is and is not. Sara again looks for Din, and Lola again, gently, moves her mother into reality. Lola is, as Din, calm. The only time she raises her voice is when she has to bring her mother back, among the living. She struggles with the past that is pulling her mother back and as the fight repeats itself, they sometimes raise their voices. But Lola has mercy. Mercy that only Lola has the right to have. But she, like the other family members of the 1,600 missing people in Kosovo, doesn’t need anyone’s mercy.
She needs life to no longer be an “administrative problem.” She needs her mother to find a different job. For her mother not to have her fingers pierced by the old needles that have never been replaced in the factory where she works.
She needs life to be a little better, finally. She needs answers. To know which father to love, the one her mother talks to every day, the one who is alive, or the one who is dead? She needs her father, nothing more.
She needs to not run between administrative buildings searching for answers. She should not feel guilty every time she tries to do something good for herself, every time she tries to be happy. She needs to be settled somewhere, to get over living between father and father. She needs her father. Her mother. Her life.
At the end of the play, we, the audience, are given handkerchiefs. In addition to our tears, we must wipe off the dust that has fallen on the issue of missing persons. Just as Sara wipes the dust from Din’s theodolite at the end of the play. They need to be found.
Editor’s Note: The play “Father and Father” premiered on May 16, 2022. The play will return to the stage in September.
Feature Image: Sovran Nrecaj / INTEGRA.