For the past four years, the Kosovo Oral History Initiative has been collecting the life stories of individuals. We know that Kosovo has a surplus of oral tradition, because for the longest time history has been spoken, rather than written. Every epochal moment of the history of this new state, populated by old nations, has plenty of poems, tales, and testimonies. And they have come to be all neatly organized along conflicting national lines, with the Albanian and Serbian narratives as the main ones.
So, what’s the use of collecting more stories? The issue is that the main national narratives either forget or suppress stories, because they do not fit their plot.
We thought that by asking people about their lives, rather than the big historical moments, we could recapture that which disappears below the radar.
People’s memories of their lives complicate the narratives. Like nations, they forget, or selectively remember what is more important to them at certain times in their lives. Often, they don’t tell it as it was. They remember childhood and youth as beautiful, even when desperately poor. They erase some memories because they are concerned with their reputation and the reputation of their families. Yet, their stories reveal the truth of their aspirations, anxieties, and fears; they tell us about people’s feelings.
Oral history often surprises us, especially when individuals who have rarely been asked to talk about themselves in depth finally do the talking. Hidden stories emerge, as well as feelings that are both intimate and signifiers of greater issues. When Kujtim Pacaku and Bajram ‘Kafu’ Kinolli agreed to be interviewed, we immediately knew that our archive would become so much richer for it.
Both men are well known in society. They are creative people who are often on TV, in performance spaces, in the newspapers. They are called, and call themselves, Roma, yet the meaning of this classification is not very clear for people — even when they feel certain of its meaning.
Pacaku, a member of the Kosovo Assembly for the Kosovaki Nevi Romani Partia (KNRP), recently asked for an apology from the Assembly for the derogatory language used by another member to refer to Roma. At roughly the same time, the Oral History Initiative published its interview with Kafu, a creative, popular musician who often rocks Pristina nights with his band Gipsy Groove, playing a fusion of traditional Roma music with jazz, punk and reggae.
In a moving oral history interview, Kafu told us about growing up in a Sufi household in Gjakova during the 1990s as an Albanian speaker mingling with Albanians. He said that he knew he was not as white as the others, but found friends to play with and loving teachers who nurtured him, as well as people who kept him at a distance. It was after the war when he felt he did not belong, and the names he was called began to hurt.
As Kafu told us: “Magjup, gabel, çërgash are terms that we only heard in the streets, man, or that they would swear at us. I used them without being aware, I didn’t know what that was. Gabel were the ones who spoke Roma, Romani; magjup were the ones who spoke Albanian; çërgash were the ones who went out in the streets asking for money. These were the classifications made by the Roma people, by us, [they came] from within the community. … Much later, in 2002, there was the word Roma. Then I was interested, later I was interested. My big brother would say to me, ‘We are Egyptians.’ In school they would say, ‘You are Roma.’ Someone else in the street would say, ‘You are Ashkali.’ It just started to get … I was only 16 years old, my mind went everywhere, man. … Who am I? A question I had for three years. Who am I? Why are they calling me magjup, or gabel, or cërgash, or Roma? Why do they call me these things … or Ashkali, or Egyptian?”
Kujtimi Pacaku, a writer and poet from Prizren, educated in France as well as Kosovo, grew up in the 1970s, when spaces were opening up in Kosovo for different cultures and experiences. He told us revealing stories about what it means to be Roma — rich in culture and marginalized, discriminated against.
In 1986 the first radio show in Romani was broadcast, Pacaku told us. “Maybe it was even the first in Europe. And … in the first show I said: ‘Lacho dive romalen me se e Durmishesko chavo o Kujtimi, ka kerva i emisija pi rromani chib!’ (‘Good day people, I am Kujtim Pacaku, Durmish’s son, and we will begin the show in Romani’). … But some Roma in Prizren, or somewhere else, turned on the radio on a very low volume so the other neighbor wouldn’t know that he was Roma. In 1986 there were people who were whiter than I, richer than I, and they couldn’t afford to show themselves as Roma.”
Speaking of postwar Kosovo, Kafu says: “Enough with victimization! You know what, there’s no time to put yourself down, no more, ‘He is better, he is from there, he is from here, or you have this skin, I don’t have this skin, or I am positive, I am negative.’ It’s about where you want to go.”
Pacaku put it in verse in his poem, “Color.”
Why are you afraid, why do you hide?
Are you ashamed of the color of your skin?
Also you, and me and all the others
God has created.
Under the color of your skin
A rainbow is hiding,
Right inside your soul.
Thus, head high!
You can listen to him recite this poem in his oral history interview here.