Several years ago, I was part of a delegation of writers from (now North) Macedonia that was attending a well-known book fair in one of the former Yugoslav republics. There was one Albanian writer included in the official delegation. He and I were part of a panel, but I can’t remember what it was about. It was something political.
At the time, we had just rid ourselves of Gruevski’s rule, the Colorful Revolution had ended, and we were full of hope and vigor (that’s now gone). As a result, all literary panels involving Macedonians were always somehow political.
The moderator asked the panel a question about the relationship between Macedonian and Albanian writers and their role in overcoming nationalist differences. The first writer to address the question shrugged it off with a patronizing frown. She was friendly with the moderator, and perhaps her age and status — important standards from our past — allowed her to behave like this. In any event, it was my Albanian colleague who got stuck with answering the question.
His response stunned me. That year, the Ministry of Culture had supported the publication and translation of a book of his into Macedonian, he explained. He expressed delight in this, citing it as a sign of positive developments between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians in the country.
We are talking here about a recognized writer over the age of 50 who, in his home country Macedonia, had published numerous books in Albanian. He was not the least bit upset that it took so long for his work to be published in Macedonian, or that a large majority of the population so far had no access to his books.
I cannot say I don’t understand my colleague, now friend, and his absence of rage. After all, this was a positive development in a political and literary sense, and he chose to be optimistic, perhaps even realistic about it. But there was another thing that bothered me. It all made me realize yet again how stifling the relationship of Macedonians towards Albanians is: my friend was acting in accordance with what Macedonians see as proper behavior for an Albanian.
This is what you have to do to be considered a “nice” Albanian. Not like those “others,” the ones who are “going too far.”
I’ll add that this doesn’t only apply to Macedonia, but also to other ex-Yugoslav countries, where Albanians are seen as something that doesn’t belong, something dangerous, something to be tamed.
Hence, proper behavior for Albanians is to behave like they are really not very Albanian. This means speaking the official language of the country without an Albanian accent, not bringing up systemic discrimination against ethnic Albanians, never bringing up the past, not speaking Albanian in public, not in any way exhibiting the Albanian flag, and of course, not being religious, except perhaps when it’s time for a holiday baklava giveaway.
This is what you have to do to be considered a “nice” Albanian. Not like those “others,” as people here say. Not like the ones who are “going too far.”
Going too far
Too far. This phrase is also used in Macedonian to dismiss feminists or people from the LGBTI community who have gone “too far” with their demands for equality. And so I was flabbergasted at finding myself reprimanded by feminist and LGBTI allies for supporting a young Albanian human rights activist who is vocal about discrimination against ethnic Albanians.
I was told by several people, as if I am utterly inane — and of course I’m considered inane, I’m a woman so must therefore need guidance apparently — to beware of this person because he had gone “too far.” How? He had publicly discussed his ethnic identity. He liked Dua Lipa. He questioned the latest Rama-Zaev-Vučić “Open Balkan” initiative. He wrote posts in Albanian, his mother tongue. Unforgivable.
One might think the literary world would be an arena where such prejudices would be absent, or at the very least, concealed. Oh, but think again. Unfortunately, national literary institutions in ex-Yugoslav countries tend to harbor a great number of nationalists, and the national academies of arts and sciences are no exception.
I will highlight one case that I am still scandalized by. It was June 2020, the first stage of the pandemic. As the virus was spreading and the country was closing down, the panic and helplessness of the ethnic Macedonian population turned into nationalistic rage as they started blaming ethnic Albanians for spreading the virus. In the absence of physical communication, where such irresponsible banter would have been exchanged nonchalantly over coffee, the sentiment swept across Macedonian social media.
Albanophobia is so present in schools, the media, the street and the home that it has become normalized.
At one point, a famed writer, critic, former professor of world literature and current member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and — get this — vice president of the Macedonian branch of PEN International (whose international members include Svetlana Alexievich, Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee) published the rhyming tweet, “Cenata na soživotot ja plakjame so životot,” or in English, “The price of our coexistence we pay with our lives.” The implication was that in return for Macedonians’ supposed forbearance towards Albanians, Albanians would kill us (ethnic Macedonians). While I and a number of other people spoke out against this tweet, only a few other writers joined us.
The woman who wrote the tweet is a big deal in North Macedonia, and apart from the fear of speaking out, I believe many other ethnic Macedonian writers feel the same way as her. Albanophobia was and is so present in schools, the media, the street and the home that it has become normalized. Thus, institutions take no action against such outbursts. There was no word from the Academy that she is part of and the majority of the members of the board of the Macedonian PEN did not want to take action against her, despite the fact that she clearly violated the organization’s articles.
As for the distinguished writer, she said that her tweet was personal, then deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts. She never apologized. I, on the other hand, was privately chastised and scolded about my unruly behavior, as if I were a little girl who had wet her pants in the classroom.
Failing to break barriers
The Struga Poetry Evenings Festival is another big deal in the Macedonian literary scene. It’s an old festival, boasting an array of famous international guests and laureates (this year’s is Carol Ann Duffy). The festival takes place in Struga, a beautiful town on the coast of Lake Ohrid that is ethnically mixed, roughly half Macedonian, half Albanian.
I remember a few years ago sitting in a restaurant with the celebrated Serbian-American poet Charles Simic and the then-director of the festival. Having worked at the festival as a volunteer 17 or 18 years prior, it dawned on me that none of the readings were translated into Albanian, although the official program was always in Macedonian, English and the native language of the poet.
I asked the director why nothing was translated into Albanian. He found the idea impossible. There was no room for Albanian, he said, and of course, the festival was Macedonian, as was the country and the official language. If Albanians lived in the town, he suggested, they should know Macedonian anyway.
There is such a strong and sturdy wall between Albanians and Macedonians that literature is hardly the wrecking ball that will tear it down.
Today some progress has been made here, though it has been rather middling, and cowardly, to boot. As of 2019, the opening and closing of the festival are also conducted in Albanian, but also in French. This makes no sense, except to superficially appease the Macedonians that it’s a language thing, and not a political thing.
I guess things could be changing, as my writer-friend suggested a few years ago at that book fair. In 2019, my publisher pointed out that we could apply for support from the Ministry of Culture for the translation of my book My Husband into Albanian. We had both wanted the book to be out in a language that is so widely spoken at home and across the region, but we hadn’t succeeded in catching the attention of publishing houses in Albania or Kosovo.
So we got the grant and did it ourselves. It felt like we were breaking new ground. Then the book, translated by Kreshnik Ajdini, came out and sold a whopping 16 copies in Skopje, compared to six sold-out print runs in Macedonian, with a seventh on the way.
My Husband is one of the few domestic literary books to have domestic editions in Albanian and Macedonian (there does not appear to be much research on the matter), but it doesn’t feel like anyone cares. There is such a strong and sturdy wall between Albanians and Macedonians here that literature is hardly the wrecking ball that will tear it down.
I’m generally a hopeful and optimistic person. Otherwise, I would have long ago left my country. I believe in change and I believe in the people living here. However, for any kind of change to take place, we have to own up to our prejudices, as well as the reality of the past and present. I was recently reading Real Estate, a memoir by British writer Deborah Levy, in which she quotes Gloria Steinem several times, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” And I think it’s high time for some pissing off.
Feature image: K2.0.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.