In the ’90s, the poet from Rahovec, Xhevdet Bajraj, published three volumes of poetry. One of these, “Emblema e Vdekjes” (“The Emblem of Death”) won the prize for best book of poetry, conferred on him by the Kosovo Writers’ Society in 1993. However, his publishing would stop with the beginning of the war in Kosovo.
On the last day of April 1999, Bajraj, who came from one of the cities most affected by the war in Kosovo, was forcibly removed from his home at gunpoint. He went to France together with his wife and two children, before the International Writers’ Parliament offered opportunities to choose asylum in either France, Italy or Mexico, through the program for persecuted writers. Since then, Bajraj has lived in Mexico City, where he now works at the Autonomous University of Mexico City.
In addition to giving poetry lessons, Bajraj continued to write poetry in Mexico. Among other works, in 2017 he published the monodrama “Slaying the Mosquito,” an extract from which was performed at the Kosovo National Theater.
During this time out of the country his literary work has been bestowed with several awards. In 2000, he received the award from the Association of Writers of Kosovo, the International Goliard Prize for Poetry in 2004, and for the best original drama written in the Albanian language in 2013 at the Festival of Monodrama in Vlora. But poetry remains one of his greatest passions. In 2015, he was also awarded a prize for the best poetry presented at the Pristina International Fair.
The horrors he saw during the war continued to be present in his literary activity. “I would like to write about love, but I can’t bring myself to choose this theme,” says Bajraj. Insisting that “the pain he has experienced” has made him able to empathize with the population’s guilt.
K2.0 conducted an interview with Bajraj about poetry, war, murder and pain, about his life in Mexico, and about global and Kosovar politics.
Photo courtesy of Xhevdet Bajraj.
K2.0: Let’s start the conversation with the first book you published, “The Years that Never Brought the Spring.” Which years and which spring were you referring to?
Xhevdet Bajraj: I think it’s clear without it being stated. Nevertheless, the post-war period never brought the spring, though we waited for it for many generations. These years could have been better, despite the situation and the region we live in. But they weren’t.
In addition to love, and a lack of contentment with life, a considerable part of your poetry also addresses Kosovo. There are many authors that evade this. Why is it so important for you to go back to this?
As Fatos Arapi, the poet who passed away recently, would say: “Where I am, that is where the landscape of my fatherland is.” I believe every Kosovar who lives abroad has taken a small part of the fatherland with them, and some might have taken all of it with them.
As for me, I have all of Kosovo, and all Albanians, and the region, with me at all times. For me, the fatherland is memories; it is the grave of my father in Rahovec, it is the later years of my mother and her friends. Above all, it is memories. For me, they are the energy that enables me to keep going. We hold memories with us. They continuously advise us for the future.
At the moment, at least geographically, you are living away from memories, if we can say that. Is your poetry a way to break geography and to live with memories?
Certainly. However, what distances me is not physical, because I measure [distance] with pain, nostalgia and yearning. With time, people who don’t live in the country where they were brought up, when they return, they see that everything has changed; they don’t know most people around them, and then they see that some people have the faces of their friends.
In the poem “I Will Return,” you mention “the ruins of a burnt house, the shadow of flying pigeons, the ghost of a dog that wags its tail,” and you say: “Don’t ask whether I have somewhere to return to.” A few months ago you were in Kosovo. Besides ruins, death, and the shadow of ghosts, what else did you find?
This is hard to say, because sometimes it is not preferable to tell the truth. Today, when I come to Kosovo, I find massive, extraordinary unemployment and a fear of freedom. I find a mother who lives with woeful pension funds, a brother and his wife and their three unemployed children, and my friends that fight and say that they are trying to find a way toward tomorrow. Hope is absent.
For me, visa liberalization is not hope. When young people leave the country, that is not hope, knowing that most of the diaspora living abroad are treated as second class citizens. If we talk about those who live in Europe, and also closer [to Kosovo], they can’t integrate into the countries in which they live.
But, above all, I don’t see that they are provided space or options, excluding hard labour, so as to enable them to provide for their children. It seems that even their children participate in hard labour.
I live with the feeling that someday I will be back in Kosovo, even though I haven’t faced hard labour or racism [in Mexico]. This, because I see a sense of anti-migration in Kosovo. I want to deserve the ‘poet’ title, and to lend my voice to those who are in need. Although being a poet in Kosovo means nothing.
Is lending a voice a duty of a poet?
It is the duty of a poet to lend their voice to the time in which they live. A poet is a witness. The history that is learned is written by the victors, whereas the real history is written in literature. I am talking about good literature, because in our country, a good poem is for a hero that killed, like Rambo, for example.
For me, a true hero is someone who attempts, with dignity, to face the reality in which they live. I come from Rahovec, which was a war zone, and “nothing human is foreign to me,” as the saying goes. But I am not a perfect person, and a poet can be bitter. I feel and live the pain of others, but I’m also subjective.
The storm that happened in the past century still has terrible consequences and can be resurrected. My experience, and the experience of people I know, the pain that I’ve felt and that my people have felt, has made me feel everyone’s pain. The poet’s objective is not to be perfect.
I don’t know why, but some of your poems somehow give me the impression that Kosovo is not yet free, and that the pain and lack of freedom continues. Some could be angry with you. Should we banish the poet from the state?
Plato wanted to banish poets because they caused problems at that time. I don’t want to elevate myself to that level, because I know that poetry in Kosovo has no weight. At that time, poetry was written differently; they did it for money, they dedicated poetry to politicians, senators, war generals etc — they idealised it, as they still do today in fact. And I can say that I would agree with politicians who would banish poets from the state. I would pay that price. In fact, I’m paying it. I banished myself from the state.
Does Kosovo seem free to you? What is freedom?
No country in the region is free. In fact, even beyond the region… For Honduras, El Salvador, Kosovo and Bosnia, it is more important who is elected president of the U.S. or Germany, than who is elected president in those respective states.
However, knowing the reality, that there are no small and free countries — in accordance with our definition of freedom — it doesn’t mean that local policies shouldn’t strive to provide welfare for citizens. Because for me, freedom is welfare, equality, free thought and speech, and lack of corruption. So that reality goes against Kosovo’s reality.
In “The Poet’s Whimper,” you announced that “Kosovo is dead,” and simultaneously that “it still stands on its feet.” Why?
Even poets explode sometimes. I don’t believe that Kosovo is dead. It will never die, with or without us. But our situation, the political parties, the way politics is perceived, it has practically killed Kosovo. Kosovo has experienced clinical death.
Imagine if in football, the Kosovo team was selected not based on the coach’s ideas, but on nepotism and corruption and gossip. A team attempts to choose the best [players], politicians should also do the same.
Photo courtesy of Xhevdet Bajraj.
Today we have abuse and violation of democracy and freedom. Someone comes and seizes the state by force, and they claim to have done it through votes. This is abuse of democracy. If Kosovo citizens cannot self-organize — seeing that every population has power — and they continue to vote in these political players that we have as leaders… In “Slaying the Mosquito” I said: “these people have no need for democracy, rather they need a good psychiatrist, or collective sessions.”
In the poem “The Neighborhood Beauty,” the beauty was buried with an umbrella, and “the priest told someone in confidence that in the part of the sky where the ones who lack love go, it always rains.” If we substitute the beauty with Kosovo, should we place an umbrella on Kosovo’s grave? How would the priest look in this case?
Kosovo experienced clinical death, but it still stands. I expect people to understand that they only have one life to live. People who were 15 years old during the war are now over 30, and I expect them to taste love, to experience freedom as they dreamt about it.
Unfortunately, Kosovo never tasted it. I dreamt about freedom differently, and it seems that politicians dreamt about it differently too. This [version of] freedom is what produces a fear of speaking in cafés.
When someone likes a political party not because of ideological conviction or political programs, but they like them as they like Barcelona or Liverpool or Manchester United — that is senseless. Our parties play in the district league, or as we call it, the former Yugoslavia. They have no connection to the Premier League or the Spanish, Italian or German League. They only become important in a circle that they have created themself.
Let’s talk about some verses from the poem “Albanian Dish”: “At breakfast / milk from the mother’s ripped breast / and unborn babies cooked in house fires / … At lunch / burst hearts of all ages / followed by fried brains of children / … At dinner / elderly bread baked in a barbecue / salted with salt excreted from tears / … Some were content with only a baked head…” This ‘horror plate’ keeps going. By the end you ask: “if they are people / or not, God?” Who else do you ask this question to?
An abstract or ideal person, or the human conscience itself. I’ve noticed people who experienced war liked this poem. People who experienced war will live with war, ultimately. Just like I experienced it up until April ’99, when I was deported.
Photo courtesy of Xhevdet Bajraj.
I understood that there are even more awe-inspiring stories [than the one presented in the poem]. Gilles Deleuze says: “I wonder if being human is insufficient to allow writing” — I’ve felt this for a long time, ever since I started writing poetry.
Maybe we should ask that question to our politicians. Many of them are aware of what has happened; they are either participants or witnesses. How can we forget those things so fast? If a part of the society has a monotheist God, they [politicians] seem to have the God of oblivion. They try to build a new life, but they are acting like wild and hungry animals, or tamed animals who are actually rabid.
Let’s talk more about you. Did you not know the way home after you closed the office door? Or else, is this happening today? Why is this happening?
Yes, unfortunately this happens to me every day and has become part of my nature, I have to admit that I am condemned to live at a crossroads watching the traffic sign pointing to Kosovo.
The political elite rock the absolute majority of citizens to sleep, singing the scandalous song of life and freedom. As a consequence, in this bad dream is drawn the path to “salvation” — the road that will turn them into the lowest category, the most despised in foreign company, but they will be ‘happy.’
I say most of them, because those who remain, the minority who feel untouchable, behave as if most of the civilized world, in the last year of the last century, stood up alone to let this minority pronounce themselves the owners of Kosovo. And of course, now the world continues to behave just to make these owners happy.
You wrote: “Don’t be shy / don’t blush / don’t comb your hair / death is blind.” Is that how impersonal death seems to you?
People see death as natural, but it is the most unnatural thing in the world, especially when you’ve never had the option to choose. Life is beautiful, then comes death. Sometimes it is more painful. Dying alone is nothing. You don’t recall it. But dying without saying goodbye… it happens.
During the war I said goodbye to my family three times. Maybe it is important to die in someone’s presence. I died many times in my life, and I hope that my relatives will be at peace, and will not take it [my biological death] so tragically.
Another saying you continuously use is: “Poetry will never betray humanity, but some poets will!” Has poetry betrayed you?
Life can betray me, but not poetry. And I can’t betray poetry. It would be like betraying my sadness. I don’t wish to write as I write. I want to write only about love, because I want people to live in harmony and to love one another.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.
Feature image courtesy of Xhevdet Bajraj.