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November 11, 2018


My short stint as a young man in Central and Eastern Europe during 1995 and 1996 was indeed rewarding — both work-wise and in terms of being introduced to creative writing from countries lesser known in Pakistan. But the literature I read and the memories of some people I met from the Balkan region continue to haunt me to this day.

What happened soon after the end of the Cold War and the pitched battles for dominance, glory, resources and territory between and within the former federating states of Yugoslavia, loom large in the collective imagination of humanity. The inhumanity of the leadership — particularly of people such as Slobodan Milosevic — caused such enormous bloodletting, so many rapes of women and the slaughter of children and their burials in unmarked mass graves, and such loot and plunder, that the face of the region will remain pockmarked with blood for ages to come. The tale of horrors in the name of faith and nationalism unleashed on people in places such as Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Drenica, parts of Croatia and all over Bosnia and Kosovo would unhinge any sane and sensitive person. It was, in a way, the rerun of the human madness that marked the half century of Nazi atrocities and the holocaust in Europe on the eve of, and during the course of, the Second World War.

The newest country to declare independence in the Balkans is Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians form a decisive majority and who have braved Serbian oppression and war for years. Historically, Kosovo has remained a bone of contention between Serbia and Albania for centuries. After being a part of the Ottoman Empire for more than five centuries, it was an autonomous enclave within Serbia in the Yugoslav Republic. Globally renowned Albanian author Ismail Kadare wrote Three Elegies for Kosovo (initially titled Elegy for Kosovo), a brief novel in three parts, translated into English by Peter Constantine and published in 2000. It has run into multiple editions since. Kadare’s historical novel offers a deep insight into the region’s history, its relationship with the rest of Europe and the unending spiral of treachery and violence faced by the people of Kosovo in particular and the Balkans in general. He establishes how a poisonous mix of faith and nationalism inflicts suffering on generation after generation of people over centuries.

The novel begins by recounting the Battle of Kosovo fought in 1389 between the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Murad I and the joint army of different European nations in the region under the Serbian Prince Lazar. Turks rout their rivals within a day or two, but their sultan is also killed along with his elder son, most probably in a conspiracy hatched by one of his own sons who claims the throne. In the second part, through the story of the minstrels from Serbia and Albania and other fugitives from the lost battle, Kadare comments on the tragedy of how the real powers-that-be in mainland Europe had forsaken the Balkans. In the last part, Sultan Murad I speaks from his tomb, laments the fighting that continues between the Serbs and the Albanians and other ethnicities with no end in sight, and prays to God. He feels the guilt of having participated in the bloodshed 600 years ago.

What continues to happen with increasing frequency in Pakistan in the name of faith, nationalism, ethnicity and sectarianism, takes me back to the memories of horror and suffering related by the people from the Balkans. Some of us who continue to subscribe to inclusion and pluralism are like the character of that Turk Ibrahim in Kadare’s novel. He fought against the Ottoman army and was among the fugitives. Mistrusted by his companions, he was finally taken to prison and tortured when the fugitives reached a Christian stronghold. After the trial, the judge decided that Ibrahim was to be burned at the stake for wavering between different faiths and, hence, following the devil’s counsel. It seems we have chosen the same path in Pakistan. Being plural is being pagan. You are condemned.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 11th, 2018