Real Talk

Harmony lies in Absurdity in Kosovo

Pristina, Kosovo. Butcher shop right next to an evening gown store. Dina, my 22-year-old host, isn’t fazed by the unusual proximity of the two stores as we are walking the streets of Pristina, the least visited capital city in Europe. It’s a balmy November afternoon, Kosovo just celebrated its neighbour, Albania’s Independence Day and now Christmas stalls are being set up. Pristina does not have abundance of cultural relics but has the remnants of a modern-day Istanbul. Taupe coloured low-rise buildings, hodge-podge of electrical wires and blend of Eastern and Western values. At first glance it may seem deceptively dull, but as strange as it sounds the city’s idiosyncratic charm has a lot to do with its resilient past.

As we are having €1.5 hamburgers which are not really hamburgers but halal beef burgers, Dina tells me that she hopes to be a diplomat one day. The good work UN has been doing in Kosovo seem worth the hustle of juggling two jobs and a master’s degree. Her unbridled optimism leaning on the side of irrational exuberance is contagious. As we walk by the Bill Clinton statue, she quickly points out that the Hilary Clinton pantsuit shop is nearby. It might help her career aspirations. I am starting to believe maybe a red pant suit will charm my potential employers too.

 

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Dina asked me, “Do you know Rita Ora? She was born here but then moved to UK.”

I am glad the topic of discussion is pop culture. It’s been a lot to process in the past few days. Probably, the first Pakistani passport the immigration officials have seen. All but my last name is baffling for them.

“We know Hassan. Muslim name. First name never aarrd.”, said the Security Personnel in his thick Albanian accent.
96% of the population is Muslim in Kosovo, unlike my homeland, it is secular in nature.

Their independence struggle is another story. Once a part of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo was the last central Balkan state to gain independence. In mid-1998, a full-fledged war broke out between Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian Army, which led to thousands being killed and millions displaced. Deemed as ethnic cleansing of Albanian Muslims in the region, UN and NATO’s intervention halted the attacks but the road to being recognised as an independent nation took another nine years. Economic autonomy is another contentious issue as it is heavily reliant on foreign aid.

The sense of displacement permeates long after freedom has been achieved. Dina is one of the fortunate few who had the opportunity to escape to Albania with her family during the height of war but soon came back to a town of obliterated homes and local businesses with their shutters down. Inhaling the smog filled air, her voice breaks as she reflects on the struggles her family had to overcome and how she is grateful for what she has now, a violence-free life.

 

To build the town from ground up, the odd store placement, in fact odd lifestyle makes sense. An ecommerce food startup next to a 50 square foot donor kebab restaurant. A mosque calling to prayer next to a nightclub with lack of exit doors. Young girls in leather jackets accompanying their grandmothers in headscarves. How can it be any other way?

Pristina has made me realise that so much of my life I have spent compartmentalising my thoughts and actions. As a Pakistani living in US, how much do I adapt to my new environment versus how much do I hold onto my longstanding beliefs? A modern citizen of an interconnected world? A conservative? An imposter? I don’t necessarily need my past or present situation to confine me but to be grateful for the experiences that allow me to grow.

Most of all Pristina has taught me that harmony sometimes lies in absurdity. Dina and I are now off to Mother Teresa Square to devour some gelatos.

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