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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqip 24 Apr 13

Clearing the Cultural ‘Mines’ of the Balkan Wars

Kosovo playwright Jeton Neziraj discusses his work on such topics such as nationalism in art, Kosovo-Serbia relations, the links between religion and terrorism, and his new play on the possible independence of Wales.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Sarajevo
Final scene of "The Flight over the Kosovo Theatre" at CZKD in Belgrade | Photo by Vladimir Gogic

Kosovo playwright Jeton Neziraj believes he belongs to the company of the few artists in his home country that the state does not control and who are thus free to deliver a wider humanistic message and use art to awaken in people the “view of the other”. For him, this presents a starting point towards reconciliation.

Neziraj, author of more than 15 plays, the latest of which are political comedies or tragicomedies, says the cure for the region’s wounds lies in “de-victimization” of people, confronting them with the suffering of others, and reminding them that “national” pain does not exist, and that “pain remains individual”.

With his postmodern plays that revolve around central motives such as Kosovo-Serbia relations, the political influence on art, the connection between religion and terrorism or migration of young people in Europe, Neziraj challenges public opinion and break down social taboos and prejudices.

He has done so with Patriotic Hypermarket, co-written with Milena Bogavac, a play that calls for honest communication between Kosovo and Serbia, and with One Flew Over The Kosovo Theatre, which depicts how politics influenced art in the days leading up to the declaration of independence in 2008, as well as in The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower, which deals with terrorism arising as a consequence of global political and religious conflicts.

His plays have toured the region and internationally.

In an interview for Balkan Insight, the founder of the theatre company Qendra Multimedia reveals that he is now widening his mission internationally by writing a play about the possible independence of Wales, which will be staged in the National Theatre of Wales during the next season.

Balkanization of Britain:

Scene from Patriotic Hypermarket | Courtesy of Kulturanova

Neziraj says the invitation to write the play comes at a time when the independence of Wales is more plausible than ever, and he will look at it from the perspective of an author coming from Kosovo, a country that declared its own independence relatively recently.

“For myself, as an author from the Balkans, tackling this topic is attractive but challenging, because Wales is not Kosovo and England is not Serbia, just as the United Kingdom is not Ex-Yugoslavia,” he says.

He recalls that the former Yugoslavia was a country built on the ideological premises of "equality of nations and nationalities”, adding that this equality was never applied in Kosovo.

He says that while researching the play he faced people with very different attitudes towards whether Wales should secede, most of which he expected.

“Some, of course, favour total independence, others favour greater independence within the UK and a third group, which probably constituted the largest group, maintained that the current political construct was functional and had no need for change.”

Neziraj notes that supporters of independence mainly used the classic arguments to cite the geographical, historical, linguistic and cultural distinctions, but were supported political and economic arguments for change.

Neziraj meanwhile says his theatre company also prepares to stage Kosovo version of his play, “The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower,” which will be an international co-production with artists from Kosovo, Italy, France, the UK and Serbia.

The play, written in 2010 and staged New York’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in 2011, and then in Sarajevo at the MESS  Festival/ SARTR Theatre, addresses one of the modern world’s most significant problems – terrorism arising as a consequence of global political and religious conflicts.

The conflict is depicted through a story of a European who is kidnapped by two Islamic terrorists because he insists on removing burqas from the heads of Muslim women in Paris.

“I tend to confront cultural divisions, misunderstandings, religious fanaticism, violence, and other issues that divide orient and oxiden,” says Neziraj, explaining that the play tries to open up a discourse on the most substantive issue, which is “to know and understand the trauma of the other”.

Another play Peer Gynt from Kosovo, a coproduction between Qendra Multimedia and the Hessisches Staatstheater of Wiesbaden, which deals withmigrations of people in Europe, following its premiere in Pristina and the rest of the region in April 2014, will be performed in Wiesbaden.

The story is about a boy from Kosovo who spent almost 20 years of his life in Germany and Sweden, both legally and illegally. Full of adventure and shocking drama, the story offers a deeper insight into the reality of European migration and into the fate of thousands of young immigrants in Europe who often turn to crime to survive.

Nationalist kitsch:

Scene of "The Flight over the Kosovo Theatre" at CZKD in Belgrade | Photo by Vladimir Gogic

Neziraj says that both Kosovo and other countries in the region share the common problem of politically controlled art that serves nationalistic purposes.

The role of the artist is to“make a serious effort to convey messages of understanding beyond the never-ending prejudices, hatred, pain, sufferings and political barriers caused by wars and conflicts,” he says.

However, as he has experienced, they are not always free to do so, because in Kosovo, as well as across the region, there is an extensive control of culture, manifested in both public and non-public cultural institutions that are completely dependant on state budgets.

“Transforming artists into clients of the Ministry of Culture of Kosovo is developing into a successful means of cultural ‘silencing’ and ‘stunning’... installing in our cultural environment a layer of crawlers who are willing to sell their souls to the devil,” he says. 

Comparing the political influence on art in Kosovo with that of other countries, Neziraj points to the announcement that the controversial Serbian film director Emir Kusturica will open the Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad on May 25.

Supporting the decision of Selma Spahic, theatre director from Bosnia and Herzegovina to abandon competing with her play at the festival, Neziraj says that, by inviting Kusturica, the theatre is being used to empower Serbian nationalism.

“That it is the most natural step that Selma could do,” he says, referring to her decision to pull out. “It is absurd and astonishing in a way, to see that there are still art institutions in Serbia that are influenced by kitsch nationalistic ideas.

“It is sad to see that theatre there is still not free from ghosts of the past, which see theatre as means for fostering and empowering nationalism,” Neziraj says.

Defying currents:

Scene from Patriotic Hypermarket | Courtesy of Kulturanova

His political and social engagement on sensitive issues has won Neziraj respect in theatre circles as well as among audiences across the region and internationally.

But that has not altered the negative attitude of media critics and authorities in Kosovo towards him and his work.

According to Neziraj, he was kicked out of the National Theatre in 2011, because of his controversial cultural activism and his belief that there should be “no more Albanian plays of poor quality on the repertoire just because they are Albanian plays”.

The final event that led to him being replaced was the invitation from Atelje 212 in Belgrade to the National Theatre of Kosovo to perform its play “Cifti Martin” (“The Martin couple”) by the Kosovo director Bekim Lumi.

According to Neziraj, the Kosovo government also tried to stop the staging of “One flew over the Kosovo Theatre“, the play he wrote in 2010, because the Ministry of Culture “imagined” that it was anti-national – before even seeing it.

He recalls that the main idea of the play was not to question the Kosovo’s independence but to question “what kind” of independence Kosovo had obtained.

“This is a very ‘classical’ story of censorship; when they have no artistic or other relevant arguments, than they go to ‘national – antinational’ arguments,” he says.

“Treating an art product through this prism I find very primitive and dangerous, too,” Neziraj adds.

He is not driven by populist ideas and concepts and does not care “what a mediocre bureaucrat from ministry of culture or government” might think of his work”, he continues.

“I do understand well my role I have as a writer,” he concludes.

“I live in Kosovo and there I make my contribution but I would give the same contribution if I were living in Sarajevo, Mostar or Vienna.

“The work that I and a few other people are doing resembles that of de-miners after the war. Metaphorically, we are ‘de-miners’, trying to remove the mines that have been left in these countries by the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.”

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