THE BLOG
09/08/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Kosovo Is Not Serbia

Crossing the border from Serbia to Kosovo is easy. Serbian citizens can get by with daily ID, as if they were EU citizen inside the EU Schengen fortress.

If you are, for example, a globetrotting American, it gets interesting. The Kosovo border officers admire your travel stamps and ask jolly questions, such as, "Why on Earth did an American go to Brazil?"  Everybody wants to go to America, but we Kosovars are not allowed. 

As one of our friends in the region put it, being an American in Kosovo is like  being a pope.  You will be asked all kinds of questions and told about all kind of injustices. Nobody in Kosovo has forgotten 1999, so the papal Americans are like angels of mercy with airborne bombs.

Being a Serb in a region that looks quite like Serbia, I walked around thoughtlessly talking in Serbian.  In Yugoslavia Serbo-Croatian was naturally a much bigger deal than English ever was; until recently the Serbian population has lived here too, and before the Kosovo war the Serbian language was much more widespread than English.   With almost every Serb ethnically cleansed, there's nobody left to speak it, just empty Orthodox churches turned into tourist attractions while the town abounds with pizza and burger joints with English-language menus for.

There's nothing new about dismal slaughters and expulsions in Prizren -- it's been the capital of a medieval Serbian empire and the capital of an Albanian nationalist league too.  Every village in Kosovo has some act of fame or infamy: a monastery, a war crime, a battle. Especially notorious to me are the war crimes committed by Serbian military forces against the Albanian population, which led to the bombings by NATO in 1999. 

It's the globalized life in Kosovo that is really new -- the crammed life of a young population stuck inside a frozen conflict, an ethnic canton, a tiny, not-yet-internationally recognized, European republic.  Tensions abound in this little fishbowl of a country where all the great powers can look in, but none of the locals can escape.  Unemployment, alcoholism, corruption, smuggling goods, smuggling people: The critical locals name their troubles.

There is even a treaty underway between official Serbia and official Kosovo. They may speak Serbian and Albanian now, but with any luck they can join the EU together. 

The shadow of another lost international regime, the Ottoman Empire, lies heavy here.  There are still a few households where people speak old-fashioned Turkish, and besides, Turkey is nearby: NATO Turco-globalism, with Turkish soap operas, Turkish coffee, Turkish food, Turkish architecture and construction companies.   Istanbul is the aspirational capital in southern Kosovo. If something is fancy, it's in big-town Istanbul style. 

The pride and joy of the locals is the major mosque built by the famous architect Sinan in the heyday of Suleiman the Magnificent.  Muezzin towers abound in Prizren, and every one of them has a taped recital of the daily calls to prayer.  Since they are out of phase with distance, when they go off together they sound rather like some Brian Eno tape-loop composition.

Prizren's Dokufest is becoming a famous film festival, since it specializes in short documentaries of an alternative bent.  There are also nighttime music events during Dokufest, and this year the festival also ventured to host its first technology conference, together with Share Foundation from Belgrade.  

The organizers met through the good offices of Peter Sunde of The Pirate Bay, so it shouldn't be surprising that the topics were surveillance, investigative journalism, activism, hacking, making, electronic  arts and the fact that Peter Sunde is currently in a Swedish prison. 

The geeks of Kosovo are like geeks from all over the world: brilliant young people of a hackerly bent, but with a particular disdain for official borders, rules and documents intended to contain them.

The narrow streets of Prizren swarm with tourists, eating cheap, excellent street food paid for in euros.  Kosovo is a NATO EU Muslim enclave; the "KFOR" units have been guarding it for the past two decades.  Uniforms and jeeps mingle with the SUVs of wealthy local bosses, expensive private cars  whose drivers despise the pedestrians.  Modest Prizren has the pace of some much bigger city; locals seem tense and busy, and even the beggars are antic.  

Some newly built parts of the city have the raw brick and cement of Brazilian favelas.  Some streets could double for Mexican open-air markets.  Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad are the urban shadows over this town, which is 90 percent Muslim.  The broad, stony ruin of an ancient hilltop fortress surveys every bridge and street.

The locals don't seem overly impressed by left-wing Western political documentaries, but a projection about the Turkish soap opera industry stops them in their tracks.  There's a documentary running in a little impromptu theater that bridges the local river. The coffee drinkers stop to cluster and marvel.

Who knew that Turkish soap operas, watched by women and about women, are actually written by Turkish women?  These television dramas have fans in Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Serbia, even -- every district where Ottoman rule once held sway. 

I myself have watched these serials, amazed and dazed.  As an ex-Ottoman, ex-Yugoslav, ex-whatever-dies-next, it's astonishing to see how much the Ottoman culture of unwritten laws, food and history persists in the 21st-century Balkans.  The women in these soap operas don't have any mild "first-world problems" -- their dramatic conflicts involve child marriages, grandfathers who are tribal mafia, gangland honor killings.  Some are cosmopolitan because they leave their state; others turn cosmopolitan because their empire bloodily crumbles around them.

Today's soap opera of the globalization of Balkanization is a woman's tale of  pain and glory where the last will some day be the first -- at least in certain places, maybe in some tiny, nameless no man's land in a brisk transition to nowhere.   Europe has never lacked for unions, some willing, some unwilling, some in the fortress, some outside it.  You can do anything with bayonets, as Napoleon used to say, except sit on them while you watch television.

On the way back to Serbia, there was a five-hour queue of cars on the Serbian border. Polite officers were deliberately slow, as if saying, "You wanted a border, and now you have it." I remembered how, 100 years ago, my grandfather survived the Thessaloniki front, retreating through Albania with very few other Serbian soldiers who'd taken part in that war, far, far away from Serbia. A famous song sprang from that tragic retreat that later on was used as a favorite Serbian anthem of lament. My grandma never forgave my grandpa for fighting wars far away from his homeland as an idealistic fool. If he hadn't come back, my mother never would have been born, and neither would I.

Time has come to quote Max Frisch, the Swiss writer in this useless, never-ending Serbo/Albanian conflict: I want to live for my country, not to die for it!