Thursday, June 9, 2016

little brains on a big adventure

By  Roos Hogerzeil

Our first day in Kosovo is a fact. When we arrived yesterday, I had no idea of what Prishtina would be like and I was not able to compare this place to any other place I have ever been to. Together with four girls, I get to stay in an apartment on the seventh floor of a tall building, which allowed us to overlook the city by night. It felt strange to actually finally be in this place we had been learning about for a week, trying to cram all the information about the history of the Balkan countries from ancient times until now into our 'little brains', as Anne likes to call them.

It was very exciting to overlook this place from our balcony, having no idea what to expect, what the people would be like, what the vibe on the streets would be like. The view of Prishtina is amazing, and it made me really excited to go around town the next day and see, feel, hear what this place is like. It made me smile to hear a mosque's night prayer that just started when I sat down on my bed. It made me feel (sort of) at home - as I enjoyed the songs so much when I was in Israel and in Cape Town.

After this first day, I can tell the city has got a really special ambiance. Everywhere people ask us where we are from, and when we answer that we're (mostly) from Europe, they all smile and thank us (for what, I do not know).

First fun fact: apparently the taxis do not know the street names here, so we were told by Barda's sister Kaltrina that we ought to just give the name of a café or shop as a reference for our destination (in our case Market Edi Tophane).

This morning we visited the University of Prishtina, where we got to chat with the vice dean of the law faculty and with a couple of very dedicated andn enthusiastic students. What struck me was that there was a very prominent sentiment amongst the professor and students of how important they consider to study, to become an excellent student, go abroad, then come back and contribute to their country. Taking their international knowledge and experience back to Kosovo and teach others  is considered one of the best things one can do for ones country.

Next stop: the head quarters of Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (movement for self-determination)., which is a nationalistic political movement that opposes foreign involvement in internal affairs of the country and campaigns for the sovereignty exercised by the people instead, as part of the right of self-determination. As we learnt about this movement in class, I was quite biased and thought of the movement as rather radical and hectic as it had participated in several violent happenings. However, when we got to ask questions to the president of the movement Visar Ymeri, I was blown away by how well-spoken, clever, passionate yet not aggressive (as opposed to scenes during protests in 2007 that we saw in the documentary we were shown first) he was. He had a certain fire in his eyes, leaned forward while tapping his fingers on the table, and was able to think ahead while answering his questions. This very well-organised man was good at what he does: he knew exactly how to answer controversial questions, and to provide answers that shine a bright light on his organisation without feeling misled by pretty words.

It felt valuable to discuss this extensive meeting with the organisation, because if I had not known anything about it and about its past, I might have (too easily) agreed with everything he said because of his charisma. There was almost no time to talk though, as we needed to go to our last meeting with QEsh, an organisation that aims to create a safe, tolerant, gay-friendly environment for the LGBTQ community of Kosovo through awareness raising activities. As Liridon - the head of the organisation - told us, Kosovo is generally a heteronormative society, where a man ought to be tough and masculine, and a woman is supposed to be soft, work in the kitchen, and produce a loooot of children (Liridon himself has 6 siblings). It is quite a harsh environment for a person who identifies as LGBTQ to live in, which also came to the fore in his stories. For example, the organisation's office does not have a sign outside the building: the people who also live in the building know about the organisation's background, but it is likely that it would cause (violent) problems if a sign would be put up. The main challenges, as explained by Liridon, were the religious background of most Kosovar people that complicates the acceptance and tolerance of non-heterosexuality, and foremost the LGBTQ community itself that still does not feel like coming out because many people are afraid.

As we walked out the building, the sun was shining on our faces and we gathered to do a check-in, as Sophie calls it, where we all told each other how we felt and what the day was like for all of us. It was really special to see that everyone felt overwhelmed but happy, safe and curious, and that the group enjoyed the presence of the people around. After such a long day with so many meetings, we allowed ourselves to unwind and close off with a lovely dinner at a restaurant named Old House. Now it's sleepy time because it's really late and we have to get up in five and a half hours to go to Mitrovica tomorrow!

P.S. lekker lekker lekker: coffee in Kosovo (which everybody drinks all day long, most of the time accompanied by a sigarette in the other hand - everybody smokes here) and Burak (I think it's spelled like this), a traditional savoury pastry you can get in every local bakery yummm

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