Don’t forget Kosovo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 07/14/2003
Paula Huntley, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003 ISBN 1-58542-211-8, pp. 236
Paula Huntley has found a gem of a title for her record of experiences in Kosovo (Kosova): The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo. It is the kind of title an ad man would stab his boss in the back for. The title is not only impressive but so is the content in its direct and honest way, even if at times it is a bit on the schmaltzy side. Moreover, as other reviewers have noted it is a book that records how much “America” and the “Americans” are much appreciated, even loved. Conquering the hearts and mind of Kosovars with a copy of The Old Man and the Sea makes a refreshing change from Apache tank busters and battle fleets. Equally refreshing in Huntley’s short and readable book is her honesty, and, at times, non-dogmatic insights, humbly presented.
Normally comfortably situated on the outskirts of plush San Francisco, the author, on her own admission, was not the most aware or cosmopolitan of people:
“This week, on the seventh of March, will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Pettus bridge march in Selma, Alabama..I was a young college student at the time…I am sure that I was either oblivious of the march …or I was angry about it…I was so wrong, so blind, and today I am so ashamed of that young woman who was me.”
However, when she finds herself in Prishtina, Kosovo, in September 2000 accompanying her lawyer husband, she is on the brink of a major change in her perception of “ethnic” and other forms of oppression. She accepts a job teaching English to a small group of committed Albanians, offers to run an extra-mural session based on Hemingway’s novella and at the same time decides to keep a diary about the experience.
Not only does her book give us the benefit of this experience, but also Huntley herself makes all sorts of personal progress.
Bewilderment at how the tragedies occur and what can be done to rebuild life afterward is a constant theme. For instance, in line with her frank and direct approach she writes about her first impressions dealing with the rebuilding:
“Government agencies and NGOs from all over the world have sprung up like weeds…Their vans and SUVs are everywhere; sometimes it seems that the entire world is here in this small city in Kosovo. I have heard there are five hundred non-governmental organizations in the country…What are all these internationals going?…Are we driving …from one office to another, never stopping to talk to the people who live here?”
Once her English group has been formed and she has had some time to settle, she constantly asked herself how the devastation, death and heartache all happened, what the people had experienced and what the future holds for them and for Kosova.
She comes to see beyond the superficial ethnic and religious explanations. She sees that the destruction of Serbian Churches by Muslim Albanians is not a religious or ethnic response but an attack on the symbols of the oppressors. Her lawyer husband, too, helps especially when he effectively explains that the issues are not to do with good and evil and that evil acts have their rationality. “Almost no one sets out to do something ‘evil’,” Ed says…”Evil is attributed to the victim, and so, evil acts can be justified by the perpetrator as good.”
History, too, she sees has its potential explanatory value.
“It is impossible to have a conversation with a Kosovar in which the subject of history doesn’t eventually take over. The ancient Illyrians, the medieval Serb kingdoms, Skanderberg and Prince Lazar, the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan Wars, the World Wars, Tito – and, of course, the tragedies of the past decade. It is this history, they believe, that explains what has happened to them, that describes who they are…The trick …is to distinguish history from myth.”
Certainly anyone who has lived in Ireland or Cyprus or other war torn places will say the same thing about history and its uses and abuses. How to use rather than abuse history is a neat trick indeed. Her starting point as an educator is much the same as that of all educators: “There is no one solution for hatred and racism. There may not be any solutions at all. But a liberal education in which students are encouraged to look beyond their own cultural boundaries, and are taught to explore a wide range of ideas, is at least a place to start.”
At the time the book was written, her students were clear about the future. They wanted independence for Kosova, and freedom from Serbs and Serbia. Maybe one day Albanians and Serbs can live together, but not this day, tomorrow or any time soon. Education takes time along with peace processes generally. Better to prevent than try to heal.
Well done to Paula Huntley. It is unfortunate that we do not hear from her what her other teacher colleagues had to say and a pity that she puts “America” (USA) at the centre of her world and that of her students’ aspirations. She does, however, admit that it is easy for the USA to forget Kosova. With this book she is doing her best to prevent that, and is continuing her campaigning with other activities. These can be found on her web site www.hemingwaybookclubofkosovo.com
For current progress and news of conciliation and the implementation of law and order see: www.osce.org (Kosovo Mission)
NOTE: Kosova/Kosovo: Paula Huntley points out clearly that while the Kosovars call their province Kosova, it is generally known by the Serbian name of Kosovo. She apologies for having to market her book in the English speaking world using the name Kosovo rather than Kosova.