Café Kosovo

The Balkans: History Debunked

A small café in Prizren: The microcosm of the Balkans in all its complexities and contradictions. Vignettes from the south of Kosovo.

Ilija Trojanow, Bulgarian-German writer, translator, and publisher
Ilija Trojanow, Bulgarian-German writer, translator, and publisherThomas Dorn

In a café in Prizren, a simple place where old posters barely conceal the peeling wall paint, several men are sitting around a table. They order another coffee. Suddenly, one of them switches languages, uttering a few sentences in an idiom that I understand no more than the Albanian before. But I recognise the sounds. “Why, that’s Turkish,” I call out. “Yes, old Turkish,” he replies. “But aren’t all of you Albanian?” I ask. He responds with a confident “Of course!” “So why Ottoman Turkish?” – “Because it sounds beautiful!”
“How can it be that an extinct language serves as a lingua franca in a European capital in the 21st century? The obvious assumption, that there is nostalgia for the golden era of the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo, is wrong. On the contrary, many blame the Ottomans for the division of the Albanian nation and its perceived backwardness. Moreover, the predominantly Muslim Albanians revere a man named Skanderbeg as a national hero who defended a Christian principality against the Ottomans in the 15th century.

„It is a widespread stereotype that people in the Balkans suffer from an abundance of historical memory. “

Ilija Trojanow

If one wants to know his way around based on simple attributions, he or she quickly gets lost in the Balkan labyrinth of contradictions and escapes using a more straightforwardly drawn map. The Western confusion regarding Southeast Europe is primarily a result of its own projections. The Balkans are rife with clichés and prejudices in German-speaking regions. Central Europeans find it difficult to perceive the southeastern edge of the continent as a space of centuries-long mixings and fluid cultural boundaries. They stare at common myths — often produced in the Balkans itself — and confuse them with reality. It’s a trap into which even the locals fall.

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