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Robert Elsie

Who will slay the wolf
Selected poetry by Ali Podrimja
Translated from the Albanian with an introduction by Robert Elsie

ISBN 0-9622141-6-7
Gjonlekaj Publishing Company, New York 2000
268 pp.


Ali Podrimja
and the Poetry of Kosovo

    Kosovo, the dust-swept Plain of the Blackbirds in the southern Balkans, is many things to many people. For the majority of its inhabitants, it is now the self-declared Republic of Kosovo under foreign military occupation, a country longing for democracy and freedom from the brutal Serbian yoke, an ethnically Albanian territory since the beginning of time. For the small Serbian minority, Kosovo is a nostalgic reverie of Old Serbia, the very cradle of Serbian Orthodox civilization now overrun by the Moslem hordes. For all of its inhabitants, it is the powder-keg of the Balkans, a land of passions.
    Disconsolate at the eternal border conflicts between the northern Albanian tribes and the Slavs of neighbouring Montenegro during the nineteenth century, an Albanian poet, Father Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940) of Shkodër, noted wistfully in his immortal epic Lahuta e malcisë (The highland lute):

Si gjithmonë Shqyptár e Shkjá
Janë lá n'gjak, q'se fati i zí
Flakë e agzot vûni per brî,
Vû per brî Shqypní e Mal t'Zí!

(Albanian and Slav as always
Were at blood, ever since a tragic fate
Placed fire and gunpowder side by side,
Placed side by side Albania and Montenegro)

    Albanians and Serbs have been living together in Kosovo for centuries now. Though never completely at ease with one another, they have, during some happier eras of their common history, managed to co-exist in friendship and harmony. In many periods, though, relations between the two peoples have been tense. Since the Serbian military took direct control of Kosovo in 1990 against the will of the Albanians who now make up about 90% of the population, the situation has once again become tragically explosive.

The roots of culture and history in Kosovo

    Whether ancient Dardania was the home of the Illyrians, the Thracians, or the Daco-Moesians, or of all of them, is an issue which historians, archeologists and linguists have been discussing for decades, and the question will no doubt remain unanswered. The scant writings left by Latin and Greek chroniclers give little indication of how the ancestors of the Albanians once lived in this region at the crossroads between the Roman West and the Byzantine East.
    The mists of Balkan history cleared briefly during the Slavic invasions of the peninsula from the sixth to eighth centuries. These nomadic tribes swept southwards from the Carpathians to occupy much of the central and southern Balkans and pushed the indigenous (proto-Albanian) and Romanic inhabitants of the peninsula back into the inaccessible mountains of northern Albania, an area which not even the Romans had succeeded in subduing. In the centuries to come, the Serbs settled in large numbers in Rascia and Kosovo, by then formally part of the Byzantine Empire. It was here that an independent Serbian empire flourished from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. At its zenith, the empire of Stephan Dushan (1331-1355) extended from the Danube right down to the Aegean Sea.
    The mediaeval Serbian empire bequeathed to the region many a monument of culture. Among the jewels of Kosovo architecture are the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate in Peja (Pec) (1230), the resplendent church of Bogorodica Ljevishka in Prizren (1307), the monastery of Grachanica (1321) near Prishtina (Pristina), and the monastery church of Dechan (1327) near Peja.
    A turning point in the history of Kosovo, and indeed in the history of the Balkans and of Europe as a whole, came on St. Vitus day, 28 June 1389, when a coalition of Balkan forces under Serbian leadership met a new foe: the troops of the Ottoman Turks under the banners of Islam. The now legendary Battle of Kosovo Polje marked an unprecedented catastrophe for Serbia and for Christian forces in general.
    Over the next five centuries, Kosovo played its role as an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. The refined Islamic culture of the Orient, though somewhat pallid in the provincial atmosphere of the Balkans, left many traces in Kosovo, too: the tomb of Sultan Murath (1389), the Imperial Mosque in Prishtina (1461), and the Mosque of Sinan Pasha in Prizren (1615). It was during these centuries that the Albanians, both Moslem and Catholic, descended in increasing numbers from their secluded mountain valleys and returned to the flatland of Kosovo to resettle and farm one of the most fertile regions of 'Turkey in Europe'. Although Ottoman rule in Kosovo was by no means conducive to freedom and development, the Albanians did manage, against all odds, to preserve and consolidate their national identity, and thus survive as a people.
    After the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Kosovo was awarded to Serbia which had coveted the province for centuries. The inclusion of Kosovo into the new 'Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' left almost half the Albanian population in the Balkans outside of their Albanian homeland. For the people of Kosovo, in their majority, it was a tragic mistake which has haunted European politics ever since.
    The Kosovo Albanians did not fare any better under their Serbian rulers than they had under the Sultans. Denied all linguistic, cultural and educational rights, the Albanians were now to play the role of simple peasant farmers in a country which the Slavs considered their exclusive property. Albanian-language schools remained as unlawful as they had been under the Turks, and even the possession of Albanian-language books was dangerous for the few people in Kosovo who could read.
    Ethnic cleansing was a keystone of Serbian policy towards Kosovo from the very start. In the twenties and thirties, indeed up to 1960, hundreds of thousands of Albanians were forcibly expelled from their homeland, mostly to Turkey under the absurd pretext that they were Turks, and Serbian colonists were more than willing to occupy and settle the newly vacated farmlands. Characteristic of the attitude taken by Serbian intellectuals before the Second World War was a Memorandum presented to the Belgrade government on 7 March 1937 by noted Serbian historian Vaso Cubrilovic (1897-1990) on the 'Expulsion of the Albanians'. This programme, which reads like a watered-down version of the minutes of the Nazi Wannsee Conference of 1942, foresaw an active campaign to 'depopulate' Kosovo of its Albanian inhabitants and replace them with Serbian colonists. As a result, Albanian loyalties to the royalist Yugoslav state were divided when Axis powers occupied Kosovo in 1941 and reunited the province with Albania, giving Kosovo Albanians schools and cultural facilities in their own language for the first time.
    The end of the Second World War witnessed a mass slaughter of Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo was formally returned to Yugoslavia in early 1945 after Tito had persuaded communist leaders in Albania to give up the principle of self-determination, a 'Marxist solution', for the region, realizing he would never receive Serbian support for a referendum. On its reincorporation into Tito's Yugoslavia, Kosovo was nonetheless declared an Autonomous Region within the Republic of Serbia, not as an integral part of Serbia.
    The extreme political divergence between Yugoslavia and Albania which had erupted in 1948 made it evident to Kosovo Albanians that they could not look to Tirana for anything more than moral support in the field of culture and education. The Albanian language had finally been proclaimed 'one of the official languages of Kosovo', but the linguistic and educational rights which were theoretically enjoyed by the Albanian population in Kosovo long remained more abstract than concrete. Tito's would-be successor, vice-president Aleksandar Rankovic (1909-1983), made active use of the secret police to repress and terrorize the Albanian population, whom he despised, in favour of a 'Greater Serbia', until his fall from grace at the Brioni Plenum in July 1966.
    The improvement of Yugoslav-Albanian relations in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two countries in February 1971 brought about a political thaw for the Kosovo Albanians. In 1968, they won the right to fly their national flag and in November 1969 the bilingual University of Prishtina was opened, facilitating higher education in Albanian for the first time. Full cultural autonomy was first achieved after much delay under the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, though only in Kosovo itself, not for the large Albanian community in Macedonia.
    With access to Albanian-language education and cultural facilities having been granted, Albanian literature and culture in Kosovo flourished as never before. It was a brief blossoming in which tremendous progress was made within a short period of time, in education and culture, and in particular in Albanian literature.
    The semblance of autonomy and freedom which the Albanians enjoyed throughout the seventies was brought to an abrupt end in 1981 when the popular demand for republic status and equality with the other peoples of the Yugoslav federation, a demand supported by over ninety percent of the population of Kosovo, was met with tanks and automatic rifles.
    The suppression of the uprising of March/April 1981 signalled the end of peaceful co-existence in Kosovo and, at the same time, the beginning of the demise of Yugoslavia. Throughout the eighties, the political and economic situation in the province deteriorated and as a result, inter-communal relations took a drastic turn for the worse, a harbinger of what was to come for all of Yugoslavia in the early nineties. The Serbian military invasion of Kosovo in the summer of 1990 brought the province to the verge of civil war. The elected parliament and government of Kosovo were deposed, the only Albanian-language daily newspaper, Rilindja, banned, and all Albanian-language radio and television broadcasting shut down. Since then, 'emergency legislation' has facilitated the direct takeover of all Kosovo industry and the firing not only of Albanian management but of all employees of the 'inferior race', literally hundreds of thousands of workers. In the autumn of 1991 teaching at the University of Prishtina was suspended, with the exception of courses reserved for the Serbian minority, and all Albanian professors were expelled. Albanian-language elementary and secondary schools have been closed down, too. Nowhere in Europe have human rights been so flagrantly and so systematically violated as in Kosovo.
    The situation has been particularly dire for Albanian writers and intellectuals in Kosovo. They constitute the greatest threat to Serbian hegemony over the region by the populist leader Slobodan Milosevic who, like Rankovic before him, has shown nothing but contempt for demands of equality and human rights for the Albanian majority. With no jobs, no source of income, no right to education, and no hope of change for the moment, the situation looks particularly sombre on the Plain of the Blackbirds.

Albanian verse in Kosovo

    Poetry has always been the vanguard of literature in Kosovo and has enjoyed much greater popularity among writers and the reading public there than prose. This poetic imagination has solid roots in the soil, in the land and its people, their aspirations, sufferings and dreams. The poetry of Kosovo has thus never lost touch with the people. It is a living organism.
    Initial literary activity in Kosovo appeared in the periodical Jeta e re (New life) which was founded in 1949 by poet Esad Mekuli (1916-1993). An embryonic Kosovo-Albanian literature began to make its presence felt in the 1950s and in particular in the 1960s. It arose under often hostile conditions, at times tolerated and at times repressed by the Belgrade authorities. By the mid-sixties, Albanian and Kosovo-Albanian literature was beginning to appear in print in Yugoslavia on a significant scale, concomitant with a flourishing of education and culture in Kosovo.
    After generations of enforced silence, Albanian poets began to write and channel their creative energies in Kosovo as never before. With opportunities for publication and an intensely interested public at their disposal, a robust generation of talented poets came to the fore and gave proof that Kosovo was no longer a cultural wasteland but a dynamic element of modern European culture.
    Representative of this generation of young and dynamic poets were: the hermetic Martin Camaj (1925-1992), later to become professor of Albanian studies at the University of Munich, the elegiac Enver Gjerqeku (b. 1928) of Gjakova (Djakovica), the figurative Din Mehmeti (b. 1932) and the pensive Besim Bokshi (b. 1934), also from Gjakova, the lyric Adem Gajtani (1935-1982) of Podujeva (Podujevo), the enthusiastic Fahredin Gunga (b. 1936) from Mitrovica, the profound Azem Shkreli (b. 1938) of the Rugova valley, and the emotive Rrahman Dedaj (b. 1939) of Podujeva. Of all these poets, none has had a more profound influence on the course of contemporary Albanian verse in Kosovo than Ali Podrimja.

Podrimja the poet

    Ali Podrimja was born in 1942 and raised in Gjakova at the foot of the so-called 'Mountains of the Damned.' After a difficult childhood, he studied Albanian language and literature in Prishtina. Author of over a dozen volumes of cogent and assertive verse since 1961, he is recognized both in Kosovo and in Albania itself as a leading and innovative poet. Indeed, he is considered by many to be the most typical representative of modern Albanian verse in Kosovo and is certainly the Kosovo poet with the widest international reputation.
    Ali Podrimja's first collection of elegiac verse, Thirrje, Prishtina 1961 (The calls), was published while he was still at secondary school in Gjakova. His second volume, Shamijat e përshëndetjeve, Prishtina 1963 (The handkerchiefs of greeting), followed in more or less the same pensive vein. Dhimbë e bukur, Prishtina 1967 (Sweet pain), title reminiscent of Migjeni's 'proud pain', introduced new elements of the poet's repertoire, a proclivity for symbols and allegory. Six more volumes of compelling verse appeared over the following fifteen years: Sampo, Prishtina 1969 (Sampo), Torzo, Prishtina 1971 (Torso), Folja, Prishtina 1973 (The verb) Credo, Prishtina 1976 (Credo), Sampo 2, Prishtina 1980 (Sampo 2), and Drejtpeshimi, Prishtina 1981 (Balance), collections which revealed him as a mature symbolist at ease in a wide variety of rhymes and metres.
    In the early eighties, Ali Podrimja published the masterful collection Lum Lumi, Prishtina 1982 (Lum Lumi), which marked a turning point not only in his own work but also in contemporary Kosovo verse as a whole. This immortal tribute to the poet's young son Lumi, who died of cancer, introduced an existentialist preoccupation with the dilemma of being, with elements of solitude, fear, death and fate.
    Podrimja's more recent volumes, such as Fund i gëzuar, Prishtina 1988 (Happy ending), and Zari, Prishtina 1990 (The die), are further evidence of his Sisyphean obsession with the destiny of mankind, his unceasing and ironic attempt to grasp the needle of existence in a haystack of allegorical dichotomies - the past versus the present, the peripheral versus the nuclear, myth versus reality, the specific versus the general.
    Ali Podrimja is nonetheless a laconic poet. His verse is compact in structure, and his imagery is direct, terse and devoid of any artificial verbosity. Every word counts. What fascinates the Albanian reader is his compelling ability to adorn this elliptical rocky landscape, reminiscent of Albanian folk verse, with unusual metaphors, unexpected syntactic structures and subtle rhymes.
    The poet's work has been marked more than anything by the suffering and distress of his youth. A deprived childhood in Kosovo and the early death of his parents gave the young Ali Podrimja little opportunity to relish in the joys of life and little time to take flight into the spheres of the sublime. Profoundly shaken in later years by the death of his son Lumi, Ali Podrimja is now faced with the possibility of yet another tragic loss, that of his country. The poet must come to terms with the cruel and overwhelming reality that his whole people are falling victim to the cancer of Serbian nationalist expansion.
    The present selection of verse is designed to provide the reader with an overview of the poetic evolution of Ali Podrimja. It touches upon the early years of dynamic optimism in the sixties, visits the haunts of anguish and personal solitude in the seventies and eighties, and brings the reader inevitably to the looming apocalypse of the early nineties during which the recusant voice of poet Ali Podrimja is more indispensable than ever.

    Robert Elsie
    Eifel Mountains, Germany, spring 1994


  • Introduction
  • From the early volumes (1967-1973)
    And night covered the traces and cries
    You belong to the saints to the gods
    Between two ages
    The age that did not exist for us
    Alone or Hamlet sick
    The black cat
    Rozafat Castle
    Our names
    Go back to Homer's verse
    The poem of silence (1-10)
        1. It forgot names
        2. In the jaws of an era
        3. The metaphor of my life
        4. I go my way it follows me
        5. When I make love in the power of lightning
        6. How did we forget man on the white field
        7. Rain in a legend
        8. A poppy takes on form
        9. One day
        10. After the fall after the triumph
    Ballad of man
    I shall saddle the horse, death
    I told you one day
    The death of a dream (1-4)
        1. The illness of my family
        2. It did not see my father's rifle
        3. The death of a dream
        4. The times
    The man with a head wound
  • Credo (1976)
    The stump (1-5)
        1. Form changes, landscape
        2. In been and unbeen times
        3. On the other bank
        4. White
        5. Falling is not loosing
    Your weight pulls me down to earth
    That it be you
    Take this stone
    The unknown
    The tower (1-5)
        1. I open the door close the landscape
        2. My shadow goes walking without me
        3. But what is the matter with my stone
        4. It flows and is no river
        5. Every day more every day less
  • Lum Lumi (1982)
    The dead clock
    Will there be time
    The moss, the name
    The great water
    That sea
    The heat
    My dead king Diocletian
    The monster
    Somewhere, down deep
    The beginning, the repetition
    I took to the road to meet man
    Song of freedom
    My pain
    Hotel 'Moskva', Room 512
    I am not the one
    Paris, native land
    Under the window Paris was burning
    You could have gone to Beirut
    And you dead
    All alone
    Death was quicker
    The serpent, the beauty
    Love, the words
    The leviathan
    The separation
    You are still on the road
  • Happy Ending (1988)
    How we discovered the sea
    Arbëresh villages
    Does oblivion hear you
    Look for the star
    The Arta Bridge
    The meadow
    Our text
    Cleaning house
    Walt Disney
    It is the Albanian's fault
    The mirror
  • The Die (1990)
    The roads
    The swimming pool
    Mother's apple
    Who will slay the wolf
    Piana degli Albanesi
    A child is dying in the cellar
    The container
    The wise man from the Drin
    The difference
    Do they hunt doves
    Photograph on the front page
    When will you speak out, Ali Podrimja
    Somewhere on earth
    The die
  • The Smile in a Cage (1993)
    The Albanians
    The black angel of Sarajevo
    Or, or
    The fates
    Meeting with a long-forgotten god
    The fatherland sealed in a chest
    Wandering with wolves
    I shall say the same words
  • Bibliography

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