Prishtina
Dead spots in the city

Petrit Selimi is a slender, jumpy young man playing life like speed chess: switching from board to board, competitive, always looking for the next opportunity to beat the opposition. He studied urban psychology in Norway, did summer school at Stanford, edited Express newspaper for a while, owns the popular and comfortable Strip Depot cafe and is about to open a small place called Barbie-Q in a middle of a sidestreet where the lost old men meet, and he should be finding time to write about the city and the arts.

His next subject: a reflection on 'Proud to be Albanian' by local hiphop crew Ethnic Angels, combined with two of Erzen Shkololli's works. The video of a traditional lady singer lamenting to Europe how it is forgetting Albania, and a picture of an astronaut sticking the Albanian flag on the moon. New nationalism, modern forms, old myths and pride, all rolled into one dizzying cocktail.

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Petrit talks me for a walk around the damaged urban tissue of Prishtina. The monumental, unfinished Orthodox cathedral, started in 1986, abandoned in 1996: now a gloomy presence sitting on the hill immediately next to the library, he wants it to be a Memory Centre, the inside filled from bottom to top with the replaced old street signs. The park in front of the library: originally planned to host statues of Serb heroes, now the space is being made clear for a monument to the murdered journalist Fehmi Agani and who knows, Rugova might be next. As it is, there is nothing but empty grass, with concrete benches looking out at empty pedestals.

The one statue that made it to Prishtina is an exact copy of Albanian hero Skenderbeg, riding his horse and pointing his sword towards the future. Tasteless imitation of Tirana nationalism aside, it sits in a square where the city inhabitants cannot sit in the sun, as the whole place is occupied by OSCE and other international offices surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. This is a source of constant irritation to Petrit: the international fashion of protecting their buildings is being copied by Kosovar institutions. On his trips to Oslo and Washington DC, he marveled at the way people could simply touch the stone of the buildings from where they were governed, the House of Congress, the palace of the king. 'What do you think it does to voters,' he asks, 'when they cannot touch their houses of government?'

His frustration builds as we walk through the area called Peyton Place. He tells me it used to look like American suburbia, with one-story houses, wide gardens and low fences. But since 1999, three waves of building have destroyed the elegance that must have set this neighborhood aside from otherwise unremarkable Prishtina. First, the new rich built their kitschy private palaces, with fake marble and eclectic quotes from ancient and mediterranean architecture. Then came the internationals with their high, commanding and paranoid fortresses. The British Council, for instance: the house itself looks like a well-maintained older villa, but it is virtually hidden from the street by a bunker-like and a fortified black steel fence. What risk do they hope to fend off? 'Psssh,' Petrit spits with contempt, 'a simple grenade lobbed over the fence would do the job.'

Needless to say, the internationals are violating any existing rules for urban planning with these expanding monsters, from which they issue orders existing rules for urban planning with these expanding monsters, from which they issue orders to the Kosovars on how to regulate their society. And now, they are being surrounded by the highrises of a city which has a hard time housing all its new inhabitants coming from the rural areas, hoping to share in the imagined profits of the big city. Walking back to his cafe, I can only agree with Petrit. While filing past another white international fence, it seems that the internationals are only finishing the work the Serbs had started: disrupting and obstructing the urban tissue, the urban memory of a city where the people are continuously adapting their daily itineraries to get from one place to the other.



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