An alternative guide to Northern Kosovo
A review of Dragon’s Teeth. Tales from North Kosovo. By: Ian Bancroft. Publisher: Ibidem Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany, 2020
Kosovo, which has been independent since 2008, is one of the least discovered places in Europe. Consequently, a striking majority of publications which focus on this state, including academic ones, are based on oriental stereotypes and negative clichés that only reproduce images of it as a corrupt and failing mafia state. Even if we agree that these narratives bear some truth – due to the fact that the political, social and economic situation is more complicated there than in other states in the region, or because the activities of Kosovo politicians, who are absorbed in the fight for power and getting rich – we should also acknowledge that in Europe’s youngest state, normal life carries on. People work, study, go to school and enjoy going to the cinema and theatre. They go for walks, meet neighbours and friends, even though it is more difficult there to overcome everyday challenges including poverty, high unemployment and corruption.
The situation in Northern Kosovo is quite distinct. The Serbs inhabit the region by a large majority. It has parallel Serbian state structures and uses the Serbian currency, the dinar. Its people often travel to Serbia, have Serbian IDs, and use the Serbian health care system which is much better than what is available in Kosovo. Even if they wanted to accept the fact that they live in an independent Kosovo, the state’s weaknesses are not encouraging. Politics have pushed an uneasy situation on the citizens and now they have to live with it. The recent book, Dragon’s Teeth. Tales from North Kosovo, by Ian Bancroft, a writer based in the former Yugoslavia for more than a decade, discusses some of these everyday challenges faced by those who live in the northern parts of Kosovo.
From time to time Northern Kosovo makes international headlines – either in the context of ethnic tensions or its hypothetical unification with Serbia which would return the Preševo Valley to Kosovo. In such moments, professional experts of the region claim that the exchange of territories is pointless, mainly because of the region’s multi-ethnicity. Just as the Preševo Valley is not inhabited solely by Albanians, Northern Kosovo is not only populated by Serbs; while in other parts of the country there are areas where there are numerous Serbian communities. Thus, an exchange of territories (which would most likely incline their “nationalisation”) is in nobody’s interest.
This conclusion can be drawn from Dragon’s Teeth, which shows complicated relations between the neighbours and big politics in the background. The Serbian narratives of a life on “the barricades of Serbness” and of being a “bulwark of Christianity”, which are glorified in the nationalistic discourse, overlap with similar sentiments expressed by Kosovo Albanians, who live in the Serbian-dominated north and consider themselves a bulwark of Islam and Albanianess. The title of the book is based on these self-stereotypes (i.e. generalisations projected in regards to one’s own group) which are present among both groups which consider Kosovo as their “holy land”. They refer to the Greek myth of the Spartans, the fighters who were born out of a dragon’s tooth and who, in the end, killed one another.
While Serbians and Albanians are not at war, clashes do take place in terms of identity, which is mainly expressed through an excessive show of national symbols, such as biased marking of a territory with flags and other emblems. Both sides believe that they have historical rights to this land. Separatist identity narratives are reproduced, and even enforced, through the education system, as the territories inhabited by the Serbs have Serbian schools with Serbian curricula, handbooks and academic materials. Young people acquire the Serbian version of history, read Serbian literature and learn Serbia’s geography. The majority of people do not see the need to learn Albanian which results in cultural and mental barriers. While the older generations rather have no serious communication problems (in communist Yugoslavia, Albanians had to learn the old Serbo-Croatian language), young people have difficulties even though they live in the same state.
The wide spectrum of issues that Bancroft discusses in the book leads to one common denominator, namely, Kosovska Mitrovica (formerly known as Titova Mitrovica). This is the main administrative centre for Kosovo Serbs, and at the same time, a city divided between Serbs and Albanians. While the majority of researchers concentrate on tensions and conflicts, which make this city one of the biggest hot spots in the Western Balkans, Bancroft shows its different face. He describes both the cultural traditions and the potential of the city, which was once an important town with a centuries’ long mining history; although today it has turned into a conglomerate of ethnic ghettos. Despite its numerous problems, Mitrovica continues to impress visitors as an academic centre (with a Serbian university, where Serbs from southern Serbia and other states of the former Yugoslavia also come to study). It is also a cultural centre, known for its achievements in music.
Complexities and depth
Bancroft’s vast, interdisciplinary knowledge on Northern Kosovo combined with his deep erudition and knowledge of both languages, and cultures have allowed him to outline the area’s complex relations, difficult past, and desire for “normal” life. In so doing, the author does not take any sides. Instead, he tries to show the complicated reality that the inhabitants of Northern Kosovo have to live. His book shows many analogies to Bosnia and Herzegovina (e.g. the divided cities of Kosovska Mitrovica and Mostar) where Bancroft previously worked as a diplomat. Indeed both countries face numerous difficulties, yet foreign experts who analyse them often reveal a lack of understanding as well as no knowledge of local and everyday realities. Bancroft is different though. As a visitor from the West, he tries to show the readers the local specificity, systems of values and cultural heritages. For this reason, his story is a very significant source.
For sure, anyone interested in the Western Balkans will enjoy reading Dragon Teeth, particularly those interested in learning about the lesser known region of Northern Kosovo. The book will also be a good read for those who are interested in visiting and getting to know Europe’s youngest state. Dragon Teeth can also be regarded as an alternative “guidebook” for advanced enthusiasts of the Balkans, as it is a guide to places burdened by a troubled history, and thus deserving the particular recognition.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Magdalena Rekść is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Political and International Studies at the University of Łódź, Poland and a scientific secretary at the Research Center of the University of Łódź “Bałkany na przełomie XX/XXI w.” (“The Balkans at the end of the 20th/start of the 21st centuries”.