This post was written exclusively for TheTheatreTimes.com by political analyst Alexandra Channer, who resided in Prishtina, Kosovo between 2005-2013. Channer reflects on her experience translating One Flew Over the Kosovo Theatre, the most recent work by Kosovar playwright, Jeton Neziraj, and doing so within the current socio-political climate of the region.
When Jeton Neziraj, the Kosovar playwright, asked me to translate his new play, One Flew over the Kosovo Theatre, I had been living in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital, for seven years. I had arrived in August 2005, to conduct interviews and do research for my doctorate, an investigation of strategies of past and present Albanian national movements in Kosovo. Life and politics intervened, and instead of returning to my university after a year, I found myself unable to leave behind the self-determination movement that I had originally set out only to observe. It was very much an anti-establishment movement when it started out. The youthful activists I met were repelled by the corruption of former war heroes, who by then were leading Kosovar politics. They sought a referendum for Kosovo’s people, to determine their own future, and opposed the negotiation of the terms of Kosova’s independence with Serbia. And they were indignant at the humiliation of Kosovo’s governance by a UN mission, which they viewed as further delaying their long wait for democracy and freedom. So, by the time I found myself translating Rosie’s opening words, I had quite a unique understanding of national politics in Kosovo; and how cold the winters can be.
The first two plays that Jeton asked me to translate were dark and disturbing tales. In the first, a small girl, Madeleine, dies after falling down a pothole in neglected Prishtina; in the second, a man murders a priest for loving his dead wife. I was new to the translation of Albanian literature and struggling with these works was the first time I properly understood the intensity of the translator’s confrontation with a text. Not only did I comprehend a scene’s eerie horror, alone, word by unfolding word, but I was also sometimes uncomfortably part of it because I was bringing it to life, a second time. So, when Jeton asked me to translate his new play, One Flew over the Kosovo Theatre, in November 2012, I was both thrilled, and slightly daunted, hoping it might be a little more cheerful. And it was. It made me laugh, and it still makes me smile whenever I think about it. Most of all, the play delighted me because it was so unexpected: it was the first example of genuine political satire that I had come across in Kosovo.
Jeton Neziraj laughs a lot, especially at the ridiculous in life. And he cleverly uses the ridiculous to make compelling criticisms of his home.
The play gently mocks the servility of the relationship between Kosovan politicians and international masters. We hear a list of censorship instructions about what words or images can and cannot be used during the independence celebration. (The reality was worse: the colors of Kosovo’s flag were determined by international diplomats and the joke about an anthem without words is all too true.) But, we also discover that the Kosovars, although subordinate, have learned to manipulate their new master, by hiding the weapons they have always hid; or in Rosie’s case, by using the men of both elites to further her own career. The international acronym song has to be one of my favorite scenes: a brilliant dig at the strange clash of cultures that took place when the UN started administering Kosovo in 1999.
Jeton reserves his greatest ire for Kosovo’s home-grown ‘heroes’. Through the Secretary, he pokes fun mercilessly at the pomposity and awful hubris underpinning the nation-building antics of Kosovo’s corrupt political elite. He also provides us with bleak glimpses of the emptiness at the heart of the state on the verge of declaring its independence – we learn that the budget for the independence celebrations is being siphoned off into the Secretary’s pockets; and that even the Director will take his cut. Meanwhile, Rosie’s constant complaints make us aware that the actors’ wages are months in arrears. It is Dilo who sums up their cynicism: When James explains his heroic plan to fly around the world to persuade countries to recognize Kosovo (based on a true story, by the way) Dilo is only impressed when James mentions that he will set up a bank account to receive donations.
Nevertheless, it is through James and his crazy flight that Jeton also quietly reminds us that believing in and defending country can represent the innocent sincerity of the ordinary citizen. It is James who reminds the Director that “everyone has the right to say what they think.” He is the only character who suffers consequences for his foolish idealism. After his plane crashes into the theatre, James is hospitalized and imprisoned. In independent Kosovo, he remains poor and unemployed, selling children’s balloons on the main square.
I realized as I was translating it, that this was a brave play – a brave play in Kosovo where an invisible censor operates when it comes to the sanctity of national issues. The blood and the grieving are too fresh, and the national project too unfinished, to make political satire a laughable occupation. Jeton lost his job as Director of the National Theatre because he crossed an invisible line by accepting an invitation to perform a play in Serbia. When the play’s Director says, “we’re now, how to put it, part of the government, aren’t we,” after the Secretary has tasked him with the independence play, Jeton is reminding us how easily art can become the instrument of politics at times of deep insecurity.
One Flew over the Kosovo Theatre also happens to be the only play I have translated, so far, that I have been lucky enough to see on the stage. When I tramped through the winter snow to buy the tickets for myself and a group of self-determination activists, I was told the performance had been canceled. Puzzled, I called Jeton, who appeared not long after, spoke to the theatre caretaker, and told me that yes, it was still on. The problem was that people in government were trying to stop it, he explained. What better signal that a political satire has hit its mark? In a final and perfect irony, the same officials unofficially encouraged a group of rowdy Prishtina football fans to attend the performance in order to disrupt it. Having sat down in the theatre, however, the fans found the play so funny, they forgot to protest. This is a good sign for Kosovo and it reveals just how bewitching is Jeton’s play.
Alexandra Channer is a political analyst, specializing in human rights. She studied history at the University of Edinburgh (1994) and after working in British politics, went on to study for a Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania (2012), as a Thouron Scholar. Between 2005 and 2013, Alexandra lived in Kosovo, where she researched her doctorate, worked as a translator and lecturer and participated in the self-determination movement.
Production Photos by Avni Selmani
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.