Friday, June 10, 2005

Oh the places you'll go...

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books is entitled, "Oh the places you'll go."
One of our most recent countries we visited is Albania. It is hard to really describe Albania, you really do have to visit it- especially the capital, Tirana.
Most of Europe is easy to travel through, there is an incredible train system that can route you through most countries, everyday and any time. Once you choose to travel through the Balkans however, travel is usually done by what we would call a minivan- you buy a seat and may travel with a variety of people to your location. But even minivan wasn't an option getting from Belgrade, Serbia to Tirana, Albania- so we flew. Our first introduction to Tirana was driving from the airport at 11 pm at night by taxi- Tirana is definitely a city of lights but a bizarre combination of lights and strutures, small walking bridges are lit up on the underside by bright blue lights, buildings in the downtown square are illuminated by a yellow overall glow. By daylight we saw even more interesting and unusual things- it really felt like we were in a Dr. Seuss book- the city seems random, a bit our of sorts and a living version of someone's imagination. Various buildings are colorfully painted- blue, green, yellow- sometimes in blocks of color or patterns. Most buildings have different design structure and the layout of the city is unusual. So, what is it about Albania that makes it such a random place? Here is what I've learned- it wasn't until 10 years ago that Albanians could own cars, western and outside influence had been cut off. Albania has been conquered and controlled many times-they have both European and Eastern influence- Ottomans to Communism. Religion is seen as an adoption of the religion in power. It is said that Albanians are 10% Catholic, 20% Orthodox, 70% Islamic and 100% Aethesist- there is a sense of nationalism in Albania. The color of buildings is a gift from the mayor to brighten up the dim, bland communistic buildings many people live in. Also, there are few people who seem like visitors from other places, especially from America.
Overall, I'm glad I was introduced to Albania- Tirana is one intriguing place and is a great contrast to the beautiful mountains of the countryside we rode through on our way to cross the border into Macedonia. -Krista

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Learning from Sarajevo

Traveling through the Balkans has been a truly revelatory experience. After meeting the people of these lands, it has been humbling to realize just how many misperceptions of this area I had held before our arrival here. Part of those misconceptions had arisen, I suppose, from sensationalist war reportage and commentary in the media...although, mostly I'm realizing that myself and Americans in general have simply a tremendous lack of knowledge about this part of the world. For these reasons Sarajevo was one of those places that left a deep impression on me. Our conversations with Sarajevans revealed the somewhat surprising fact that Sarajevans did not experience the recent war as a conflict arising from deep-seated religious/ethnic interests, so much as an attack on their tolerant and pluralistic way of life. As proof of this, our host cited the fact that many of the Serbs of Sarajevo served alongside their Muslim and Catholic compatriots in the war against the Serbian nationalists. It is perhaps wrong to generalize about the "Spirit of Sarajevo" from the handful of conversations we had in two days, but it became quite clear to us that--at least with the Sarajevans we spoke with--an attitude of civic and social pluralism is something Sarajevans hold deep in their bones. They did not always express it consciously, but it was more than clear that cultural identity--and most especially religious cultural identity--is not the root cause of the problem that we Americans have long come to associate with the term "balkanization".

Sarajevo, in fact, has long existed as beacon of religious tolerance, not just in its part of the world, but even in Europe in general. It is clear, anyway, that Sarajevans need no lectures from the West on the value of "coexistance." The reasons for Sarajevo's pluralistic "spirit" are manifold, but the two most pertinent that we've been able to perceive in our conversations are the value Sarajevans place on intellectual openness and independent thought, and secondly, the primacy they place on the family unit as opposed to tribal and religious loyalties. Perhaps related to or as a result of this attitude, our host pointed out that Sarajevo's neighborhoods have not existed as fragmented ethnic enclaves (ghettos) since Hapsburg times. Sarajevo is proof to me the city can truly exist as a beacon of multicultural tolerance against nationalism, and has even produced a pluralistic civic ethos that can serve as a tantalizing model for multi-national cities in this part of the world, such as Jerusalem and Baghdad.

This is a great reason why America, ten years after Dayton, must not forget this region of world. This pilgrimage has taught me that I as an American must do all I can to support the renewal of our efforts to rebuild the region, to continue humanitarian aid, and to double our efforts to build up civil society in the region. Most importantly, we must renew our commitment to stabilizing the economies of the region, the key struggle the people of the Balkans perceive as the key to sustaining peace. In Belgrade, for example, we witnessed many bombed-out shells of buildings still standing precariously close to collapse as a result of our bombing over five years ago. It may be a small gesture and perhaps too late, but if we Americans offered to rebuild these monuments to Serbian grievance and American ignorance, I don't believe such a gesture of diplomatic goodwill would be overlooked among Serbs...

That could be one desperately needed step towards the reconciliation and redemption between our Balkan brothers and us.