While snow piles up in Vermont and New Hampshire, I have to buy a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the bright Prishtina sun because it never occurred to me to pack my own. It is in the mid-fifties and I sweat a bit under the scarf and winter coat that I packed for my February trip to Kosovo as I walk with a quick pace to keep up with the urban throngs on the pitted sidewalks. I’m heading to Mother Theresa Square, the pedestrian mall lined by benches, bistros, and shops. As I pass the government complex, I look up and I see the American flag. It flies third in a row of five flagpoles in front of the buildings that house, among other governmental agencies, the Ministry of Education and Sports, or MEST as it is known. It is where I have come to work as a consultant and how I landed by myself in this tiny Balkan nation.
The first flag in that line is the newly designed flag for the newly designed Kosovar republic. On a royal blue background sits a yellow form in the shape of the country, topped by a tiara of six white stars. The stars, I am told, represent the nation’s six cultures: Albanian, Serb, Bosniak, Gorani, Turk, and the Roma. Those populations are listed in order of their concentration but really, it is of no consequence. Ninety-two percent are Albanian and after the four percent Serbs, the others are negligible in terms of voice or presence in the country. That is, of course, except for the gypsies. They, the Roma, are visible everywhere in the city. They wander about town with their hands out for spare change, or appear carrying babies to entreat you to pity. They are insistent but completely ignored. At dinner the night before, two friends, Yll and Donika, tried to name all six cultures of their country and got stuck on the last one. Struggling to remember its name, they came up with Egyptians, which they quickly agreed was the sixth. They added the information tidbit that the Egyptians and the Roma were closely related, but they couldn’t say how. Always fascinated by linguistic linkages, it suddenly occurred to me that Egyptians were probably not the sixth culture – they were more likely the ancestors of the Roma. And it must have been their origin from Egypt that explains where the name ‘Gypsies’ came from. We eventually had to look it up to find the name of the final culture – the Gorani. Who they are or where they live or came from, no one at the table knew, and even now I can’t remember.
The second flag in the lineup is the Albanian flag. Its distinctive black double eagle centered over a brilliant red background has a menacing aspect that makes me uneasy, especially during Albanian celebrations when the flag is draped over every storefront, flying from every lamppost, adorning every T-shirt. Flags are big in Prishtina and any celebration is an excuse to go full out patriotic. This week the country is celebrating Kosovo Independence Day and the more comforting colors of blue and yellow with the pretty white stars on the country’s new flag are ubiquitous.
On the other side of the stars and stripes is a flag that I remember well from my childhood. I wonder how many Americans would recognize it so immediately. Having grown up in New York City, one of my favorite school field trips was the annual tour of one of New York’s most esteemed landmarks. Each time that we went, our trip would end in the gift shop where I would always buy a flag. By the time I reached high school, I had flags from Mexico, Canada, the UK, Israel, and France. But the first one that I ever bought – the blue one with the white globe in the center ringed by two olive branches, the international symbol of peace – was always my favorite. –It is the flag of the United Nations.
I didn’t recognize the final flag in the lineup. My privilege as an American citizen affords me the luxury of not being familiar with the dark blue flag that has a white three-dimensional triangular prism-like shape in its center. But every Kosovar knows it and honors it: it is the flag of NATO – the military force that entered their country and saved them during the reign of ethnic cleansing under Slobodan Milošević. There are monuments to those that were rounded up and expelled or put to death, and statues to local heroes that bravely fought. Rather than face slaughter, many had fled and some became imprisoned. NATO was the military force led by the American General Wesley Clark. They beat back the Serbs and paved the way for Kosovo’s independence and border integrity. And they patrol the streets of her towns and cities to this day.
So here the flags fly, along with that of the USA, in the Balkan capitol of the little nation that we invented and who owes us its life. I used to pass those flags on the boulevard named Shtate Agim Ramadani with pride: my country’s symbol next to the others, flown on foreign soil as a tribute and as thanks. But today in the bright sun, it looks ragged and dirty and its red, white and blue are faded. It is faded in the literal sense; hanging there day and night, not raised and lowered daily as we would do in this country, leaving it exposed to weather and the air pollution that is unacceptably high. But has it faded metaphorically as well?
In the meantime, life goes on as normal here, and I continue on my way. Although many new mosques have been built and the crowds are slightly more frequently dotted by women in hijabs since my last visit, the city streets are filled with shoppers clad in western attire, the women in high heeled boots and tight jeans with plenty of makeup, and the men all dressed in T-shirts and leather jackets. The call to prayer rings out every day at three PM but no one misses a beat; they just keep walking on, chatting on their iPhones, laughing with their friends. There is a Roma man sitting on a rug, gesticulating and crying out erratically. He is facing east and I think he must be praying. I pay him no mind and, like everyone else, just keep walking on.