How To Find a Jew in Kosovo

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Kosovo, Gypsy boys, Sufi novices, Skopje, Serbian blood, Balkan puzzles, Raoul Teitelbaum, Mossad, Cafe Ambient, Israel, Turkish coffee, Albanian, Prizren & a man called Zamir.




Ask old men. You have an unshakable faith in the wisdom of old men, in all matters from romantic advice to political perspective; you have no doubt that if there are any Jews around in this dreamy town of Prizren in central Kosovo, the old Albanian men you’ve seen in the coffee shops will know them, will tell you where to go. Old men wake up early. You wake up early, walk along the riverbank until you find a small cafe that feels right, spot an empty table in the corner, and sit down. It’s not yet seven in the morning, but the place is full, young men drinking coffee before work, or maybe taking their first break of the day, builders and mechanics in dusty t-shirts, and old men, the ones you were looking for, with white domed hats or faded berets, black waistcoats, bushy moustaches, loudly discussing local politics: these, these will be your guides. You order Turkish coffee, look around, absorbing everything, romanticizing and writing in your notebook. You half-hope that someone will be curious and ask about you, but nobody cares. When you’re done with your coffee, you start speaking to the waiter, and he calls over a man who speaks German to translate. Ich bin aus Israel, you stutter, trying to think how to explain what you’re looking for. Everyone is suddenly interested. Muslimi? they ask you. Nein, yahudi. They nod. You revert to English and sign language: I’m looking for Yahudi Kossova, Yahudi here, Yahudi Prizren. They speak amongst themselves, and tell you: small. Five, six yahudi. Where can I find them? But they don’t understand or don’t know or don’t want to tell you. You realize the conversation is over. When you come to pay, the owner waves his hand, swelling with Albanian pride. You smile and leave.

2. You sit on an old stone bridge, eating a chocolate croissant from a nearby bakery. You asked for something else, but this is what you got, and for twenty cents you can’t complain. It’s half past seven. A wrinkled old man, almost completely toothless, walks out of the mosque and comes towards you, hobbling with a wooden cane. Salaam aleikum, haj, you call out to him. He answers immediately and, without knowing a word of Albanian, you understand him – don’t speak with your mouth full. An old Sufi proverb, you think to yourself, and try to appreciate its deepest meanings.

3. Another cafe, on the other side of the river. You lean back, scribble thoughts in your notebook, but your eyes dart and you’re eager to start another conversation. You manage to nod hello to the three old men at the next table, but they don’t start a conversation, even though they warmly greet almost everyone who walks past them on the street. It’s time for some serious schmoozing, and you leave your Turkish coffee and notebook on the table and walk down the street to buy a pack of cigarettes, for the first time in your life. You come back, sit, lean over, and offer the man in a beret a cigarette: the international sign of friendship. He takes, you both light up, and without waiting for an invitation, you launch into the same conversation as before—Israel, yahudi, Prizren. They nod, understanding, and one of them tells you in German that there are only two families left in the country. Ich will sehen, you say in your awkward German, and the men convene to discuss your predicament. Go to the Cafe Ambient, they eventually tell you—and you can’t remember what language they spoke to you in – there’s a man called Zamir, he drinks coffee four times a day there, go speak to him. You stub out your cigarette, leave a few coins, cough and walk off.

4. This is it, you think to yourself. You should work for the Mossad. You’re sitting at the Ambient, a nice place sprawled over a steep cobbled path running up the hill. You sit near the top to have a good view of the rest of the clientèle, order some tea, your mind buzzing from the previous coffees, and you try to guess which one is Zamir. You still don’t really know why you’re looking for a Kossovan Jew, what you’ll say when you meet him. Eventually you ask a waiter if he knows a Zamir who lives nearby, but either you pronounce the name wrong, or the waiter isn’t in the habit of exposing customers to inquisitive strangers. No, nobody like that here. You feel deflated.

5. You’re about to leave. So much for the Mossad. The waiter comes over, lights you a cigarette. Where you from? Israel. Oh, welcome, welcome. You Jew? Yes. He nods. Also Prizren have Jew, small, three families. Your heart beats, fast, you can tell exactly what’s going to happen. I want to meet them, you say. No problem, he points with his thumb, Zamir is sitting just there. You walk down the hill, and join four or five old men. The waiter speaks to one, introduces you in Albanian, and he smiles and shakes your hand. Shalom! Shalom! You have a warm conversation in French, a language you haven’t spoken for almost fifteen years, but you understand each other well, the words rise up in you without you thinking too much. The waiter comes over and pours you a large cup of Turkish coffee. Zamir asks you about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, tells you about a Kossovar in Jerusalem called Raoul Teitelbaum, asks how you like Prizren. Oui, tres bon, tres jolie. Et toi, comment d’etre le seul juif au Kosovo? Mais non, there are fifty-four Jews in Kosovo, he tells you, and this will always be our home. In the Second World War, he tells you, the Jews were sent away to the camps, or left to Albania. My mother stayed to fight with a partisan group, and afterwards stayed in Prizren. This is our home, no one gives us any problems, all my friends are here. Some other old men at the table nod, the first indication that they understood your conversation. You speak a little longer, he asks you to write “la communaute Juive du Kosovo” for him in Hebrew letters, and you get up to leave. Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova, au revoir mon ami.

6. Your meeting with Zamir adds another piece to your Balkan puzzle, but mixes up the pieces too. You take off your shoes and sit in the local mosque. There’s a few hours yet until the midday prayers, and the enormous hall is empty. You try and arrange your thoughts. Nation comes first, you remember someone telling you: you can convert between religions, but you can’t convert to Albanian, it’s too deep. Zamir seems to think the same, son of partisan fighters, he’s a proud Jew and prouder Kossovar. You think about yourself: you’d like to say that you’re post-national, international, a-national, neither Israeli nor British nor Jewish, costumes you put on and discard, languages you use to express yourself, but are not that self. But that’s easy to say in hipster enclaves in Tel Aviv and London. You think about people you’ve met in the last few days: lovely charming people, thirsting for Serbian blood; in Skopje, less than a kilometer from the Holocaust museum, you see a Macedonian pretend to run over a Gypsy boy with his car. The boy runs into his slum-ghetto where sewage flows through muddy streets, and when you sit there to eat börek, an Askali gypsy tells you that he will fight anyone, kill anyone, to stay free. Post-nationalism? What a joke. I—back to the first person now—I can’t identify with post-anything here, stupid idealism, just not human. Put a homogeneous group of people in two rooms and give them a competitive task, pretty soon they start talking in terms of “them” and “us,” see characteristics in the other group that don’t exist in theirs. How can you have national or community identity that doesn’t lead to violence?

7. But I can choose to remember other things, too: sitting at the film festival with young Muslim girls, drinking beer on the steps of the mosque, sitting with Serbs on the other side of the bridge in Mitrovicë, chatting to a Sufi novice in his lodge, watching him cool watermelons in the sacred fountain, I know life is good too. Good-bad. Complex. I get ready to step back into reality, still unsure of where I’m going.

Josh Weiner grew up in Jerusalem and London, and has worked as a social worker, tour guide and kindergarten teacher. Whenever possible, he travels the world. On the road, he writes stories about home. At home, he writes about remembered and imaginary travels.

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