An Elegy for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare

Before I talk about Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, the first winner of the Booker Man International Prize, I want to give a little background about the setting:

tsar lazar

An icon of Tsar Lazar that I found on my own journey to Serbia

One of my favorite books of all time is the vast Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a philosophically and historically packed narrative of a journey through Yugoslavia in the 1930s. The title refers to two images that appear late in the book and perhaps leave a greater impression than any other part in the book. Whereas the black lamb becomes for West an image of the ugliest aspect of the Southern Slav, the grey falcon is a symbol of their loftiest aspect, which holds eternity in greater esteem than world success, and yet not without tragedy. Partly from laziness and partly for conveying the effect of oral history, I will retell the story of the grey falcon as I remember it from Rebecca West and other sources, so as to form something of a background to Kadare’s little novel.

It is 1389 on the eve of a great battle with the Turks. The Serbs and their allies are prepared for battle in the Kosovo Field. It is in the region of Kosovo that one find the head of the Serbian Church and many of their monasteries. The Serbs were led by one known as Tsar Lazar, not a king of the royal family, but the effective ruler of Serbs.

kosovo fieldAnd so, it is said that on the eve of battle, Tsar Lazar saw in the sky a grey falcon coming from Jerusalem with a swallow in its mouth, only it was not a grey falcon, but the Prophet Elijah! And it was not a swallow, but a book written by the Mother of God which he carried with him. And so, Tsar Lazar received this book and read in it a promise and a decision. The armies may go out tomorrow for battle and obtain both victory and earthly glory. Or they can celebrate the Divine Liturgy, having every soldier receive the sacrament, and then they will go out to battle with Turks, and nearly every soldier will die, but they will thereby obtain eternal glory.

And so, Tsar Lazar ordered the beautiful carpets to be laid out, for an altar to be brought forth and set, and for the priests to vest for the Divine Liturgy. The next day, Tsar Lazar nearly every soldier on the side of the Serbs fell in battle and the Serbs became vassals to the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries to come. And yet the Serb identity did not die. This defeat of the Serbs was immortalized in Serbian poetry and included within this were the words of Tsar Lazar: Cursed be every Serb that does not fight for Kosovo. And so one could hear echoes of these songs ringing even in 1999, during the brief Kosovo War, as the Serbs attempted to expel the Albanians from the region of Kosovo before this action was halted by foreign intervention. Continue reading

Advertisements

The Qur’an: My first reading

IMG_0367

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

When talking about the Qur’an with others, I like to ask “Is it an ancient text or a medieval text?” Most people will say ancient right away, but it does not fit nicely on either side. Muhammad died in 632, and so the text of his book was written in a period that is referred to as either late antiquity or the early middle ages. To give some context: In the West, St. Benedict has only decades ago written his rule which will give stability to Europe in the Middle Ages, and St. Isidore and St. Gregory the Great are wrapping up the era of the Church Fathers in the West. And yet these developments have no direct bearing on the Qur’an. When Muhammad refers to “Romans”, this refers to those who are living in Greece and Turkey, what history now refers to as the Byzantine Empire (and most translations of the Qur’an will just say “Byzantines” instead of “Romans”). In the Eastern Empire, the Patristic era has not yet ended. St. Maximus the Confessor will arrive around 650 to determine the Monothelite controversy, and then the following century will be concerned with the Iconoclasm controversy—a controversy that inspired (in part) by iconoclastic Muslim neighbors, but which is ultimately resolved (in part) through the writings of St. John of Damascus, who wrote under the protection of an Islamic patron.

Continue reading