A conversation with Florent Mehmeti by Lura Limani
Theater director Florent Mehmeti recounts the fledgling underground arts scene in Prishtina and how it spurred his interest in public space.
|On a cold spring day, with rays of sunshine filtering through gray clouds, I stand in front of the statue of Bill Clinton, as the 42nd President of the United States. Underneath the 10 foot statue, I look at the oversized hands of Clinton, whose pivotal role behind the NATO air campaign to stop the attempted genocide against the Albanian population in 1999, has earned him a square and the namesake of one of the largest boulevards in Prishtina. I am not alone: tourists pose in front of the statue both as a joke and perhaps because they too recognize Clinton’s historical importance in the country’s recent history.|
|This is also the starting point for Florent Mehmeti’s audio tour, “Trails of ‘90s underground culture,” (available for free on Echoes), which takes the unassuming flaneur to a unique trip down the memory lane of the Prishtina-based theater director and producer. During his walk, Mehmeti, who is now a household name in Kosovo’s theater scene, narrates stories from his youth, eulogizing lost friends and bringing to life a picture of a segregated Prishtina of the 1990s —providing a much needed backstory to the climax of the conflict in the 1998-1999 war.|
|The idea of recording an audio tour came to Mehmeti at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, when public gatherings were banned and theaters and galleries closed. Mehmeti, who is the co-founder of the In Situ partner, ODA Theater, and the founder of HAPU, a festival of arts in public space, was already familiar with AR audio projects, such as Ambrus Ivanyos’ project “How to disappear completely.” A customized audio experience that could be easily played on one’s phone as one walked in public space offered a means to reach an audience to Mehmeti, who now, on top of being an arts producer and programmer, put on the mantle of content-creator.|
“I wanted to create something accessible to the public. This was perfect - a person with their own headphones…particularly in that spooky atmosphere of the pandemic,”
|Mehmeti explained. The ghostly atmosphere of the early days of the pandemic, when Kosovo authorities put the country on high alert and allowed people to go out of their houses for only one hour a day resonates very much with the stories Mehmeti tells on audio. Similarly to the first spring months of 2020, public space in 1990s Prishtina is perceived as dangerous, particularly to a man of a military age like Mehmeti, who could be drafted to serve in the Yugoslav wars at any moment.|
|At the time, Mehmeti and his peers spent most of their days pretty much as one would expect teenagers would: hanging out with friends and thinking about where the next party was. Yes, bars would close at 10 PM and Albanians, especially boys were at risk of being harassed by the police, but life continued to maintain a semblance of normality as young people dressed in Levi’s, gathered in the many bars in the Kurrizi arcade—still there today behind the Clinton statue. Following Mehmeti’s voice, as one walks along the Echoes trail, one can envision where the narrator had his first slow-dance with a girl, where he stayed up all night laughing and drinking with a cop, and where his friend and actress, Adriana Abdullahu, was killed by Serb forces with a hail bullets on March 24,1999.|
“When I talk about the 1990s with people, and how we lived, people feel sorry for me,” he tells me smiling and shaking his head.
“Maybe today I also would feel sorry for myself, but back then it was business as usual, just life.”
For the most part of his youth Mehmeti lived with a “different standard of freedom.” In the beginning of the 1990s, Kosovo Albanians had been expelled from all public institutions after the Milosevic regime revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status in 1989 and began imposing repressive measures in what was then a southern province of Serbia. Kosovo Albanians declared Kosovo an independent republic and pursued a form of civic peaceful resistance, including establishing a parallel education system. What followed was a decade of segregation between Serbs and Albanians, which Mehmeti bluntly calls an apartheid.
|“The elementary school my mom taught at had a literal wall separating Serbs from Albanians,” Mehmeti told me. High schools however had no access to public facilities and he himself attended high school in private homes, before enrolling to study theater directing in the banned University of Prishtina in 1994. “I didn’t know what I wanted to study, I toyed with architecture as well, but what I really wanted was that my work be exhibited to the public,” he told me.|
Classes were held first in a building in the Bregu i Diellit neighborhood, then later in the house of Mensur Safqiu, a now-renowned Kosovo actor and comedian, or at the downtown offices of the Kosovo Composers’ Association, which doubled as the dean’s office of the Faculty of the Arts. The arts students were ‘privileged’ as the offices were in the central neighborhood Pejton — in an attempt to avoid police raids, all other university departments were based in suburban areas. Sometimes, Mehmeti and his classmates held classes in Hani i Dy Robertëve, a bar and restaurant that served as the cultural fulcrum for the intellectual and artistic elite.
“Creativity erupts, or rather creative ideas and solutions are found in hardship, when you find yourself in circumstances where you are forced to find a solution to pursue your passion—naturally assuming that you don’t give up, which is always the first option,”Mehmeti told me recounting the hurdles and dangers that one had to overcome to simply put on a play. Directing students had to pass practical exams and while Mehmeti could simply put on a play in front of a handful of students, he wanted his plays to be actually seen.
At the time, the National Theater — back then the so-called the People’s Provincial Theater— was run by figureheads appointed by the regime and had no actual programme in Albanian. In his walking tour, Mehmeti recounts his dilemma of attending a visiting play from Serbia in 1998. After weighing in whether they should boycott the play, or attend it to enrich their cultural education, Mehmeti and his friends — students from the “illegal university” — approach the ticket booth where they are told the tickets are “sold out” despite the theater being practically empty. The theater director had decided students from the parallel university, with or without tickets, should not get to go in.
Enter: Dodona, Prishtina’s puppet theater. Although the theater was run by the city and managed by a Serbia-imposed director Zoran Kosovac, private production companies owned by Yugoslav acting legends Enver Petrovci and Faruk Begolli had managed to rent the theater as a space for commercial entertainment. Officially, the theater was rented to put on light comedies such as the extremely successful Profesor, jam talent se jo mahi (Professor I’m talented and that’s no joke), which over the years produced six sequels. Unofficially, however, the theater also served as a space for students to stage their more serious, and often symbolically-loaded, plays.
“The light plays served as a camouflage… The Serbian system did not care about some comedies, it was only interested if there was a play against Serbia or the system that was attempting to create resistance,”Mehmeti says, explaining that Kosovo theater had a history of playing an educational role in encouraging political dissent. Ironically, the so-called light plays became so popular — to the point of the audience breaking down the entrance—that they had exactly the unexpected effect of fermenting the much-dreaded resistance.
“Having such a large audience that was Albanian-speaking, members of a community which was oppressed because of their ethnicity, created the effect of massive participation,” Mehmeti explained. “Just going to see the comedy ‘Professor, I’m talented…’—the product was irrelevant—going as an audience, served as a resistance to Serbia…
because when you tell people how we lived, you’d think that the last thing these people would do is go to the theater.”
The regime caught on and made it harder for students to get access to the building. Mehmeti, who was serious about his art, had to run rehearsals for Strindberg’s Miss Julie after midnight when the guard of the third shift— Ismail, an Albanian man—would take over and would allow the students access to the stage. After rehearsals, Mehmeti recounts, he’d sleep in a corner of the theater wrapped in a curtain as it would have been “suicidal” to roam the streets of Prishtina in the middle of the night with police checkpoints popping up in unpredictable places. In the morning, he’d scuttle out before 8 am when the next guard, Boza, took over the shift.
Mehmeti says his professor, the director Fadil Hysaj, would push his students to be more structured, bolder. The students attempted to show their opposition to the system by drawing up allegories and using symbolism.
“When I directed Miss Julie, we put a massive ear on the stage. The concept was structured around the idea that the oppression was larger than Miss Julie’s father, in fact that the father represented the system, as someone who diligently overheard and watched over her - leaving her without the possibility of privacy, without a personal life,” he explained referring to the Count, a character in Strindberg’s play who is never seen on stage but whose power is ever present through props.
“We were not aware at the time, only later did we actually realize, that we were building a cultural movement,” Mehmeti assessed.
In addition to theater, the underground scene included a vibrant visual arts scene, with most of the exhibitions being organized in yet another commercial complex called Qafa. The arcade-like shopping center became a hangout spot for painters, philosophers and writers. At the same time an array of young bands popped up, with Kurrizi’s bars hosting regular music nights from rock groups, and metal bands such as Troja.
“It was an uncoordinated effort, but we were all trying to the best of our abilities to show, if anything, that we were alive,” a wistful Mehmeti said. In October 1997, when University of Prishtina students began organizing massive protests, to oppose the systematic repression of Albanians, the arts students also joined in as protestors and performers.
Mehmeti was in his senior year when Kosovo was enveloped in a full fledged war which resulted with over 13,000 people killed and disappeared, and hundreds of thousands expelled from their homes. Having stayed in Prishtina despite spending the better half of the 1990s contemplating fleeing to London to join his sister Rita, Mehmeti could barely leave his home at the peak of the war in 1999.
“I allowed myself to be out in public for only one hour a day - between noon and 1 PM, when there was a rush hour, I felt safer to be outside. For the rest of the day I was completely isolated because it had become physically dangerous to be outside,” Mehmeti explains. Men who were of military age were either suspected of avoiding the draft to the Yugoslav army, or were considered as possible recruits of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
In the walking tour Mehmeti masterfully describes his relation to public space: as a young man he is fully aware that the streets of his hometown do not belong to him. Public spaces to a young Mehmeti are only “corridors” from point A to point B; real life happens behind closed doors, in the basement of Hani i Dy Robertëve, or in the molehill-like Kurrizi.
In the first chapter of the audio walk, Mehmeti’s certain voice leads the audience to look up the building of his former flat, right to the window from which his worried mother used to wait for him every night, always scared that he would not return home. The narrator admits, “When I think of it now, when I’m a parent myself, I think of it as simply unbelievable, simply impossible.”
When the war ended with Yugoslavia capitulating to NATO, and the UN taking the province under its administration, Mehmeti found himself spending countless hours at a cafe across the Grand Hotel, now finally free.
“I could not get my fill of public space. I could stay there for hours, just getting used to the fact of not being afraid, not having to walk,”Mehmeti told me with utmost seriousness. “The idea of just hanging out felt both weird and pleasant, and at the same woeful when I’d think how I could have lived without being out and about in public space for the past ten years.”