By Jeton Neziraj
Sometime in the late fall of 1996, as an asylum seeker in Germany back then, I used to work in the construction business. I worked on a so-called “Baustelle” in the vicinity of Bonn. It just so happened that on one of those boring rainy days, I would work with some of the workers that claimed to be from Wales. Strong bearded men they were, these Welshmen, who rolled their tobacco themselves. They had been hired to lay out small mosaic stones on the court to the house on which I too had worked. The construction company was, of course, doing seasonal work in Germany. There is little I remember from that small encounter. Due to the lack of information, I would pronounce the name of their country Wales, as “valise.” It was only after some time that I understood that in fact, the country was called “Wales,” with a “W” sound, and that it was a part of Great Britain. One of these men showed interest in knowing where I came from. Most probably, as I usually did under those circumstances, I must have tried to explain to him that I was from Kosovo, a country hoping to escape Serb tutelage and that I had left my country because of Serb oppression. As asylum seekers in Germany, we were quite hurt when German bureaucrats would call us “Serb citizens” or “Yugoslav citizens”. Kosovo proclaimed itself independent in 1992, but at that time no country recognized the independence. Neither did the German state that proved to be hostile towards a growing number of asylum seekers from Kosovo.
I imagine that my new friend from Wales returned happily to his homeland. I returned to Kosovo, illegally, that is, the same way I had illegally entered Germany. I returned at a time where everything smelled like gunpowder.
Much has changed since then. And in the meantime, while my friend from Wales probably continued doing the same work, drowning his solitude and fatigue in tobacco and whiskey, I had to make a living amidst the bullets of the Serb army and the mines surrounding us everywhere in the fields.
Ten years after meeting the bearded men from Wales, I had the opportunity to visit Wales. Wales was that part of the world that my imagination had molded into a boring and rainy country, washed down with alcohol and tobacco smoke. In fact, I visited Aberystwith, a small, weird and presumably fairy-tale like town. The rainfall nicely accompanied the ideas I once had about Wales during the days I stayed in Aberystwith.
I returned to Wales in 2011, when I was still working as the Artistic Director of the National Theater of Kosovo. This time though I had an invitation from the National Theater of Wales, which is a theater that was established some years ago in Cardiff. We were discussing the possibilities of cooperation between the two theatres. That however, turned out to be impossible. Meanwhile, by the end of May and the beginning of June, I revisited Wales. This time though, I was on a new mission. I was invited by the National Theatre of Wales to do research on a topic I hoped to write a play on.
Now, when the option of the secession of Wales has become more plausible than ever before, the play that I intend to write aims at looking at this very process. For myself, an author from the Balkans, tackling this topic is attractive, but equally challenging. Because Wales is not Kosovo and England is not Serbia, just as the United Kingdom is not Ex-Yugoslavia.
The Former Yugoslavia was a country built on the ideological premises of "equality of nations and nationalities", yet that equality was never exercised enough in Kosovo, whose population is about 90% Albanian. The causes that led to the fall of Yugoslavia are deep, but they can be reduced to Serbia’s hegemonic tendencies over Kosovo and than later over other Ex-Yugoslav republics. In Kosovo, this hegemony was exemplified through the removal of political autonomy, the elimination of the educational system and the systematic take-over of all major institutions in the country. And, a system of violence and police repression was naturally installed. Therefore, the issue of Kosovo’s independence has been reduced to at least one vital element: freedom, or more precisely, the lack of freedom. The war of 1998/99 in Kosovo was the result of that period of systematic oppression and police violence and the tendency of the Serbian minority to dominate over the Albanian majority.
The wars of former Yugoslavia claimed the lives of some 250,000 people, and it is estimated to have destroyed hundreds of villages and towns. This is roughly the outcome or rather, the results one might expect, from extreme nationalism and its hegemonic projections. The war in Kosovo was terminated through the intervention of the NATO alliance over Serbian forces; forces that had committed massacres in Kosovo and had persecuted over one million ethnic Albanians. The US and the UK had played a crucial role in the liberation of Kosovo. Tony Blair is considered a national hero in Kosovo, rightly so. Several Albanian children in Kosovo, who were born in 1999, were named after him.
And now, twelve years after the liberation of Kosovo, as a free citizen of Kosovo, I was visiting Wales, listening to the various stories about this beautiful country, which perhaps one day will itself become independent. Unlike Kosovo that needed to invent a flag hastily, Wales already has had its own flag since hundreds of years. The red dragon on Wales’ flag seems rather more friendly than fearsome.
I must admit, as a Kosovar, who having had the advantage of British aid ourselves, I felt somewhat uncomfortable, with my inability to hide my enthusiasm for the pro-independence Welsh people I had met. Beyond the important role the UK had played in Kosovo’s liberation, it was among the first countries that recognized Kosovo's independence once it was announced in 2008.
As I expected, people had different attitudes towards the question as to whether Wales should secede. Some, of course, were in favor of a total independence for Wales, others were in favor of an additional independence within the UK and a third group of people, which probably constituted the largest group among them, were those who maintained that the current political construct was functional and had no need for change. Supporters of independence, or "nationalists," as they readily labeled themselves or who were of course, called so by others, mainly used the classic arguments to cite the land, history, language and cultural distinctions, but were also in support of political and economic arguments for change.
To those people I was conversing with, who were curious to hear my opinion, I answered indirectly. I explained to them that I was from Kosovo, which declared its independence three years ago. However, as I used to tell them, Kosovo’s independence from Serbia was penultimate; there were no alternatives. Economic and other arguments were not important. "Yes, I’d tell them, it’s working. The evil is now more effective than it was before."
A representative from the Welsh National Party, Plaid Cymru, whom I had met in the Senedd, the Welsh National Assembly, didn’t hesitate to introduce himself as a "nationalist." And while he spoke to me passionately about past and present time Wales, I caught myself thinking about how in the Balkans he’d make a perfect democrat. Beyond borrowing terms from a classic arsenal of nationalist idioms, his arguments were rather of a pragmatic nature. He himself however, was not very optimistic. According to him and many others, things were apt to change after the referendum for Scotland’s independence in 2014.
I admired him, because beyond the enthusiasm and the recklessness upon which nationalism thrives, he was able to weigh in all the evils, disadvantages of this sort of political process, in which he partook, supported by a considerable number of followers. And, in this list of "evils" "economic viability" was among the greatest concerns. Can an independent Wales survive economically? This in fact, was the greatest fear of the people I met during that stay.
And while in this simple office of his, in the Senedd, as he was talking to me about Wales, in my mind I was playing satirical games, drawing from manuals such as "Independence for Fools" (a series of popular books in Britain), or "Independence in Ten Easy Steps,” and thinking of them as Balkan models that may be applicable to Wales. Here are some recommendations that I drew from them that I want to propose to my interlocutors:
- At the upcoming visit of the Queen in Wales, throw some small stones about her feet. She will slip upon these, fall and cut her lip.
- Delve into some history and see whether you stumble across any battle in which a Welsh patriot might have beaten British soldiers. Start celebrating this day annually.
- Stitch together a big Welsh flag and place it on the first hill that separates Wales from England.
- Build up a relationship with the USA
- Sing nationalistic songs during soccer games between Wales and England. At the end of the game, if your team loses, vandalize the stadium seats and throw stones at the British players and their fans/sympathizers. And so on…
However, I believe that none of what I am proposing will actually happen in Wales. Nor do I believe that England will ever send its policemen to beat up peaceful protesters in Cardiff, or will abolish Welsh autonomy or shut down the schools in which the Welsh language is taught. But, I do believe the future may surprise you. Things will seem a little different if Scotland votes for independence at the referendum of 2014. And if an independent Scotland would work out well, it probably would embolden those "sleeping bears" of Wales who would not want to spoil their own aspirations.
The relationship between England and Wales, just as that of Scotland with England, beyond being a political and historical relationship, continues to be an emotional relationship. It seems as if the royal family is fostering this relationship. I met many people to whom the ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the Queen seemed ridiculous, however, most people felt comfortable with another extended weekend in honor of the anniversary. The celebration was felt everywhere in Cardiff. This to me seemed like a rather strange "farce". In fact for some people it was just another reason to go out, drink and quench their sweat with beer in the noisy pubs of the city. But the atmosphere they found themselves in was ambiguous, one of "love" and "hate". “I’d feel forever depressed if Wales secedes from the United Kingdom. Why should it do such a thing? There is no reason whatsoever. The English are not “obstacles,” a woman from Cardiff told me. Yet, in a small bar in Machynlleth, the waiter serving me, after a similar exchange, told me in confidence: "Thank God, that (other) man left. He’s unbearable. He hates the English.”
People in Wales lead a good life. Maybe not all, but most do. The current economic wellbeing has created a sort of paranoia that may be described as "independence means the lowering of living standards." They have no confidence in the economic viability of an independent Wales. Other arguments, to most of them, are peripheral. One woman I interviewed said with a sense of humor: "Englishmen are the ones who want the independence of Wales; they want to get rid of us." And indeed, current figures show that currently, the UK provides more money to Wales than it receives from it. But this is the present condition; it hasn’t been like this in the past. An exploitation of economic resources of this country, once rich in coal, appears to have been done systematically in both distant and recent history.
Not wanting to claim pretentiously that I understood anything in that alive and vibrant world, this wonderful country, my impression however, was that language is the primary vector that fuels Welsh identity; a language very different from English. What had been disturbing statistics on the low percentage of Welsh-speakers in the population, have in recent years, begun to change for the better. Significant progress has been made to promote the language, which had survived miraculously despite being surrounded by "English.” This was very much comparable to the Albanian of the Albanians. In order to reconcile those who had complained about the ever pervasive English language, I used to say, “English is eating up all languages, not just yours!”
Will nationalism arise within an independent Wales? How will this nationalism manifest itself? Will it be possible for an Englishman to be the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Wales? In Scotland, where I had stayed a short time, a young author told me: “Yes, an Englishman might become the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland in an independent Scotland. But this would not be due to the fact that he is English, but rather because he is the better choice.” He then began to count the majority of cultural institutions in Scotland run by Englishmen. When I asked him as to why it was so, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled. And then, in order for me to get a clearer idea of the reason for his hesitance, he began speaking about historically famous Scots, leaving a blank for me to fill in that, this English presence in cultural institutions was most likely “political.”
And, unlike Wales, things looked different in Scotland. In fact, the political scene seemed more alive. At least this was the impression I got as I met people during the short two days I was there. The taxi driver who drove me to the airport, as he heard about my interest, told me, in a humorous, but genuine way how the English “steal.” “They just love to steal, to abscond with, to possess. We were compliant in the “stealing” of India. Of course, the English stole considerably more. You see, 50 years after we left India, the country has not yet been able to straighten itself out. We left it a desert”. He was convinced that an independent Scotland would succeed far better however. "The British are benefiting from our wealth. We have oil. We would be better off as an independent state. Perhaps things will not change much after independence, but we will be richer. The Englishmen will be outraged, because after Scotland, Wales will secede. But they are blackmailing us, when they say: If you secede, you will not be able to use the pound anymore, but would have to use the Euro. Yes, they intend to intimidate us. This is idiotic. When we are independent, we will be able to use whatever type of currency we choose. Why the Euro? They want scare us, because the euro is performing so badly now.” And then he continued to speak about "Scottish water," which according to him is better than English water. "Go and ask for a tea in London,” he told me, “and see how the “cipry” sticks to the surface… a shitty layer. “
The driver surely was funny. It was not necessary for me to record what he had said. I knew I would remember it. His ongoing anger, spilled over and came to an end with a joke he told me as we reached our destination: "When a English player wins a gold medal, the media in London says that a English player won. If the same player loses, they say, a British player lost the game. And so on. Scottish players become "British players" only when they win, but when they lose they revert to "Scottish players."
The relationship of Wales to England appeared to me like the relationship of an elderly couple (more or less like Mrs. and Mr. Martin in the “Bold Singer”), who were once married (with or without their consent) and who lived together all those happy, but tumultuous lives. But now, they want to separate. They want to but can not. And, perhaps they never will separate. And while they sometimes even hate each other, they still share the same bed each and every night.
Several times during those days, I remembered the bearded worker from Wales whom I had met many years ago in Germany. Nowadays, he must be well into his sixties, and still growing a beard, and he no doubt continues to smoke tobacco and drink whiskey. I am sure that he no longer travels to Germany for seasonal work. But, I’ll bet He is probably one of those who supports the independence of Wales. Or maybe now he does not even care about it. Who knows? The place of the “Red Dragon” though, is heaven on earth. This should be obvious to all of them who live there.
(Written for the National Theater of Wales. First published in Albanian in “Koha Ditore”, Prishtina, Kosovo, June 2012. Translated into English by Ajkuna Hoppe)
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