Friday, March 07, 2008

Kosovo and a sense of place

I find it difficult to explain what Kosovo means to most Americans. It is often referred to as the “Serbian Jerusalem”, but what does that mean?

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song
And those who plundered us requested mirth
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth-
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation!”

O daughter of Babylon who are to be destroyed
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!

(As an aside, I’ve often heard any number of “spiritualizations” of the exhortation to dash the little ones of Babylon against the rocks, but perhaps instead of finding the spiritual aspect of such a line, or, God forbid, using it as justification, perhaps it should simply and soberly illuminate the voice of despair and hopelessness to us.)

Modern Americans, for the most part, do not have a sense of place, much less a sense that God gave us the place we live and we were given to the place. For most people today, one place to live is as good as the next, assuming some materialistic criteria are met. A man born and raised in Philadelphia will generally think nothing of moving to Phoenix if a job requires, or even move to a bigger house in the suburbs when he is able to afford it. In fact generally speaking, people today do not shop for a place to live, but a house to live in, the place being of secondary importance. Of course society has become so homogenized that the distinction between places is largely blurred. Were I to drop you into a modern subdivision on a day that was sunny and warm, were it not for the license plates on the cars, you would be hard pressed to tell me where you were.

So how do you explain to people who more often than not do not live in the same state they were born in, may have moved several times while growing up, and often do not live within a days drive of their siblings or parents what one place can mean? Does the person who moves his family cross-country for a better job feel like an exile? Does the family that sells the house to buy a newer, bigger one understand that they are depriving the children born in the old house of their ancestral home? Of course our consumer culture insures that all places are the same, and we can find the same “entertainments” and consumption wherever we go.

Ultimately the land of Kosovo means something to the Serbian people, they are tied to that land on a deep, spiritual level. In Serbia when meeting someone for the first time it is far more common to ask them “Where are you from?” than “Where do you live?” (Of course for most Serbs the answer would be the same to both questions.), and generally people who live in the cities will not tell you they are from the city (unless their family really is from the city), but instead which region or village they hail from. For the question, “Where are you from?” is more fundamental to who someone is in that culture. To ask the question to the Serbian people as a whole, “Where are you from?” The answer is: Kosovo.