Text by Matthew Lee // Photos: Tim E White
I am at the headquarters of the Strong Party, the greatest political group in the history of Kosovo and, according to its founders, the world. Its moustachioed leader, known to everyone here as the Legendary President, sits beneath a portrait of himself and watches as his followers gravitate towards him, to hang on his every word.
“Act like you worship him,” shouts N by Norwegian’s photographer, trying to orchestrate some reverence for the leader from the punters I’ve recruited at the bar. The assembled crowd reaches the requisite levels of sycophancy, the portrait session is called to an end, and everybody goes back to their beer and lukewarm chicken wings. It is, after all, a Saturday night in Pristina – and we’re in an Irish pub.
We may have faked the fawning, but at the noisy SKHA pub, which doubled as party headquarters during two hard-fought campaigns, there’s no shortage of admiration for 27-year-old Visar Arifaj, whose satirical alter ego shook up Kosovar politics in local and national elections. I’m hanging out with him because Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe – in both senses of the word – and I’m here to find the young people who will shape its future. The average age in Kosovo, which only declared its independence in 2008, is just 26. It’s the lowest in the continent by some distance (the average age in Sweden is 42), and is in part due to a post-conflict baby boom. Arifaj, who was only 25 when his group of artists and musicians infiltrated the system to mock out-of-touch politicians, was speaking on behalf of the country’s silent majority.
Pristina is all about youth and new beginnings. It’s not the prettiest city on the planet, but there’s a youthful buzz about the place. One of the closest things it has to a conventional tourist attraction is the interactive, ever-changing Newborn sculpture – a 3m-tall typographical monument that gets a topical makeover each Independence Day, when visitors are encouraged to draw all over it. Sure, the unlikely statue of Bill Clinton is worth a peek, and the National Library is a head-spinning mix of Brutalism and traditional Islamic architecture, but the Newborn monument is the most potent – and photographed – symbol of new Pristina.
I arrive on a Saturday afternoon, with a mission to discover the city’s brightest young creative talents on a single night on the town. My first point of contact, luckily, turns out to be a good one. Genc Salihu is an acclaimed Kosovar Albanian musician and owner of Dit’ e Nat’ (Day & Night), a cross between a bookshop, a café and a live music venue. I chat to some of its eclectic range of customers, including Elizabeth Gowing, a British writer who’s written two wonderful books about the quirks and charms of her adopted homeland (her third Kosovo book, The Rubbish Picker’s Wife, is due to be published this summer).
Salihu, meanwhile, is a cultural linchpin; not only does his café bring Pristina’s brightest creatives together but he’s also the front-man of local alt-rock heroes Cute Babulja, a judge on the Albanian version of The Voice and, as I discovered during his impassioned defence of Paul McCartney at the Tingle Tangle café, a man with very strong opinions on The Beatles. He’s also brave – or foolish – enough to accept our challenge.
Salihu makes some calls, and an hour later we’re at a vegetarian restaurant with a devout following, devouring its legendary falafel with the Legendary President. Baba Ganoush is the brainchild of our first young Kosovar talent of the evening, chef Nurhan Qehaja. “I returned home from New Zealand and there was literally nowhere I could eat as a vegetarian,” explains Qehaja, who established herself as one of Kosovo’s top young contemporary artists before taking the plunge and opening what’s still the only vegetarian restaurant in the country. “I was selling my own falafel at Tingle Tangle and people seemed to love it, so I decided to open a proper restaurant. To be honest, it was mostly a desperate attempt to fulfil my vegetarian needs.”
Her unique twist on Turkish meze is fantastic, but I can’t help finding myself distracted by the brilliant playing of a man in a suit jacket and black jeans sitting by a piano next to the entrance. It turns out that this evening’s in-house pianist is one of Kosovo’s most gifted young musicians. Liburn Jupolli is a 25-year-old composer, multi-instrumentalist and prolific inventor – his range of musical creations includes the 67-stringed “Nematocera” and the “Stragonaal”, a percussive instrument made of 15 interconnected metallic bowls.
We drink excellent IPAs by Sabaja, a microbrewery run by a team of young Kosovars we don’t get the chance to meet, and leave the serene Baba Ganoush. Outside, Arifaj is mobbed by a couple of female fans on the street. (“Do I really need to answer that question,” he replies when I ask if the Legendary President has improved matters when it comes to the opposite sex.) It’s not quite a rags-to-riches story because Arifaj already co-owned a successful graphic design company, but he went from an unknown to a huge celebrity in barely a month. “I knew what we were doing would be shocking to some people and I wondered if stones would be thrown at us,” he says of the unveiling of his egomaniacal alter ego. “It was intense at first but then people began relating to what we were doing.”
After raising the deposit and the 500 signatures needed to compete in the mayoral elections, Arifaj suddenly had a public platform. In TV debates he said what the other candidates probably thought, but didn’t dare say. “They all talked about wanting to be mayor because of a sense of public duty,” he says. “But when they asked me why I wanted to be mayor, I said I craved power. It cut through all the bull. The youth of Kosovo and the politicians live in separate worlds,” continues Arifaj, who says he takes more inspiration from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than any satirist. It’s perhaps ironic that he now straddles these two worlds: the Strong Party was so successful he won a seat in the municipal assembly.
We head for the raucous SKHA bar and a tour of the boozy, makeshift Strong Party HQ. After shooting Arifaj and his mock-adoring fans, it’s time for Genc Salihu’s hastily improvised grand tour of Pristina nightlife, and introductions to a dizzying succession of super-talented young people.
At the White Tree Hostel bar, a student hang-out with an alluring outdoor terrace, I speak to Ares Shporta of DokuFest, a documentary film festival held every June which doubles as Kosovo’s biggest party. In a car park outside Tingle Tangle, a grungy café full of surreal wall art and Soviet-era paraphernalia, I’m introduced to Ndriçim Ademaj, a 23-year-old literary prodigy who’s already had two volumes of his Albanian-language poetry published. In the pulsating Zanzi Jazz Bar I chat to the venue’s owner, Nesim Maxhuni, moments before he goes onstage to demonstrate his Whiplash-worthy drumming skills. And when we finally leave Zanzi at 2am we bump into virtuoso violinist Visar Kuçi, who plays in Kosovo’s Philharmonic Orchestra, and is kind enough to give me a ride back to my apartment.
The following morning, I take the edge off the hangover with scrambled eggs on toast at Soma, the high-ceilinged, industrial-chic addition to Pristina’s vibrant café and bar scene. In one corner of the venue there’s a bookshop and so I pick up a pile of Kosovo 2.0s to read. It’s a remarkable magazine that was set up by a 27-year-old, Besa Luçi, to tackle topics that aren’t usually aired in public. They’ve published issues on corruption, sex, religion and public spaces – and its website is in Albanian, Serbian and English. Flicking through the mags, I realise that although I met many bright young people in one evening, it was only a tiny fraction of the young talent in this town of 200,000 people.
On the magazine’s beautifully designed pages, I’m introduced to many Kosovar artists, musicians, chefs, photographers and activists who seem to have read the Newborn monument as a mission statement. Kosovo faces many challenges, but if Europe’s youngest country is able to keep hold of its talented young people, the Legendary President may soon find himself out of a job.
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