Knowing Ourselves Through an Alternate Reality

Knowing Ourselves Through an Alternate Reality
Artrit Bytyçi

1. Beginning at the End

Thank you for reading the first episode of Arnautistan Noir. I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to what we hope to be a longer, serialized work. I assume you might already have a myriad of questions, starting with the characters and all the way to the creative choices taken with the story.

Answers to some such questions might be easier than others. It is easy to assume that the choice to start a story with a flashforward, for example, is done to tease the reader with the promise of some exciting conflict in future episodes.

But the flashforward scene here also serves another purpose — it is an easy way to get the reader up to date with the alternate universe in which the story is situated. This incidentally brings us to the inevitable question: why bother to set this detective story in a universe where the Ottoman Empire evolved into a Confederation consisting of several statelets? And, probably an even more apt question would be, why situate the story in contemporary Prizren, now reimagined as the capital of Arnautistan? 

One could certainly write about political conspiracies, coup attempts, and the unraveling of the old political systems from the point of view of the actual reality we live in, without the bother of inventing a new and alternate one. So why go through all that trouble?

Perhaps it has to do with the way this very story came to be.

2. Every Comic Book Features an Origin Story

Sometime in March 2013, there was a meeting between the education ministers of Kosovo and Turkey. As is common with these kinds of official visits, there was a fair share of mutual praises, joint declarations of brotherhood, reminders of the shared history, and all the way to reaffirming Turkey’s support of Kosovo as a new country.

I would’ve disregarded it as just another photo-op between the two friendly delegations if my eyes didn’t catch something interesting in one of the news articles. Mixed in with all the usual congratulations and praises from both sides, the Turkish minister commented on the need to revise the history textbooks used in Kosovo schools.

It is no secret that throughout the entire Balkans history is used not only as a propaganda tool but also to achieve ideological goals (insert here whatever regime in whatever country). Its uses range from fueling nationalism, to creating social cohesion against a common enemy (through the good old “gather around the flag” model), to the shaping of national myths, and all the way to reinforcing (or, in some cases, re-writing) national identities. (In more extreme cases, it could even be argued that it was used to justify ethnic hatred and genocide.) 

It is as if the words “story” and “history” are used interchangeably, where fiction and fact intermix freely as if being the same. Inevitably one wonders if there is such a thing as objective history. How is it told and written? How is it mythologized, weaponized, used, misused, and abused? What mechanism does it use to shape nationalism, identity (both national and personal), politics, and gender?

As fate would have it, at that time I also happened to come across Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, which imagines the scenario in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War. This concept and premise not only fascinated me but also influenced and inspired me to think about similar ideas and to work on a possible alternate history story of my own. 

And so, I was struck with a vision of a scene where an old history professor lay murdered in a pool of his own blood. He would be a personification of history, and his death — a kind of a blood sacrifice — would symbolically open a new branch in the tree of infinite alternate universes.

3. Alternate History as a Thought Experiment

Writing a story in an alternate timeline, where a certain historic event turned out differently, is a great way to explore issues present in our own societies.

It is often difficult to comment on current events, especially if you are too close to and living through them. Sometimes you might need some distance to see the big picture, identify a pattern, or find a solution. And that is why imagining an alternate reality is a great thought experiment that we could use to explore our day-to-day problems in the real world. Therefore Arnautistan Noir could be viewed as a literary critique of the times we live in — an allegory of current-day Kosovo.

Arnautistan Noir is also a “what if” story that explores issues of identity, nationalism, the state, rebellion, secession, history, mythology, patriarchy, gender, linguistics, themes of determinism and free will, and themes of censorship versus free speech. All the while it explores utopias and dystopias. 

It could be said that thinking about new and better places seems to be an inevitable hobby in places like the Balkans. We always seem to be imagining some — maybe not perfect, but just livable — state, our version of heaven-on-earth. And so, we always seem to question if life would’ve been better if such-and-such historical event turned out differently, if this-or-that war was won, if this-or-that country lost. 

In this way, Arnautistan Noir is also an exploration into how things would be different in this newly imagined place, and also, more importantly, how things would still be the same. It is mind-boggling that given the freedom allowed by our imaginations, how much the places we imagine still turn out resembling our old world. Some of this is understandable since we still have to deal with the same universal human problems, be it in real life or in an alternate reality universe. Perhaps, given the right conditions, history is bound to repeat itself even in an alternate reality. 

So, in this sense, Arnautistan is also an exploration of various political structures, from those that are now defunct to the ones still functioning today. The Confederation, that Arnautistan is a part of, can be seen as a metaphor for an alternate version of Yugoslavia (albeit a more oriental one), or European Union, or even the United States. And as such, it is also a story about the inherent vulnerability and volatility of such superstates. It asks a question if a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial state — where values, ideals, and goals often clash — is truly possible. This is incidentally one of the questions concerning the survival of the Republic of Kosovo in its current form.

4. From the Ruins of Empires

Back in 2013, when I initially conceived Arnautistan, it was also meant as a cautionary tale about the future of Europe. But this was before Brexit. Back then, any thought of a member state leaving the EU was solely confined to the realm of speculative fiction. But life often surpasses fiction.

(On the other hand, the US is a case study in secessionism. Its origin story is one big story of independence from the British Empire. But it didn’t end there. Throughout its history, it swayed between decentralization and federalism: from the debates between Hamilton and Jefferson, to the Civil War, and all the way to the persistence of fringe secessionist movements even today, mostly in states like Texas.)

It may be difficult to pinpoint the exact time when the breakdown of a superstate begins. But for Yugoslavia, it could be said that this was in 1989 when Slobodan Milosevic rose to power after addressing a crowd that had gathered in a place called Gazimestan at the site of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. This was the occasion that marked 600 years from the defeat of the pan-Balkanic alliance by the Ottomans. What was interesting here is that the event was hijacked historically and became an exclusively Serbian nationalist affair. This could also be considered one of the cases not only when history was weaponized for political purposes but also when history was transformed into a story. It is an example of when a myth in the form of an alternate reality would have real repercussions and influence events in the real world.

Of course, empires don’t fall overnight, but instead, slowly crumble towards their breaking points, until fractures show up at the first sign of strain. For the Ottoman Empire, one of these fractures was revealed with the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. This, incidentally, became the time when Albanians began to more actively consider the idea of secession from the empire. 

There could be many different reasons why a state may want to secede from a super-national structure, or why empires and superstates begin to break. However, these kinds of movements of change always seem to be galvanized by some strange (almost magical) energy arising from some particular historical event or place. For Serbs, in 1989 Yugoslavia, this place was Gazimestan. Similarly, for Albanians in the Ottoman Empire, it was Prizren in 1878.
What if this “nexus” event or place that is generally associated with the break up of a superstate, could somehow be used to save it? This was the line of thinking when writing Arnautistan Noir. In its alternate history universe, we took a place like Prizren, and rather than have the historic events that unfolded therein be the harbingers of the Empire’s fall, we switched them around to help it survive by evolving it into a Confederation.

5. Prizren as a Backdrop

Thusly we come back to the question of why I chose Prizren as the city in which the story takes place. There are so many other towns I could’ve set the story in, or even better yet, so many cities I could’ve just imagined from scratch. 

Of course, having grown up in Prizren during the 90s played a big part in this choice. All those childhood memories still fill me with mystery and awe and are one of the main sources of inspiration when I create and write.

But there is another, stronger, reason and it has to do with Prizren’s history. The town is the site where in 1878 the meeting of the League of Prizren was held. This was in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, when the Ottoman Empire was losing territories from its frontier provinces. And so, as the Berlin Congress unfolded and aimed to reorganize the Balkans territories as part of the peace treaty, about 80 representatives, mostly from Albanian provinces met up in Prizren and demanded more autonomy from the Ottoman Empire under the rationale of defending their lands. The requests to the High Porte and appeals to the Berlin Congress were rejected and soon the League evolved into an Albanian national movement. Even after its disbandment three years later, it would continue to play an important role: it raised national awareness and laid the foundations for the idea of an independent Albanian state. 

And so, history being a very abstract concept, we often associate it with remnants of things past. Oftentimes these are ruins of castles and old buildings. They make the abstract past more tangible. One such building in Prizren is the one where the meeting of the League of Prizren was held in 1878.

This building was destroyed and rebuilt several times, either as part of Yugoslavia’s socialist project to “modernize society” or because of some natural disaster, like a flood. The last time it was destroyed by the Serbian forces, during the Kosovo War in 1999. It was not only an act of war-frenzied revenge but also, more likely, an attempt to erase its existence because of its symbolic power to Albanians.

The current version of the building is far removed from the original in that it is rebuilt in a much grander style. But, despite it being an artifice of an artifice, despite it being a simulacrum of the original, there still is something powerful at this historic site. And it has to do with the power of stories.

6. A Nexus of Historic Energy

Think about how history is often transformed into a myth — how a story overtakes and surpasses the facts. Think about the mythology of nation-building, and how certain people, events, and, in this case, buildings become icons and symbols for a given nation. They become a kind of a powerful nexus where historical energy is channeled through them. 

The same could be said about the building of the Prizren League. Throughout different times, it was used, in varying degrees, as a symbol to achieve different political and national goals. Its site holds historical significance around which we weave stories, which then become part of our national narrative, myths of state-formation.

(Think about the story of Remus and Romulus sucking the she-wolf’s teat.) 

But what would happen if one of the historic decisions turned out differently? What if there was some small twist in the historic events? Let’s say if the Berlin Congress recognized the claims of the Albanians? Or, if the High Porte accepted the requests of the League of Prizren? What if they were granted greater autonomy? 

Things would, no doubt, turn out differently in this alternate universe. It is possible that such decisions could have sparked the creation of various autonomous regions throughout the Ottoman Empire. The resulting superstate would have eventually evolved into a confederation. Could it, possibly, have been some kind of a hybrid, resembling something between the European Union and the United States? 

As it happens, this is one of the main premises of Arnautistan Noir, where that “nexus of historic energy” flowing through the building of the Prizren League would be channeled differently, and instead of running in the direction of the secession, it would go towards a union. In this scenario, Prizren would become the birthplace of the Confederation.

Would this newly imagined Prizren become a symbol of the Confederation? Would the League building become a site of pilgrimages (similar to the kind we see nowadays in real life, full of tourists)? Would it be a kind of a Trajan’s Column, transforming the history into a story told by the victor? Would it be used for propaganda and national myth-making? Would confederation loyalists flock to commemorate anniversaries similar to the crowd at Gazimestan in 1989? Would it be used to influence public opinion? Or, to “rally around the flag”? Would its symbolic power be misused? Would it serve to bolster nationalism for only a select ethnicity or be used to promote equality for all?

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