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 to explain 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 set this detective story in a universe where the Ottoman Empire evolved into a Confederation made out 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, possible 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. I would’ve disregarded it as just another photo-op, between the two friendly countries, if my eyes didn’t catch something interesting in one of the news articles.

Mixed in with all the usual congratulations and praises — from Turkey’s contributions to bolstering Kosovo as a new country, all the way to declarations of brotherhood between the two peoples because of their shared history — 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 whatever ideological goals by 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” have one and the same meaning, where fiction and fact intermix freely. 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? How does it shape nationalism, identity (both national and personal), politics, gender?

As fate would have it, at this 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 was quite sometime before the Amazon TV show, and I had only read a couple of first pages, but what fascinated me was the very idea and the premise of the book.)

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 society.

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, to identify the pattern, to 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.

It is a “what if” story that explores issues of identity, nationalism, rebellion, the state, secession, mythology, patriarchy, gender, history, linguistics, themes of determinism and free will, themes of censorship versus free speech, all the while exploring the concepts of utopia/dystopia. This last one seems to always be present 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.

So, in this way, “Arnautistan Noir” is also an exploration into how things would be different, and also, more importantly, how things would still be the same. Be it in real life or in an alternate reality universe, we still have to deal with some universal human problems. 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, some now defunct and others 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 instability of such superstates. It asks a question if a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial (super)state — where values, ideals, and goals often clash — is truly possible. This is incidentally one of the questions linked with the survival of the Republic of Kosovo in its current form.

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 EU dissolution 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 secessions. 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 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 got his big break by 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 a strictly Serbian nationalist affair. This could also be considered one of the cases not only when history was weaponized but also when history was transformed into a story; when myth in the form of an alternate reality would have real repercussions and influence the real world.

No matter the reason for the secession (or the break up of the superstate), these movements always seem to be galvanized by some strange (almost magical) energy arising from some particular historical event or place. In 1989 this place was Gazimestan.

But what if, in this alternate reality universe of “Arnautistan Noir”, we could get it the other way around? What if this “nexus” event or place could be used to create a superstate, rather than break it apart?

4. Prizren as a Backdrop, and a Nexus of Historic Energy

Thusly we come back to the question of why I decided to choose 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 imagine new stories 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, and the Ottoman Empire was losing territories from its frontier provinces. And so, just in the wake of the Berlin Congress which aimed to reorganize the Balkans territories as part of the peace treaty, about 80 representatives, mostly from Albanian provinces (although there were also some from Bosnia and Sanjak) met up in Prizren and demanded more autonomy from the Ottoman Empire under the pretext of defending their lands. The requests to the Port and appeals to the Berlin Congress were rejected and soon the League evolved into an Albanian national movement. It would continue playing an important role even after its disbandment three years later since it raised national awareness and laid the foundations for the idea of an independent Albanian state.

And, 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 is the one where the meeting of the League of Prizren was held in 1878.

But the building was destroyed and rebuilt several times, either as part of a 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, in an act of war-frenzied revenge and/or, more likely, as an attempt to erase its existence because of its symbolic power to the Albanian people.

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 inexplicable at this historic site. And, I think it has to do with the power of stories.

Think about how history is often transformed into a myth — a story to succeed the fact. 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; much like the story of Remus and Romulus suckling the she-wolf’s teat.

But what would happen if one historic decision 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 Porte accepted the requests of the League of Prizren? What if it granted them greater autonomy?

Things would no doubt turn out differently in this alternate universe. It is possible that such decisions would have sparked the creation of various autonomous regions throughout the Ottoman Empire. The resulting superstate would eventually evolve into a confederation. Could it possibly be 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 to “rally around the flag”? Would its symbolic power be misused? Would it serve to bolster nationalism of only a select ethnicity or be used to promote equality for all?

But an even more interesting question would be: what language would these people talk in this newly imagined Prizren, as the capital of Arnautistan, and the birthplace of the Confederation?

5. The Language of Arnautistan

In my early drafts in 2013, when I was still writing “Arnautistan Noir” as a novel, I did so initially in Albanian. I wanted it to sound like the language which would have evolved in the Confederation I had imagined, the way it would have sounded if Prizren became the capital of the Arnautistan statelet. And so, I injected an unusually large number of Turkish-sounding words. I figured if other writers could use Dothraki or Klingon or whatever other made-up language for their fictional universes, I may as well do something similar. My initial plan was to write an entire novel in this newly conceived Arnautistan language.

I even had it all planned out. Prizren, after all, is perfectly suited as the place where this language would have evolved in this imaginary Arnautistan because of the actual language that is spoken there in real life. People in Prizren speak a specific language — either pidgin or creole, we will leave this classification to the linguists — that mixes Turkish, Albanian, Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian, and lately increasingly more of English. It is technically an evolved remnant of an old imperial language. And all I had to do was evolve it a bit further until it properly conveyed the overall art concept I was trying to achieve.

But soon I realized that this might not be feasible. I wanted people to understand and actually read my novel, rather than spend time trying to decipher the language. I wanted it to appeal to a wide audience, rather than just a handful of linguists. I wanted the people to enjoy the story, rather than get caught up in analyzing the artistic concept. I wanted to write a story that people would actually relish. But I also wanted to widen my potential audience. The solution was simple: write it in English.

But this was neither the first nor the last change to the project. Now that English was sprinkled with an occasional word of Albanian or Turkish or Prizrenglish, I began experimenting with changing the mediums. It went from a novel to a short story to a screenplay for a movie, to a teleplay for the first season of a TV show, et cetera.

Enter Lumbardhi Foundation’s QARK Fellowship, and our brave decision to create a graphic novel/serialized comic book.

In this final product, we bring you two separate publications, one in English and the other one in Albanian. I wish I was as good of a translator to be able to write a faithful translation for both of them. Therefore, in each of the versions, you will find small differences, mostly in the connotation of different words. For example, in English, the language of world-building and the institutions may be clearer and seems to give off a more Hollywood movie vibe.

On the other hand, in the Albanian version, each character has their own distinct way of speaking. They all use different speech registers, dialects, and accents: Aristocrats speak somewhat closer to the southern Albanian Tosk dialect. The locals speak a version of the Ghegh dialect and/or Prizren-speak. Based on the nuances of their language, you could infer if one character has grown up in the city or is a newcomer. Here the curses in Albanian pack more punch and the Turkish words can seamlessly be weaved in to give the illusion of a distinctly evolved Arnautistan dialect (which, in truth, is just an imitation of Prizren dialect).

The Albanian version also uses language to highlight the cultural and ethnic diversity of Prizren. You could notice this in more than one character. But this is not such a simple thing to achieve. Even when intending to pay homage, it could very easily be derailed to accidentally create a minstrel character instead. (Apologies in case of our miserable failure.)

But the important thing here is acknowledging the linguistic and cultural diversity of a place like Prizren, which gives one the ability to imagine an entire alternate reality universe. No matter the different languages, there is one (we can all agree) that can bring us all together and make us understand each other better. And, as cheesy as it may sound, that language is science-fiction. It is the closest thing we have to a universal language, but instead of reducing complex ideas to mathematics or a series of prime numbers, it goes the other way and communicates by using abstract images and metaphors of imaginary worlds. And all this, to enable us not only to know each other but also, perhaps, more importantly, to know ourselves.

6. Comic Books and the Future of Kosovar Sci-Fi

In a different essay (“Sci-Fi in Kosovo: Dystopias as a Utopian Project”) I talked about science fiction as an existential necessity for a young country like Kosovo. I would like to reaffirm that belief and say that it is not a mere exaggeration: Science fiction can be a tool of exploration and analysis, especially through a sub-genre such as alternate history.

In order to survive as a country, Kosovo has to constantly be one step ahead of itself. This is achieved by constantly being self-critical and working on updating and patching our weaknesses. Through science fiction and alternate history, we can distance ourselves from our current reality and be able to better question our society’s motivations, goals, and actions.

And one way to smoothly introduce complex ideas of science fiction to the readers and lowering the barrier of entry is through comic books. I was a very bad reader in the first grade (I still am, to some degree), and what made the whole endeavor worthy and helped me improve was comic books and their stories. It worked with me, so it just might with the others too.

But, going beyond the superficial benefits, comic books are a perfect medium for science fiction. Some of the best works of sci-fi were created as either comic books, manga, or graphic novels. They have gone a long way from being considered childish and are at the forefront of treating complex topics, yet have the advantage of being easily accessible for the masses. This makes them a perfect medium: complexity and accessibility in reader-friendly packaging.

And so, in order to promote and encourage the creation of works of science fiction in Kosovo, the region, and beyond, I would like to introduce KSci-FI: the Kosovo Science Fiction Society. I hope it would be a forum where we could discuss not only other works of alternate history but also all variety of sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy. KSci-Fi will also feature the eponymous publishing imprint that will focus on all things science fiction, from comic books such as this one, to short stories, novels, essays, research, zines, art books, et cetera. It will function as a seal of approval, recommendation, and encouragement.

So, keep reading my friends, and never stop imagining. See you at our next issue of “Arnautistan Noir”.

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