On November 26, 2016, I attended an author’s talk hosted by the Washington County Museum. Although the talk was sparsely attended—I was one of only four audience members—this was not, by any measure, a reflection of the quality of its content. Flamur Vehapi, a poet from Kosovo who fled his home due to a regime that relentlessly persecuted ethnic Albanians, was a talented speaker. I pieced together that he was only thirty-two years old, and yet he had a self-possession beyond his years, a quiet confidence void of egoism. He was understated and yet commanding in his presence, and I was really struck by this quality more than by almost anything he said; it was as if his presence embodied a content that exceeded his words, something so true that it resisted speech. And though much of his talk touched on horrors that were in fact unspeakable, that is not quite what I mean. He seemed, to use a word that has become trite in our self-help era, enlightened.
What did he talk about? He talked about how, when he was only seven years old, it became illegal for him to go to school. He talked about how he would attend impromptu classes in secret. He talked about how religion had become a cover for nationalism and the creation of false dichotomies. He spoke of a photograph taken in Albania in which a mosque and a church stood side by side with no fence separating their plots of land; no fences were necessary. He talked about how, in fact, the Albanians, who were 70% Muslim during WWII, had taken in almost 2,000 Jewish refugees. He talked about how Albanian tolerance was based on the belief that it is necessary to treat all guests as if they are holy. And he talked about how, despite this history of tolerance, Albanians in Kosovo became the targets of intense and unabating hatred, a hatred so callous that the mass graves in which Kosovar Albanians were buried were paved over and made into parking lots.
He told us that when he fled with this family, he fully expected to die. I have to reiterate that he said this with no falseness; he was not harnessing pathos to convince us of anything and he exuded no sense of his own exceptionalism as a survivor. He escaped to Macedonia, transferred to Italy where he learned Italian, and then transferred again to Switzerland where he learned German. Having been barred from speaking his own tongue in his own country, he had a talent for language, and when he returned to Kosovo after its liberation, he learned English and worked as a translator for American missionaries. This experience led him to immigrate to the Pacific Northwest, where he attended Rogue Community College, Southern Oregon University, and, finally, PSU. Before reading excerpts from his collection of poetry, A Cup with Rumi, he reflected upon the painful parallels between the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 90s and the American situation today. He talked about the recent American rhetoric surrounding Muslim and Latino immigrants and how this rhetoric is skewed by a similarly burgeoning nationalism, a nationalism that justifies itself, again, by conflating itself with Christianity. He made me more afraid for my country than I already was, but his perseverance, his will not just to exist but to exist fully and intensely in the face of forces that wanted to extinguish his entire ethnicity, gave me some measure of hope.
I expected before arriving to hear Flamur Vehapi speak that I would pretend to enjoy the talk, harboring a secret boredom. But, contrary to my expectations, I found myself leaning forward as he spoke, and when I left the talk, I was altered. I was not the person who entered, a person pitying herself for having no extra spending money. I was humbled and grateful and terrified that I might lose the very things I’d failed to appreciate, the things that Mr. Vehapi appreciated with such dignity.
For more information on the Washington County Museum and its events, visit http://www.washingtoncountymuseum.org.
For more information on Flamur Vehapi’s work, visit his Author Page on Amazon.