An intro and interview by Eno Shkëmbi.
Slađana Stojiljković is a Serbian student from the city of Leskovac currently in her second year of Albanology studies at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Philology. Albanology is the study of Albanian language and culture. Most people in Belgrade probably don’t even know the program exists. Studying Albanology in Belgrade requires ignoring the stereotypes and prejudices about Albanians that still form much of Serbian public opinion.
Studying Albanian in Serbia is an attractive choice for many reasons: it presents an academic challenge and is a practical skill for communicating with Albanians in Serbia and Kosovo; it also opens up new dimensions of recognition between the two nations by encouraging a culture of dialogue through language.
As the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky said: “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”
Slađana demonstrates a good example of how learning a new language can challenge your understanding of another culture and also broaden your tastes in literature and music. She says that after gaining a better grasp of the Albanian language, she started reading the books of writer Ismail Kadare and listening to the jazz songs of Elina Duni.
But Slađana is not alone in this journey — there are at least 15 other Serbian students who attend studies in Albanology each academic year. They are hopeful that in time, the nationalism that has often prevented young people in the Balkans from getting to know one another will recede.
First off, what motivated you to study Albanolgy in Belgrade, and how did the people around you react to this decision? Have you ever faced prejudice or stigma for studying Albanian, given our recent history?
Actually, I must admit that in the beginning I didn’t know there was an Albanology department in Belgrade. My earlier aim was to study another language, but as time passed, and the university entrance exams were getting closer, I collected more information and got really attracted to the idea of studying Albanology. My parents supported my decision right away, and having their support really means a lot to me. When it comes to prejudices, I have faced some of them, and to be honest, I still face them, even from colleagues at the University. There are those who simply express wonder like: “Wow, it’s possible to study Albanian in Belgrade?!”, but there are others who say: “You have made the wrong decision”, or “Why not another language, why the hell Albanian?!” Although at first I didn’t feel good about these kinds of comments, eventually I stopped thinking about them. I don’t pay attention to the negative comments anymore and I’m quite happy and satisfied with my choice. I simply ignore those kinds of comments and then go on my way, which I think is the right thing to do. It makes me happy that I can do that.
What do you like and dislike about the Albanian language?
Before starting my studies, I didn’t know a single word of Albanian. After I heard the sound of the language, I was thrilled with it. What I like most about it is the way it sounds truly unique, unlike any other language, which really attracts me to it, and gives me the will to study. I must say there is nothing I dislike about the Albanian language, though I also must admit that it’s a difficult language. But the fact that it’s challenging is another reason why I like it.
How many students are in your course? Are young people interested in Albanology or is the department still unknown, a hidden corner for Belgrade’s “crazy” people?
Currently there are about 14-15 students in my generation. Interest in the Albanian language is increasing every year though, and of course, there will always be someone who will call us “crazy”, but we know that we have made the right choice; negative comments do not exist for us. Our professors are very polite, eager to teach us, and quite welcoming when it comes to students from outside of our department who are interested in learning Albanian as well.
Has studying Albanian language gotten you more interested in Albanian history and culture in general?
Yes, definitely. We have some subjects on culture and history. Besides that, I’m very curious to learn about Albania, and to read as many books by Albanian authors as possible.
Are you familiar with any Albanian literature, film, or music? Is there any Albanian writer or artist that is especially dear to you?
Actually this year, one of our subjects was “old Albanian literature’’, and every day I grow increasingly interested in learning about more Albanian authors and artists. I read the Ismail Kadare novel The Palace of Dreams. In many respects he reminds me of Ivo Andriç and the presence of other Balkan stories and narratives doesn’t make him feel foreign to me. Unfortunately, Albanian authors are not translated into the Serbian language, but I hope that in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to read good Kadare, not only in English or Serbian, but in Albanian as well. Regarding film, I don’t know too much. When it comes to music, I am very fond of jazz so I really like Elina Duni. Elina is a really classy singer who combines folk motifs with her own original style.
Editor’s note: This spring, a group of young Albanians and Serbs launched a collaborative online platform called Hajde ti where you can learn the basics of both the Albanian and Serbian languages. Visit their Facebook page and their very nice website.