CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, APRIL 2013
so i did these series of interviews throughout the GREATER ALBANIA region which encompasses parts of neighboring NORTH MACEDONIA, KOSOVO and MONTENEGRO. i didn't make it into GREECE for interviews due to security concerns. again, i did this in order for my students to have material to translate so that 1) they could prove their worth to possible employers by having their written translations published with the original audio embedded and 2) the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA would have a collection of interviews to start an oral history archive of a generation that saw a lot of political/cultural/social/technological upheaval that was getting older. all told by the time i left i believe we had around 700 interviews.
i also did this, mind you, without the support and approval of PEACE CORPS. they tend to like projects that are visible but without substance at best and mindlessly parochial at worst. imagine you are a privileged american that is used to something small like garbage collection and then suddenly you find yourself in a poor eastern european country with garbage in the streets. trash pickup sounds like a good start, right? WRONG. where does that trash go? what are you going to do with it? something like this is a municipal issue that requires urban planning and carry through. unfortunately most places here have bigger problems. so you are satiating a need that the community doesn't see as viable, rather than other more pressing concerns. whats worse is that volunteers were encouraged to pursue what they thought was best. in my opinion i was there to serve the people of my community, period. when i got to VLORA i asked my university what were the biggest problems they'd like to see me tackle. with their answer i came up with 5 projects i presented. they picked one. i then came up with 3 variations of it. they chose that. ultimately my project came about in this manner. if they'd have picked public speaking i'd have been on a totally trajectory with my time as a volunteer, as well i should have.
so when PEACE CORPS put up any hurdles the university pretty much had my back. it was a crazy time and very very stressful. i had shingles at one point due to the stress of PEACE CORPS potentially taking away my project.
eventually my counterpart at the university and i wrote a paper that utilized a lot of these interviews we had. after writing it my counterpart wished to send it to conferences and journals in western europe, which i agreed with but thought nothing of. what's funny is we sent one to CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY and got in. that was quite the shock. i had a small dilemma on my hands because my unsanctioned project had now been successful to the point that i was asked to speak at a conference at a prestigious university.
PEACE CORPS had this policy that no one was allowed to travel outside of the country in the last 3 months of your service. my "vacation" time at that point was used up and the conference was within a few weeks of my exit. luckily we had a new director who allowed it. to me it didn't matter because i was going either way, it was an opportunity i created with my colleagues at the university. of course, i wanted PEACE CORPS to sanction it and i'm glad they did.
real quick i just want to say that during this year-long period i did this project i opted out of every meeting i could where i would have to see other volunteers. that or i took vacations during the mandatory meetings. i was never asked to participate in clinics for new volunteers and pretty much kept my activities under wraps with the exception being my director albanian supervisor who overlooked TEFL. i didn't brag or boast or participate in the internal pissing match of volunteers. i was a ghost. my site-mate spoke about me to the new volunteers from his class but luckily for me he had a reputation for lying. turned out he wasnt. i became an urban legend of sorts and when i did finally depart post-CAMBRIDGE, volunteers i ran into at the capital couldn't believe i existed. they heard about me and what i did, but didn't believe it was an actual thing. they were angry PEACE CORPS didn't include me in trainings, but with due deference to them, i wouldn't have come if asked.
back to CAMBRIDGE. i went and co-presented and truth be told i wasn't really nervous about it because i didn't speak beyond what i knew or had evidence for. it was surreal taking questions from OXFORD professors and the like but my mindset at the time was that i wanted to effectively represent the UNIVERSITY OF VLORE at a conference and also accurately present the stories of the people i met. to me that was the responsibility of the moment and i think i did alright. honestly, as cool as it was being there and taking it all in, the real treat was doing the interviews. getting the support of those people was all the validation i needed. the fact that PEACE CORPS came around and ultimately sanctioned the project didn't really change my opinion of the work one way or another. if anything i still pitty the PEACE CORPS and their priorities to this day. enough about them.
one very interesting thing that happened at the conference was a former editor at THE GUARDIAN had written a book at the time about his time working in RUSSIA. he spoke about the level of harassment (online, in person or telegraphed through surveillance) the intelligence services reeked on his family. what was startling was that he said anytime he spoke in public there were RUSSIAN goons that sought to dismantle his reputation. and that is what happened. several russian participants of the conference stood up during Q&A and severely denounced him. who knew that this was gonna be a thing in a few short years during the next US presidential election? i certainly did not.
former GUARDIAN reporter LUKE HARDING speaking about his book MAFIA STATE
looking back at my time as PEACE CORPS volunteer i am glad to have done it, as i learned about myself and the pressures i could handle. i immensely proud of the work i did and the friends i gained and peers i worked with. as an organization the PEACE CORPS is what it is. if you spend your time worrying about their approval then its not a worthwhile experience. i am happy to this day that i sought the approval of the people on the ground that i sought to assist in any way i could. and that is the true gift i take with me.
family portrait from DOBRUNË
before i get into these interviews i should give a little background into why i did them.
THE UNIVERSITY OF VLORA
at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA i was tasked with teaching students translation studies. now this is funny because due to my working in a university setting, my albanian language skills were a bit stunted relative to other volunteers, essentially because i spoke english all day. in fact, people knew i was a "professor" so pretty consistently people practiced with me at the market, on the street, at the gym, you get the idea. i made a choice early on that my facilitating their english-speaking skills trumped my need to master albanian. many are the PEACE CORPS volunteers that spend all their time on the language and not on their job in order to win a pissing contest within the PEACE CORPS community. as i made clear in PART 1 of this series, i wasn't concerned with the other volunteers and their opinions unless it would benefit my adopted community.
ok, so i am tasked with teaching translation but my albanian language skills are whatever. my thought to improve their writing was, ingeniously yet obviously, to make them write. unfortunately the educational system there was focused on a book and multiple-choice tests for certification. the book wasn't helping them, they'd master it through rote memorization and they still couldn't write or speak well. worse, the test made no sense and was arbitrary. this further minimized the effectiveness of the entire educational structure. these students were being trained to become written and spoken translators for foreign businesses and governments. that was the job everyone wanted.
my thought was to have students translate interviews they did with their elders and then translate them. these translations would be put on a website that i created (now long-since defunct) that would showcase the audio file and written translation that could be easily sent via text/e-mail to potential employers.
it was a good idea and it also afforded me the ability to have students record conversations with their grandparents. this was the genius part of the whole thing. PEACE CORPS at one point told us not to talk to albanians about life during communism, the KOSOVO CONFLICT, or anything political. this is exactly what my students asked their parents about and it gave me tons of insight and information that pepople don't ask or learn about. it was great.
usually there was a lead of someone i could interview. i would go there with a representative of that community who would explain who i was and that i was with PEACE CORPS and the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA and that i was collecting answers as part of an archive for future generations to learn from. i would show them the questions. after the interview, which i recorded on my iPhone, most often they'd be excited by the experience and tell me that other people in the community were better suited for my queries. this would result in moving up the ladder of participants.
DOBRUNË was the perfect example of this process since we interviewed several adult men who duruing the conflict 15 years before had run guns across the border into KOSOVO to assist the KLA (KOSOVO LIBERATION ARMY) in fighting off the genocide being perpeturated by SERBIA and SLOBODAN MILOŠEVIĆ. in that manner we worked our way up to the grandmother, who talked about how she only recently met her sister in KOSOVO after 30+ years due to strict travel rules during the communist reign of ENVER HOXHA. the support i got from this and other families is something i still hold dear.
family portrait in GODIN
the next day i went into the nearby border town of GODIN in KOSOVO, which was hit particularly hard by the SERBIAN ARMY during the conflict. MILOŠEVIĆ saw an opportunity during his election in 1997 to use an anniversary of a failed uprising by SERBIA against the OTTOMAN TURKS to mount an ethnic cleansing campaign against MUSLIMS in the region, including BOSNIA and KOSOVO. what was interesting about my initial meetings was that people referred to a family in DOBRUNË that brought them weapons at great personal cost. it was the very family i had interviewed the day before. that was intense.
i should state that the MUSLIMS in KOSOVO are predominantly ETHNIC-ALBANIAN, but ALBANIA is not a religion dominated by any religion. in fact, albanians have a saying that equates to "the only religion in ALBANIA is ALBANIAISM." in the north there is a slight majority towards ISLAM and in the south a slight majority of GREEK ORTHODOX.
the SERBIAN MILITARY's campaign against their own people included that of the people of GODIN, where soldiers had all males over the age of 5 lined up against a wall and shot in the head. its just brutal and unforgivable. people in the UNITED STATES like to throw around the word "terror" quite a bit. THIS IS TERRORISM. i spoke to several families here that had that traumatic experience. they showed me the wall in the center of town. it still gives me a chills.
there was one father i spoke with who enjoyed speaking about his son, long since passed. when we were introduced to him he was about to rest but instead brought us in and fed us. to me THAT HOSPITALITY is uniquely albanian. him and others participated i was told because they were happy that someone cared about their experience. that someone wanted to document it. that someone believed them. i took a photo of this father and his son in front of a portrait of his fallen son. it was a family portrait i sent back framed and have been told its still hanging on the wall.
to me this experience of doing interviews was the highlight of my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer and i look back at it as one of the privileges of my life. the next and final part of this series will be on the paper i co-wrote and its presentation at a prestigious conference, but this moment speaking with the people of ALBANIA/KOSOVO border about their experiences during this fraught time is something i still carry with and appreciate the opportunity to listen and learn from.
the village of GODIN
photo by komisar pecanka
whatever your feelings are about PEACE CORPS, i'd say just table them for a moment. i'm not attempting here to confirm or dissuade you from whatever romantic, idealistic notions you may have concerning the organization. i'm only speaking to my truth about my experience.
and i am conflicted.
my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA from 2011-2013 was highly unusual in that i successfully fought my superiors after being assualted by a local during my initial run in the remote northern city of KUKËS, which lay right by the KOSOVO border. i was a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) volunteer and due to my graduate degree i was one of 4 that were assigned to teach at a university. i want to say that i have nothing but love for the people of KUKËS and enjoyed working with my students and peers and talking with my friends (some to this day) in that community. but unfortunately coming home from work one day i was assaulted near my apartment and was told by PEACE CORPS to make a report with the police. and again, unfortunately the police leaked my details to the local newspaper in neighboring KOSOVO, which created a scenario where i was a national news story for a few days.
my classroom in KUKËS
yep that was crazy. i have to say the assault was minor, basically since i didn't resist. i was later told by albanian friends that this was the smartest thing i could have done since undoubtedly there were several others watching that would've put me in the hospital if i had. what was even more unfortunate was that the police put me in a situation where every male in town over the age of 25 thought i ratted them out to the authorities. while at the station they brought in several "suspects" to ask me if it was them, which gave these innocent guys (whom im sure were beaten) a good look at me.
i wanted out and i fought peace corps. before me if you had a stalker or were abused as a volunteer you were given the option of quitting or staying basically. i changed that. i fought them to relocate me. since me they have relocated volunteers. it really sucked because i basically got ZERO support from my fellow volunteers. they felt i had abandoned my site.
to this day i basically don't speak with volunteers from my group. again, i have nothing but love for KUKËS and their people. they were ashamed. historically albanians are treated very badly by their neighbors, especially the Greeks and Italians. the albanian family that took me in for 3 months during training had recently lost a son to the fields of GREECE where he had been worked to death. and thats not hyperbole. he was literally worked to death. so albanians see themselves as hospitable first and foremost. and my experience which became very public due to the press put that community in a very bad light.
home of albanian family i sayed with during training for 3 months in HAJDARAN
i know this because i dedicated a research project from my relocated site in VLORA, a southern port city along the ADRIATIC SEA, that focused on the relationship between northern ALBANIA and their ehtnic-Albanian counterparts in KOSOVO during the KOSOVO CONFLICT of the 1990s. it was an oral history project that me and a counterpart at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA later turned into a paper. it meant i went back to KUKËS a few times to get stories from the period documented. i should say that KUKËS was nominated for a NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2000 for their actions taking in refugees during the conflict. only town to ever be formally nominated which is quite something to be proud of. basically there was me, somebody that had experienced the brunt of their city talking to them about their best moment. people cried out of shame when i talked to them. it still moves me.
i want to reiterate that i hold nothing against that community. the truth is that in an isolated country with few resources it could be argued that KUKËS is one of the most isolated and least well-funded. as an foreigner i was a target and there was a risk, but of course the vast majority were good people trying to get by and saw my efforts to teach english as a force for good in their community.
local restaurant owner and mother of two students i tutored in KUKËS
i also understand why PEACE CORPS was reticent to relocate me, or any other volunteer, in general. i don't believe it had anything to do with me personally. sending a volunteer to a community is a political act from our government to theirs. it states that they recognize a need in a specific community that we as a nation would like to assist with them. taking me out can be construed as the american government not feeling that a particular community was their concern. i was a pawn basically. there is a balance there and i recognize that, but my personal safety trumped their concerns and that shouldve been their priority.
the research project i did took me all over KOSOVO and was the defining moment of my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. these communities are notoriously suspicious of outsiders, but the fact that i knew their community and networked my way through remote small border communities in the northern mountains gained me access, along with the help of my former landlord YLBERT PECANKA. the fact that i was an american associated with the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA also helped. VLORA is the city were the first ALBANIAN FLAG was hoistered in defiance of the receding TURKISH armies and holds a special place in the hearts of albanians. mostly people i interviewed couldn't believe i cared about their story. that i was documenting it for future research purposes for future generations at the university.
two communities i want to focus one next time are those of the remote northern mountain community of DEBRUNE (ALBANIA) and the remote village of nearby GODIN (KOSOVO), both were indicative of what that experience interviewing locals was like.
rooftop shot in KUKËS
photo by karl burhop
ok i admit that its more than a little strange to write a profile on yourself. but here i go.
as creative director of DEER GOD i basically have a hand in everything we do that is non-audio. that basically boils down controlling/editing all things visual and written. of course we work as a team and frequently collaborate and take cues from one another, but i more or less take these efforts and produce the final product.
out of the whole team i am probably the last to the party in that i was not involved with audio or video production until a few years ago when i returned from overseas. for the better part of the last decade i was involved with education having taught secondary english abroad at international schools in MYANMAR, JAPAN, VENEZUELA as well as a stint as a peace corps volunteer in ALBANIA. my start as an educator was in NYC where i got my masters at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY and had brief stints teaching at both BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL (student teacher) and STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL (long-term substitute). my bad timing entering the field in the wake of the great recession meant that no new positions were available as older teachers delayed retirement and an effective freeze was put on new hires. thus i had an IVY LEAGUE degree and recommendations from two of the top public high schools in the nation, but no prospects.
so i went and taught overseas.
due to my parents work i spent time overseas growing up in NIGERIA (middle school) and KUWAIT (junior year of high school) and attended high school in both MASSACHUSETTS (NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON) and CALIFORNIA (ROCKLIN HIGH SCHOOL). oh yeah, and i was born in SPAIN.
my passion as long as i can remember photography as i would take photos of my travels (somehere around 60+ countries). i think my passion for other cultures and worldviews informed my (brief) teaching career and most definitely is a part of what i bring to my current visual work here at DEER GOD. if interested, check out my photos above.
the rest are linked HERE.