Kosovar Plis. In search of White hats

by | May 25, 2010 | From the Road, Photos

A search through boxes of 5 by 7 black and white prints that are stacked high on shelves behind this keyboard have lead me to numerous old stories. With the goal of sharing a few, here’s one from my Clowns Without Borders journeys in Kosovo in ’99, I’m busy researching the white traditional hat that the elders wear in Kosovo, or Kosova as the majority Albanian ethnicity would say. Googling away leads me to the correct term Plis for the hat. One result: world traditions, a hat worn only in regions of Albania and Kosovo. Another result leads me to an intense OSCE report Kosovo/Kosova, As Seen, As Told 25 page pdf, whose table of contents reads :

Chapter 4: Introduction: The violation of human rights in Kosovo

Chapter 5: Violation of the right to life

Chapter 6: Torture and ill-treatment

Chapter 7: Rape and other forms of sexual violence

Chapter 8: Missing persons

Need I say more.  What a way to plunge into the horror that was. Is it possible to return to the lighthearted stuff after that whiff of reality?  That’s a bit similar to the shockwave that was in store as I step into the Doctors Without Borders Jeep at the Macedonian airport, with destination town in Kosovo, Prizren. I had little clue of what lay ahead in the five hour drive on a two lane road full of traffic and undisciplined drivers. We drive  past  elements of the violence people had witnessed: dead tanks, burnt vehicular remains, destroyed residences, twisted steel bombed out factories, and still vivid flames in occasional house hulks burning in the hills. All in all, way more than one would care to witness.

I am thankfully much more focused on the children who congregate on the side of the road, waving as we pass by. Ever since crossing the border, and abundant numbers of parked military vehicles, I have pulled out a clown nose, and it is keeping my nose aglow. Faces are gleeful when our gazes intersect in wave exchange, they yell out pagliaci pagliaci which is Italian for clown. I am puzzled how the Italian word got into their vocabulary. Who knows in Kosovo. Later on that trip I ask several English speaking children where they learned English, they answer: Cartoon Channel.

It’s late summer, 1999, two months after the bombings stopped. I have teamed up with a Spanish Payasos Sin Fronteras project to work with the children of Gjakova. These kids have witnessed a rather brutal time and there is plenty of post traumatic stress to go around the distressed town (Dgakovica in Serb). That’s too long a story to tell, so back to the point of this story, the white hats I saw the old men wearing. I had an immediate reaction to these hats, my clown side erupting in innate clarity that they would be perfecto on the head of a clown, specifically me. I decided I had to have one, and during my time there, I searched out the possibilities of acquiring one or two.

My search eventually lead me to a hat maker’s shop on the main street in Prizren, which was quite large, full of white hats everywhere, on the counter, on countless display shelves, in stacks, alongside big burly bags of wool. The store was divided by a long counter serviced by three white shirt black vested men, who were in conversation with several clients. I was definitely an oddity in their store, especially with Hiromi and Chiego, the Japanese documentary team following my every move. I had, reluctantly, agreed to film my visit to the hat store. They wanted to make my search a story inside the story.

What I discovered was a family enterprise with father and two grown sons running the place, and the adjoining hat-making workshop, empty at the moment awaiting placing the big bags of wool into action.

I had concerns about using the hats in a disrespectful way, so I enquired, in slow English. One of the sons English was quite good, far superior to my non existent Kosovar. He responded, after a nod from his father, that it was fine that I should use one in performance, they (Kosova) had a comedian who used the hat regularly in performance, it was fine that I should use it in such a way. Thinking of the Clown Conspiracy, I asked them what about if 4 or 5 people used them together, no problem, they said, how many did I wish to purchase.

They were rather curious about my performing as word had gotten out that the clowns were in town (by that time, Pepe Viyuela had joined me.) They want to know so I turned on the YooWho engine, taking a small coin, transforming it into a big coin, than disappearing the two only to sneeze them out my nose. Big laughs and smiles all around.

The young man asks me to repeat what I did for his grandfather gesturing behind me, where against the back wall sat two elders on a weathered wooden bench. One with a big generous toothless grin. Ensued a five minute improvisation which beyond magic, included hat manipulations involving moments of mime followed by more absurdist butohed clown, all received in a spirit of great hilarity. The men were rocking sideways, and the Japanese film crew were eating it up too. A fine dada moment of postwar zone euphoria….

Since then, the hats have seen plenty of action: on top of the heads of the Clown Conspiracy in performance, on numerous workshop participant’s heads, and of course Mr. YooWho has one in the suitcase that sees regular use.

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