Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 14:28 UK

Kosovo lives: Between two worlds

Mehmed Sezai Shehu
Meti began teaching English part-time in 1992 and went full-time in 1998

In the fourth of five pieces by BBC journalists examining life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets an Albanian English teacher whose ancestors taught the values of Sufism.

His English is flawless, local knowledge near faultless but having him guide you around Pristina can take awfully long.

Mehmed Sezai Shehu, or Meti as he likes to be known, seems barely able to cross a street without running into an acquaintance in the Kosovan capital.

On the two visits I have met him, a simple stroll about the city centre became a wade through handshakes, jokes and banter.

Not a few of the people knew him from across a kitchen table or a classroom desk because for the past decade, apart from the war period, Meti has been teaching his city English full-time.

Yet if his job is to supply Kosovans with the lingua franca of the modern world, he himself is a living link to an old time of religious mystics at risk of disappearing.

Against the clock

Meti launched his own language school this January, putting secondary-school pupils and post-grad students alike through the TOEFL English test.

Two young women walk down a Pristina street
Pristina today is very much a young person's city

The language is an essential for entering some local colleges, such as the American University of Pristina, and demand is high.

In the downtown classroom, teaching aids other than the course book include DVDs of the latest TV drama series from the UK and US.

His enthusiasm as a teacher is infectious as he works the class - between six and 12 students at a time - with a mixture of erudition and wit.

"I push them to limits they didn't know existed but the satisfaction I get when they come back to thank me for their exam results is priceless," he says.

When we first met last February, he was teaching at a school inside Pristina's giant sports centre by day and, by night, in his modest flat, where he lives with his wife and two school-age children.

Somehow, he also fitted in translation work in a hectic lifestyle that left him with just a few hours' sleep each night.

"My head only has to hit the pillow, and I am out for the count," he says.

I myself always say that I am first Albanian and that my religion is a private thing

He still conducts a busy social life in Pristina's cafes, where it is somehow a pleasure to watch him shake, then rip open, two sachets of sugar at a time to sweeten his tiny cups of black coffee.

His appetite for life is no mere metaphor, either, just to see him devour a pizza at his favourite 24-hour bakery - "this place has never closed its doors since it re-opened after the war", he boasts.

The war saw Meti enduring the first week of the Nato bombing before being expelled from Pristina by Serbian police and plunged into a refugee existence in Macedonia and Austria.

It is a time he is trying to erase from his memory, he says quietly.

To this day, he can smell a decomposing corpse - Albanian, Serb, nobody could tell - which he saw after his return, in a springtime Kosovan field, while working as an interpreter for international investigators.

Another time

A tiny building, a mere speck in the concrete jungle that is modern Pristina, provides a unique relic of its past in more senses than one.

Coffins inside the tekke
Dervish pilgrims from outside Kosovo come to the Pristina tekke
It is a tekke, a cross between a house of prayer for Sufi Shia Muslims (dervishes) and a funeral vault, which dates back four centuries.

Inside are several coffins of sheikhs, or religious leaders, draped in green shrouds, including that of the tekke's founder.

The remains of the other sheikhs were brought from tekkes destroyed under communism.

Behind the tekke is something more recent but also quite unique in Pristina: a grave in a tiny garden.

Here lies Meti's paternal grandfather, after whom he was named.

Sheikh Mehmed Sezai Shehu died in 1947 and his last request was for the dervishes not to build a tekke for him, but bury him in his garden.

Family history has it that the communist authorities decreed the night before he died that he had to be buried like everyone else outside the city.

Muhedin Shehu inside the tekke
Muhedin's friends come every Sunday

However, in what his family thinks was an act of God, they dropped their insistence the next day without explanation.

Once a week, a small group of his grandfather's elderly dervishes assemble in the tekke along with Meti's uncle, 82-year-old Muhedin Shehu, who looks after the building.

There are mats for them to make themselves comfortable and their gatherings seem to be as much social as religious occasions.

"When I come here, I feel serenity and peace," says Meti.

Dervishes are a minority among Kosovo's Muslims, who are mainly orthodox Sunnis, but Meti has encountered no sectarian strife:

"When you come to Kosovo and ask someone their religion, if they say 'Muslim' you cannot tell by looking at them whether they are Shia or Sunni because there is nothing distinctive here, they don't grow beards like in Bosnia, for instance. Islam here is moderate."

He believes that most Kosovo Albanians define themselves by nationality before religion.

"I myself always say that I am first Albanian and that my religion is a private thing," says Meti, whose maternal uncle was also a sheikh and died in communist Albania in the late 1940s (the exact year is not known).

The great healer

Meti is also a proud citizen of the new state declared this year though he finds it hard to think of himself as Kosovan, rather than Albanian:

The grave of Sheikh Mehmed Sezai Shehu (image from February 2007)
How the grave was permitted in the city remains a mystery

"I will teach my children to think of themselves as Kosovars [sic] but I am 43 now and I don't think it will be very easy for me to say 'I'm a Kosovar'. I'm Albanian."

His politics do not mean that he cannot still have Serb friends, admire the frescoes in Kosovo's mediaeval churches or, as a linguist, savour the richness of Serbian swearwords.

In the agency he runs in conjunction with the English school, Meti employs seven Serb freelance translators, who live across Kosovo and work by e-mail.

I ask him if he sees a day when Serbs can accept Kosovan independence.

"Time heals all wounds," he begins.

"I think they will see that this is a new reality which some will embrace. Others will still defy it or pack their bags and leave.

"It won't be their country but they will have dual citizenship, Kosovan and Serbian, and this time will come much faster than some sceptics think."

Meti looks forward to Kosovo, Serbia and the whole region joining the EU and the borders disappearing.

Meanwhile, he goes on fine-tuning the English of Pristina's younger generation.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific