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Lessons in heroism

Teacher treasures tenure among Kosovo Albanians

By Leigh E. Rich

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo
By Paula Huntley
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
February 10, 2003
256 pages

Ernest Hemingway, known for the brash, adventurous way in which he lived his life as well as the acclaimed stories he wrote, needs no introduction—not even half a world away in the struggling, war-torn Balkans where a 56-year-old woman from Pocahontas, Ark., found herself reading The Old Man and the Sea with a group of Kosovo Albanians.

In fact, Paula Huntley discovered while teaching English as a second language (ESL) in the capital city of Kosovo that Santiago’s lessons of courage, hope and optimism—even as the prized marlin is slipping away—are alive and well in Prishtina, despite a decade of apartheid, Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic slaughter, and the infrastructural uncertainties Kosovo has faced in the aftermath of NATO’s bombing that drove Milosevic and the Serbs from the region.

“If optimism is the highest form of courage,” Huntley wrote in the journal that was to become The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, “then these students are all heroes.” And so too, though she’d be the last to admit it, is Huntley.

A marketing professional who taught art history 20 years ago, Huntley and law professor husband Ed Villmoare moved to Prishtina in 2000 when Villmoare accepted a position with the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (ABA-CEELI) to help create a modern legal system in the former Yugoslavian area. Though at first “terrified and appalled” at her husband’s news, Huntley admits in her book, and knowing she couldn’t offer Kosovars any legal or medical help, Huntley took a course in teaching ESL before leaving her “sweet little house on the cliff over the ocean” in Bolinas, Calif., for the “poor war-ravaged non-country.”

“Although Kosovo is Ed’s idea, his work that will take us there,” she wrote in August 2000, “I know I must find my own way.”

The path she chose—in an attempt to “gain a greater tolerance for ambiguity, a greater respect for differences, some clearer understanding of my own capacity for change”—would have been befitting of Hemingway himself, whom Huntley tells her Albanian students “would have come to Kosovo” had he been alive in 1998 and 1999.

Casting aside fear of the unknown and replacing it with a Maslowian self-actualized curiosity of her strange new environment (where electricity and water rarely work, garbage always lines the streets, and U.N. forces with their accompanying tanks and guns are everpresent), Huntley quickly found a teaching position with the Cambridge School—conveniently located in Prishtina’s Sports Center complex still in half-ruins from a fire that occurred just after the war.

It is Huntley’s connections with her students and their families as well as her willingness to seek out their stories of oppression, rape, massacre and survival that make The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo an inspiring, though at times difficult, read. Huntley’s students, who joined her on Saturdays to discuss The Old Man and the Sea and other American literature, spoke of their persecution over the last 10 years: “The war don’t like nobody,” one of Huntley’s students wrote in an essay. “It comes always without the wishes of people who feel it the most dreadful. Nobody can know better than Albanian people of Kosova what is violence, what is killing people and nobody can’t hate it more than they. They are afraid of repetition massacres. … The best producer in Hollywood could not make such terrible scenes.”

Huntley’s ability to find both humor and humanity in this region that is still a U.N. protectorate also belies her love for Kosovo and its people. Two telling vignettes illustrate both the perseverance and the continuing struggle to rebuild a future for Kosovo: one an attempt by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to set an example for the community by replacing all the refuse from a street corner with a signpost that proudly read, “This Corner Cleaned Up by UNMIK,” and the other an attempt by Prishtinians to Westernize their economy and serve the expatriate population of foreign aid workers and non-governmental organizations with newly opened boutiques and restaurants.

Huntley writes of the fist: “The signpost itself is invisible because of the mountains of rubbish piled around it. … There’s a basic cultural misunderstanding on this corner. … The community took the sign to mean that UNMIK would clean up whatever garbage they dumped there. Thus, the messiest corner in the city.”

And the second: “The food itself—unlike their traditional Albanian fare, which is delicious—is often a tasteless imitation of other cuisines. And the menus in English translation provide unintended entertainment. Tonight I tried to order the ‘chicken buttocks on screwers,’ but they were out. Must be a popular dish.”

As she wanders through her time and among her newfound friendships in Kosovo, there is an intimacy in Huntley’s style, reminding readers that life—and effective writing—is not always about who you are but what you do.

“Tonight, as I read and correct grammar in some of my students’ essays, I am struck by the eloquence of their simple stories. And it occurs to me that in some ways their prose resembles Hemingway’s. … Their sparse language, and even their misuse of words, draws the reader’s attention to the fact that there are some things no skill with vocabulary—and no perfectly chosen combination of words—can come close to capturing. There are times when we can only speak in fragments. People in the middle of fire. Simple, clear, vivid. Hemingway-esque.”

Rich, L. E. (2003, February 28). Lessons in heroism. [Review of the book The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.] Rocky Mountain News.

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