A web discovery that I am pleased to share with my readers is that of Dr. Robert Elsie. He is a renowned scholar in the field of Albanian studies. This site contains the largest collection of Albanian poetry and literature translated into English available in the world today. It also contains scholarly articles on various aspects of Albanian language and culture.
Why does Albania fascinate me? For years it was a hermit nation. The only American citizens allowed to visit were those of Albanian ancestry. It was deeply distrustful even of other communist nations, considering both the USSR and China to be heretics from communist orthodoxy. It actually outlawed all religions (except communism).
In Jewish history, Albania proper was extraordinarily kind to Jews. (Kosova was different in its implementation of the Final Solution. Jews did not do as well there.) Albanians considered it to be a violation of the besa honour code to hand Jews over to the Nazis. So hospitable was Albania to Jews that Albania was the only country in Nazi occupied Europe in which the Jewish population increased between 1939 and 1945.
Sabbatai Zvi, the infamous false messiah was exiled to Albania, where he lived until his death in 1676. There were reports even in the 20th century of some of his followers remaining in the country.
Albania proper is estimated to be 70% Muslim and 30% Christian. They have managed to create a national identity that transcends religious divisions. Even when the Arab world poured military aid into Kosova, the local inhabitants kept the non Albanian forms of Islam at arms length. They did not want local customs and social structures disrupted. The Arabs got a disappointing return for their money.
As a Jew of Croatian ancestry, I have an interest in all of the nationalities of the Balkans. My own family was divided on religious matters. Despite this, we maintained unity. When I look back in the history of Yugoslavia, it is easy for me to visualise families that were of varied faiths sitting down at one table. I find myself wondering in which generation distant cousins took up arms against each other. How many Bosnian Muslims share common DNA with Serbs and Croats?
Albanians managed to endure a religious split that did not fracture their sense of common peoplehood. Even the Albanians remaining in Greece after the brutal attempts to purge them from that country maintain a sense of common peoplehood that transcends dialectal differences. Is it possible for people to study Albania's success in this area and to duplicate it themselves?
I feel a strong loyalty to my Croatian grandparents. They were decent people who worked hard, sacrificed much and suffered a great deal. I am proud to be descended from them. Although I maintain an interest in Croatian art, music and linguistics, the brutality of Croatia to Jews and Serbs during World War Two has estranged me from any feelings of affinity with them. It is similar to my feelings about my German Jewish ancestry.
To the Albanians, I feel only gratitude for their kindness to the Jewish people during World War Two. I wish them well in their effort to enter the 21st Century and the European Community. They are one Muslim nation in which the Christian minority has been well treated. In many ways, I feel closer to them that I do to the Croats with whom I share blood ties.
There is an Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare who walked a tight rope during the bleak communist years, maintaining his integrity as a writer by veiling his criticism in allegorical terms. Dr. Elsie includes some of his prose and some of his poetry. Two of my favourites read as follows.
My childhood - ink-stained fingers,
Bells in the morning,
The muezzin at dusk,
Collections of cigar boxes and old stamps,
Trading one Ceylon
For two Luxembourg.
Thus they passed,
Chasing after a rag ball, raising dust and cries,
A rag ball,
Made of grey Albanian rags.
[Fëminia, from the volume Shekulli im, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1961, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 77]
And when my memory
And when my fading memory,
Like the after-midnight trams,
Stops only at the main stations,
I will not forget you.
I will remember
That quiet evening, endless in your eyes,
The stifled sob upon my shoulder,
Like snow that cannot be brushed off.
The separation came
And I departed, far from you.
But some night
Someone's fingers will weave themselves into your hair,
My distant fingers, stretching across the miles.
[Edhe kur kujtesa, from the volume Shekulli im, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1961, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 78]
Other poems I enjoyed were some by Fatos Arapi
Life is a railway station of partings and meetings.
We are constant travellers,
Holding in our hands our inseparable baggage,
A little suitcase
Of struggles, onslaughts and memories.
[Jeta, from the volume Poema dhe vjersha, Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1966, p. 59. First published in English in An Elusive Eagle Soars, Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry, London: Forest Books, 1993, p. 40. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
Sultan Murat and the Albanian
Sultan Murat sat astride his steed
And observed the prisoner bound hand and foot:
His advanced age, his wounds, his chains...
‘Albanian,’ he inquired, ‘Why do you fight
When you could live differently?’
‘Because, Padishah,’ replied the prisoner,
‘Every man has a piece of the sky in his breast,
And in it flies a swallow.’
[Sulltan Murati dhe Shqiptari, from the volume Poezi, Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1983, p. 207. First published in English in An Elusive Eagle Soars, Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry, London: Forest Books, 1993, p. 44. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
I hope my readers will visit the Dr. Robert Elsie. site. He sheds much light on one of the least understood nations of Europe. For this he deserves our thanks.
I am also very fond of Albanian musicOne of my recent discoveries in that genre is Labinot Taheri