Many times they were conquered, but never subdued. Their spirit kept them alive throughout the centuries. Though having fought endless wars throughout their history and having lived in isolation for too long, they created a rich cultural popular tradition that accompanied them to this day. It is only by understanding this history and this cultural popular tradition that one can fully grasp who Albanians are. In order to present a view of the cultural interaction between Albanians and other people, we have decided to observe the Albanian side by presenting some basic background and aspects of Albanian culture, as well as cases experienced by us or our friends in the daily life.
There are also subcultures and we could have opted for a discussion of these to present many sides of Albanian behavior in different areas. Instead, we tried to use a broad perspective/context without entering in much detail so that everybody reading this paper could establish a general framework of understanding which could be applied in general to all Albanians. This would be more useful to have a more general and clear picture.
Albanians live in compact settlements in the South-Western part of the Balkans. The majority of them lives in the Republic of Albania, capital city Tirana, and in the recently-proclaimed Republic of Kosova. The Republic of Albania is a mountainous country along the southern Adriatic coast, where the sea stands between it and the Italian peninsula. Minority groups living in Albania are represented by Greeks, Slavs, Aromunians, and Gypsies. Albania borders to the north with the Republic of Montenegro, which has about 10 percent Albanian minority living there; to the northeast with the Republic of Kosova, which recently was proclaimed independent and which has about 90-95 percent ethnic Albanians and the rest comprises ethnic Serbs, Turks, Rom, Montenegrins, Croats, Cherkess, and others. Southern Serbia has some Albanian-inhabited communes: Presheva, Medvegja and Bujanovc. To the east of Albania there is the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which has a consistent percentage of Albanian population, while to the south Albania borders Greece, where there is the province of Çamëria once inhabited by Albanians that were expelled by Greece during World War II and that now live in settlements in Albania.
There are also the Greece Arvanites, who are mainly assimilated into the Greek population. Southern Italy has also a substantial Albanian minority, known as the Arbëresh, descendants of the refugees who fled Albania after the death of Scanderbeg. In addition, there are large communities of Albanian emigrants in European countries, US, and Canada. The war in Kosova and Macedonia has had a certain impact on Albanian geography, at least as a perception. Kosova was freed from Serbian repression with the intervention of NATO and no dangerous “greater Albania” was created. The war in Macedonia produced greater rights for Albanians living there. Now movements of Albanians are more free and internal interaction among them is greater. There is no visa requirements for Albanians (Albanian citizens of Albania, Kosova, Montenegro, and Macedonia, can travel freely in all these countries). Business ties have intensified, cultural activities are having a greater common basis and a new perspective lies ahead with the process of European integration which is underway.
The Albanian language (gjuha shqipe) is an Indo-European language, though it is not a member of any of the branches of the Indo-European family. Due to the radical changes taken place within it throughout the centuries, it is difficult to argue about the exact origins of the Albanian language. The theory of Illyrian origin of the Albanian people is the most widely accepted in Albania, though it is difficult to be determined, also due to the fact that the Albanian language has had substantial impacts from Latin, Slavic, Greek and Turkish languages during the centuries. No Illyrian books or writing have survived, which makes it difficult to determine the direct link of Albanians as a people and Albanian language to Illyrians.
Albanian has two main dialects that reflect the two main tribes: Gheg and Tosk. A standard language was establish in the early 20th century, which was based on Gheg but with substantial input from Tosk. However, when communists came to power after World War II, they worked toward overthrowing this standard language and in 1972 introduced a new “standard language”, which was and still is based 95 percent on Tosk dialect. About 70 percent of all Albanians are Gheg, so there are difficulties for them to use that variant and it is no surprise that foreigners learning Albanian might face difficulties understanding the majority of people in informal conversations. This issue still remains controversial, and Northern writers and intellectuals have reopened this debate and begun writing in Gheg in recent years. This represents a problem also for international officials residing in Albanian lands. They until now were being taught the “standard Albanian” based on Tosk, but the majority of Albanian politicians or local people they meet are Gheg that use Gheg in their daily communication, so it is normal that problems would arise during formal and informal conversations. At least the British Foreign Office, especially for officials dispatched in Kosova, has started to give courses in Gheg, and maybe this might be the case also for other countries. The overwhelming majority of Kosovar Albanians, being 100 percent a Gheg population, use Gheg in their daily communication and the politicians' official “standard” discourse is saturated with Gheg syntax and expressions in great extent.
This stands true also for Albania, where the current Prime Minister and the Parliament Speaker, both Gheg, during their speeches use words and expressions which normally would be considered deviant by the current linguistic standards. The majority of Albanian speakers in Albania are monolingual, but many know Italian, Greek, and English, a few of them French, Spanish and German; an elite minority might be fluent in two or more languages. This is mainly due to TV influence, but also because of the opening of possibilities to travel abroad, the existence of an influential Albanian diaspora in the West, as well as the increase of ties with other countries. Most of the Kosovar Albanians speak and understand Serbo-Croatian. Casual travelers and tourists find Albanian difficult to understand, being it so unique and not similar to any of European languages. However, many people might have some knowledge of at least one foreign language, but the last resort is people trying to speak English and ending up mixing words. In recent years there has been a boost in the number of tourists that come to Albania. The overwhelming majority is represented by Albanian Kosovars who come en masse during summer in Albanian beaches, but also foreign tourists that have become attracted by Albania.
Symbols and national identity
The national and ethnic symbol of the Albanian people is the Eagle, which was used as a heraldic symbol by a number of ruling families in Albania such as Kastrioti, Muzakaj, and Dukagjini. Gjergj Kastrioti – Scanderbeg placed a black two-headed eagle on the flag and this symbol survived to this day, representing the Albanian nation. The Albanian Independence was proclaimed on 28 November, 1912, in Vlora and this flag with a black two-headed eagle in a red background has been used since that time as the national symbol. The eagle among Albanians is seen as a symbol of freedom and patriotism, Albanians often refer to themselves as “sons of the eagle”. There is similarity between the words shqiponjë/shqipe (eagle), shqip (Albanian, as a language), and shqiptar (Albanian, as a person).
Among the most respected and loved recent Albanian personalities are Scanderbeg, the Albanian prince who fought against Ottomans; Gjergj Fishta and Naim Frashëri, both writers; Ismail Qemali and Isa Boletini, respectively Albanians from Albanian and Kosova who raised the Albanian flag on Independence Day; Ahmet Zogu, proclaimed the King of Albanians, who helped establish the modern Albanian state but was dethroned in the beginning of World War II; Mother Theresa, an Albanian Catholic who worked as a missionary in India.
Recent personalities are controversial, mainly due to politicization. For example, the writer Ismail Kadare is glorified by some as a renowned intellectual, while for some others he is just a servant of the communist dictatorship that was imposed on Albania in the 1945-1990 period; also Sali Berisha, ex-President in the 1992-1997 period and currently Prime Minister of Albania, seen by many as the visionary leader of post-communist Albania, for others he is just an authoritarian man that uses the iron fist to rule.
The National Anthem of the Republic of Albania
United all around the flag,
with one wish and a sole cause,
to It we pledge our allegiance
and give our word of honor for salvation.
Only he who is a born traitor
deserts from the fight.
Whoever is a true man doesn’t back down,
but falls, but falls and becomes a martyr to the cause.
We will hold the arms in our hands
to guard the Fatherland everywhere.
We won’t give up our rights,
’cause the enemies here have no place.
For God himself has spoken,
from the earth nations keep on vanishing,
but Albania will live on,
’cause for It, for It we keep on fighting.
Albanians are a Muslim-majority people. There are consistent Christian Orthodox and Catholic minorities. Albanians take great pride in their history of interfaith relations. There have never been any cases of conflict between religions, and instances of interfaith marriages abound. Of course there are some difficulties to marry somebody belonging to another religious belief, but as times goes by the Albanian society is emancipated and this is seen as very normal. There are many legends and stories of Albanians of different religions helping Albanians of other religions. One of them speaks of a Shkodrani Muslim who saved a Catholic woman from being harassed by two Turkish soldiers by killing them, and the Catholic Church build a new home for him as a thank you gesture.
There is also a percentage of Bektashi religious adherents, which is a separate world religion with the seat in Albania.
Albania during communism proclaimed itself the only atheist country in the world. In year 1967 all religious communities were outlawed when the communist government banned the public religious practices. Shkodra is a very interesting city regarding religion. There was built an anti-religions museum, and alas, for some irony of sorts in the same city the first church and the first mosque were rebuilt in 1990 when the communist system collapsed. It is claimed that Shkodra Orthodoxes in the past never went further than having 99 families in the city. It also had the biggest Catholic Church in the Balkans, built also with the financial money of Muslims of the city. During communism there was not a single Catholic working in the local Court. The reason why there is no religious fervor or extremism among Albanians is that they never had a national official religion and the national identity has dominated over any other identity. A small country surrounded with hostile neighbors, Albania has struggled always to survive and religious problems were the last Albanians were interested in.
Popular traditional culture
Albanian history of arts is not so rich in comparison with that other Western countries for many reasons. With one exception, the folk culture which offers a rich variety of values. This culture is unique because of the simple fact that Albanians have preserved many things living in isolation. This has caused the Albanian society to remain a conservative one and preserve with jealousy its values and beliefs. However, the communist dictatorship has damaged the collective memory of the people by stressing ideology instead of pure traditional values.
One element that shows the variety of Albanian folk culture is the popular love song. If we agree that the Albanian society has remained throughout the centuries a conservative one, it may come as a surprise to see that popular love songs show a valuable richness of the spiritual creativity of the Albanian people. The comparisons from the rural-pastoral life have imprinted a strong mark in love songs in what regards the attractive character of the beauty of the woman, as well as for the man, and the intimacy of both of them. Love songs have become the expression of national erotic requests and of certain historical relations and patriarchal social relationships in the impossibility of having the freedom of expressing erotic feelings. In Albanian love songs the comparisons on the women’s side dominate, especially comparisons on parts of her body following the anatomic line: head-feet, while the comparisons on the man are found in a lesser amount, though they are not less beautiful. Over thirty parts of her body, and especially the erogenous parts, are compared with objects from all fields, and only in a few cases the part of her body represents the comparative object to stress the importance of the other element.
The Albanian fairytale is rich and includes a series of mythical creatures, whose presence and action leads us in the unreal-mythical world, which is unique. They are not always portrayed with clear features, therefore their image remains sometimes enigmatic. They live in the “other” world and do not cross the boundary dividing that world. If we meet for example, a mythical creature caught and obliged by force in the world of the hero “in the seventh room with twelve or more locks” then it represents “the alien world”.
Traditional Albanian polyphonic music is extraordinary, mainly that performed by Tosks and Labs in the southern part of the country. Sung by male singers mainly, the polyphonic songs of the South accompany many social events such as different feasts, weddings, funerals, religious celebrations and other important events. Northern Albania has a very rich epic tradition. Epic songs, accompanied by the traditional lahuta which is a kind of violin have accompanied the Albanian population of these lands during centuries of fights with different enemies. These songs praise the bravery of local men in fights with their adversaries, but there you can find also moments of rare delicacy such as the appreciation of female beauty. One such theme is when the brave man falls in love with the enemy king's daughter and in the middle of the night he goes and kidnaps her. During communism it was not allowed to listen to foreign music and the musical taste of population was closely observed, turning a minority of people into “musical dissidents” who listened secretly to foreign radio stations and who smuggled the bad-quality audio cassettes of their favorite singers in an underground black market.
Not all Albanian cities have a distinguished musical tradition due to oriental influences. Shkodra is a well-known cultural center and it is said that Gjakova, city in Kosova, has taken its folk songs from there. The Shkodra jare is a unique genre, distinguished by its melodramatic tone. The Southern city of Korça has a rich tradition of serenades. Nowadays, the Albanian young people listen and create every kind of music, pretty much as their counterparts in the West.
The foundations of the modern national literature were laid in the second half of the nineteenth century while Albania was still occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Until then, the majority of books published were religious texts, mainly from Catholic priests in the Shkodra region. The modern literature started when the literary movement of Rilindja (Renaissance) was established, mostly from Albanians living abroad, which was characterized by romantic nationalism and that provides the basis to understand the Albanian mentality of today. At the beginning of the XX century, the Catholic education facilities set up by the Franciscans and Jesuits in Shkodra under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Kultusprotektorat paved the way for the creation of an intellectual elite that produced the rudiments of a more sophisticated literature which expressed itself primarily in poetry. The major literary achievement of this period was the work of the Franciscan priest Gjergj Fishta, once praised as the national poet but from 1945 to 1990 banned primarily for political reasons.
After World War II and with the advent of communism in Albania almost all of the pre-war Albanian literature was reviewed based on political principles and was sanitized for the “good of the people”. Most writers and intellectuals had fled the country by 1944 and those who didn't were put under enormous pressure to follow the party line. This is the reason why the literature of the communist era is virtually non-existent from an aesthetic point of view. The persecution of intellectuals and the break with virtually all cultural traditions created a literary and cultural vacuum that lasted until the collapse of communism. This is one of the main reasons why Albanians don't have an internationally accepted contemporary literature, which is seen in the fact that the most published Albanian author in the West is Ismail Kadare, whose most appreciated works were created during communism.
In the recent years there have been instances of Albanian writers writing in foreign languages. One of them is a well-known bilingual poet, Gëzim Hajdari, who lives in Italy and writes his works both in Italian and in Albanian and has won the prestigious Eugenio Montale poetry prize in Italy. Another one is Ornela Vorpsi who left Albania at age 22 and lived in Italy for some years before going to France and writing acclaimed books.
Local customs, traditions and food
Accommodation in Albania for tourists is tricky. Though recently there have been improvements with the building of new and modern hotels as well as the improvements in relationships with tourists due to the increase of movements, still you can have difficulties dealing with local hotel owners. Rooms might be not so decent and the price for a good room, which might be not so good, might change consistently. An issue of confusion is also the reference to new and old leks. Though there are decades that Albania established a new system of currency, still the majority of people use the old system (1 new lek equals 10 old leks). This is not the case with Albanians in Montenegro and Kosova, where Euro is used as an official currency.
Albanians are very generous and hospital people and make friends easily. However, foreign women might experience staring and whistling from men on the street, which depending on the point of view might be considered a bad or a good thing. Tirana, the capital city, might be more stressing than other cities, where ordinary life is more quiet and calm. You can eventually find any meal of your liking in restaurants or you can opt for local food, which consists mostly of meat. Almost each restaurant includes in their menu traditional dishes.
People also use humor in their daily life so some misunderstanding might arise in communication with people from other cultures. However, being part of the Mediterranean culture, Albanians generally are very friendly and treat foreigners with respect. There are many accounts of foreign travelers in the past that were expecting a jungle in Albanian lands and instead have been pleasantly surprised with the generosity and hospitality of local people. This might be explained with the fact that Albanians having suffered in the past recognize the needs and difficulties experienced by a person traveling through unknown lands. The most well-known international traveler in Albanian lands was Lord Byron, who it is said to have become friends with a Ali Pashë Tepelena, a local pasha in the Southern Albania.
Albanian society, having the reputation of a Muslim conservative society, are generally perceived as a patriarchal society that discriminates against women. Nothing can be far from the truth. The relationships between men and women follow a traditional line of respect. In the book “Peaks of Shala” by author Rose Wilder Lane there is a passage that describes the conversation between two American women intending to pass through Albania. The first expresses her doubts about being women and the risk of being assaulted by “barbarians”. The second woman responds that not only they would be safe because Albanians respect women, but also in cases when there might be the possibility of any blood feud being resolved, no Albanian would dare to shoot in the presence of women. As a matter of fact, the Kanun, the local non-official constitution that regulates blood feuds issues, states that children and women are not to be involved in blood feuds, and this is supported by hard evidence that shows that men involved in blood feuds were locked in while women worked freely without fear of being involved in killings. However, blood feuds are very rare recently and the trend is toward disappearance.
Until 1990 Albanians in Albania were more or less in the same economic conditions, while those in ex-Yugoslavia were a lot more prosperous due to the liberal policies followed there. Classes in Albania followed ideological lines (supporters of the party - “enemies” of socialism), while denominations as “worker” and “intellectual” didn't have real importance because all were equal participants in the creation of socialism and the “new man”. After the collapse of communism, the free enterprise has established a rich elite which has close ties with politics and a middle class that increasingly has improved during these transition years its way of living and relies more and more in their intellectual abilities to earn the living and have a decent life. A good part of the population has been supported by relatives living abroad.
A traditional divide exists about people living in the cities and the majority living in villages. We also have witnessed a great shift during the last two decades where many people have moved from villages into the capital city or major cities. The villagers, according to this view, are less educated while city people are likely to form the “elite”. This has created a certain lack of trust from villagers toward city people. The author of this essay, a city guy, some years ago arranged a meeting with a friend of his, a villager. The meeting was in the summer, it was very hot, about 3 pm. and my friend had brought with him an older friend. Some days later, my friend told me that his older friend was stunned that I had showed up. I asked why is that. He responded that his friend had told him that “for a city guy, to come at 3 pm. in a terrible hot weather at a meeting with a villager, it is almost unbelievable”
Communication with the world and internet
With the fall of communism, which had imposed an iron curtain on Albania, the normal communication with the world began. During communism the only means in this regards was the TV, those few magic sets that could catch any signal from Italian, Yugoslav or Greek TV channels. Hand-made TV dishes were very popular among Albanians of Albania, and you could go to jail if caught with one. It was the only channel to communicate with the world because foreign tourists were very rare and if this was the case they were strictly monitored and their movements restricted. Nowadays, many Albanians have traveled the world or live abroad. Movements in the globalization era have intensified and this has happened also to the the links with the world. It is calculated that about 30 percent of Albanians live abroad, and they contribute a lot to the economic development of their families and the country in general. Many second generation immigrants are returning home and applying their skills and know-how in the Albanian society.
Internet access has increased tremendously in recent years. It is used for a variety of things in a variety of ways. Young people have discovered Facebook and other social network sites and spend a lot of time online. Albanian websites abound and government has introduced measures for online application in tenders, making it compulsory for local governments that want to apply for various projects. Internet has contribute in great extent to the education of Albanians with international relations, bringing the Albanian mentality closer to world developments.
Albanians as a people have lived in isolation for a long time and their interaction with the world has been somehow limited. They always in their history have tended to see the world around them with suspicion mixed with respect and have tried to establish links with others based on mutual sincerity, equality, and trust. Being a small people, fate hasn't always been on the side of Albanians, and for long periods of time they have been either conquered by foreign powers, or they have allied with other powers in order to survive. They have preserved their customs and traditions and take great pride of them. The traditional folk culture is very rich and a great part of it waits to be uncovered. Among Albanians one can find genuine music and songs, a literature that strives to cope with universal values, as well as a general spirit that aims to cultivate culture and tradition so that knowledge be transmitted to future generations of Albanians.