For those of you who have yet to visit Albania, I must warn you that whether you do or not, Albanians have already come to visit you. They have been doing so for decades, assimilating into your societies and becoming your fellow citizens, without ever quite leaving their homeland entirely behind.
Émigrés have brought with them the memories of their country of origin, of its stories of dispossession, oppression and poverty over more than half of the twentieth century. They found themselves, like the uprooted of other troubled countries, wanderers of a world often prohibited to their fellow citizens left behind, those unlucky enough to be forced to stay or unwilling to leave. The world they came from built a dark wall to try to keep them in and to keep others out.
There were parts of the world they travelled to that knew nothing of the little country they came from. In some places, Albania was considered a joke: the country in which Norman Wisdom was a national hero; the country whose dictator, Enver Hoxha, fell out with everyone, even his closest allies.
In the sixties hit film “Barefoot In The Park”, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, the newly married couple visit an Albanian restaurant in New York. Afterwards, the next morning no-one can clench their hands into a fist, their fingers numbed by the combination of food and, more lethally, drink. Albanian raki is one reputation that is well earned!
For those more interested in history, they would be familiar with the myths about Albanians who, while their country was enslaved by the Turks, somehow managed to run most of the Ottoman Empire. It was known, amongst travellers and historians alike, as a place where warlords ruled and whose mercenaries, travelling far afield on behalf of their colonial masters, were feared by all.
Byron, travelling in Albania in 1809 described them as “the most warlike subjects of the Sultan” and his host, Ali Pasha, on a visit to the Albanian-born Ottoman warlord’s stronghold, as: “sixty years old, very fat and not tall, but with a fine face, light blue eyes and a white beard, his manner is very kind and at the same time he possesses that dignity which I find universal amongst the Turks. He has the appearance of anything but his real character, for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave and so good a general, that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte.”
He also noted the beauty of Albanian culture: “The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold worked cloak, crimson velvet gold-laced jacket and waistcoat, silver-mounted pistols and daggers)”. He is himself famously portrayed in Albanian garb – a picture that can be seen to this day in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
As for the Albanian woman, she was often known for being part of the sultan’s retinue, or portrayed in dramatic circumstances, taking her children with her when she decided to escape Turkish occupation. She was beautiful, passionate, rebellious, but her fate was in men’s hands. Byron says about this: “They are perhaps the most beautiful race in point of countenance in the world, their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves, beaten and in short complete beasts of burden, they plough, dig and sow, I found them carrying wood and actually repairing the highways. The men are all soldiers, and war and the chase their sole occupations.”
He adds a statement that those actually doing the work might quibble with, “The women are the labourers, which after all is no great hardship in so delightful a climate.”
This earlier image of Albania, however romanticized or dramatized, was replaced in the twentieth century by another, one that was equally exotic but less picturesque. Pre-1990’s the country’s image in the west was dominated by the effect of Enver Hoxha and his despotic regime. Those who were not allies of the regime and were able to escape its borders fled. Many died trying.
Albanian émigrés took the tragedies of their country with them. This great emigration, fuelled by the collapse of the regime, the country’s economic troubles and a desire to make life anew in countries that offered greater personal opportunity, continues to this day.
Much of the first wave of émigrés was made up of men. They crossed borders, leaving behind their wives, children, families and friends. They sang their sorrow, and only their old possessions, perhaps an old watch gifted by parents, or clothes, took them back in their memories to the home hearth, and the challenges of living in the society outside the home that first drove them to leave.
How did they leave? Perhaps they got on a ship to go to Italy. They had no seats nor tickets. Old Albanian passports, issued during the dictatorship, were valid only for the Secret Service whose attentions they were so eager to escape. Their faces were furrowed like their mountains, the beauty of which Byron exults in, “mountains through country of the most picturesque beauty”; their poverty now visible to the world.
Often they had no luggage, no extra clothes, no water and no food. They had no-one to see them off, or to wait for them in their as-yet uncertain destination. The Albanians who left their country at the end of World War Two were only the first trickle of what would, in later years, become a torrent. In later years routes became more established, whether legal or illegal. The lure of the West too great for many to resist.
The Albanian Diaspora is a phrase which is widely used today. The diaspora sees itself as the representative of Albania into the wider world and takes pride in that. Established now in communities across the world, from Europe to America to the Antipodes, Albanians abroad encourage freedom, tolerance and liberalism at home.
I suggest that if you want to get to know Albania or understand its people and their country, then go to one of their weddings whether at home or abroad. The women hold their necks high, sit proudly, and dance.
Amongst the dances is one for the émigrés, who remain geographically separated from, but always close to their hearts. They will dance to a song called “The Refugee”. They will dance, and cry, and hug. These are a people proud of their emotions. The story of those who leave is one both of celebration and longing. Who could fail to miss the rock-strewn landscapes, the rivers, the mountains, the white snow, and the spring which brings ice waters and fury to the rivers.
This longing for their homeland comes from unknown depths of the heart and their music reflects this, a slow cry from a wounded heart. Here is what a lover of the music of the Balkans, the American music producer and author of “Lament from Epirus”, Christopher King, says about Southern Albanian music:
“I developed an idée fixe with Albanian and Epirote music after junking some old 78s of this music in Istanbul a few years ago while on vacation with my wife and daughter. This (un)naturally led to an obsession with many of the artists from this region that played this style of music which is frankly more powerful, unvarnished, and “heavy” than any other music I’ve yet to encounter. In fact, it is so unpretentious and stark that I doubt that many would even regard it as music… it is more like a profound tonic or salve for our wilted spiritual wounds.”
Albanians never leave their traditions. And the longer they hold onto them the stronger the understanding of the spirit of the Albanian nation in the world. Albanians have no problem assimilating. They appreciate the freedoms and the opportunities offered by their new adopted countries, the two cultures run alongside each other, the new and the old.
After a decade or so of mass emigration, by the end of the twentieth century, Albanians abroad have established different forums to remind themselves of their old homeland and celebrate the things they miss. They exhibit their music; their beautiful and extraordinary traditional clothing, not even now so different to that celebrated by Bryon; their art. To wish to belong to a new home, doesn’t mean one leaves behind one’s old home.
Migration is like an exchange of ideas. Cultural exchange with a new world. Eventually, that has a social impact on the home left behind, conveyed back through visits, letters, conversations by phone or online – all this is returned to the homeland. There are so many of such changes. Few families in Albania have no family members abroad. And the changes the émigrés go through, influence those they’ve left behind. For example, some of those abroad have converted or embraced different religions, new names for children, new traditions. It feels like our little community has grown and matured so much. It makes you feel part of the bigger wider world.
And, inevitably, there is an economic impact to run alongside the cultural one. Albanian émigrés play a powerful role in the Albanian economy. In the period 2007-2016, they have returned seven billion Euros to the country. This is a considerable amount of money, much of it given with nothing in return.
The many who have returned from places like Greece and Italy are now a great asset to the country both in terms of skills, experience and finance. They help support the elderly, children, those unable to work and poorer relatives back home. Without their contribution Albania it would be a different, poorer, country
What makes an Albanian leave the country but never leave their responsibilities at home?
Traditionally an Albanian is brought up to consider care for other people and respect the elderly a virtue: it is everyone’s responsibility to look after people who are poorer than you; to be hospitable and generous with those who come to your home, and to treat everybody equally because the god in which some believe has created humans all the same. It must be these qualities, which have become a convention, a way of life for an Albanian, and the price for a non-conforming, in terms of reputation and honour, is high.
Albania today is a country visitors can explore and love. In the past, particularly during the years of dictatorship, the number of visitors was reduced to a trickle. Only those with a particular interest, and a good deal of persistence, were able to surmount the difficulties inherent in crossing the borders.
Now that trickle has deservedly become a flood. Visitors love the people, the food, the hospitality and the beautiful countryside. You walk in Tirana and you hear many different languages spoken, just like in any other cosmopolitan capital across the world. This diversity is not an inconsiderable change and émigrés have played a huge part in it.
They are the best advertisement for the country they originated from, bringing friends with them. Because the émigré community integrates, is passionate about educating their children and their acquaintances about the virtues of the country they came from, despite whichever troubles or limitations that caused them to leave, they present Albania to the world as an appealing place.
There is nothing stronger in the world than their love for their country of origin. Let us keep it that way shall we?