Why You Should Read “High Albania” by Edith Durham

“High Albania”’s tales of revenge killings, endless blood feuds, and folklore captivated me. A personal travel novel written by Edith Durham, an English woman who traveled on her own through tribal northern Albania over 100 years ago, this book cannot be recommended enough to anyone interested in Albania culture, tribal law, and folklore.

In 1908, the people of northern Albania, specifically those who resided in the mountains, lived much as they had since antiquity. Foreign empires came and went but seldom did the conquerors possess the effort or the incentive to conquer the “wild tribes” of the north. In this way, Northern Albania had come to be seen by those of Western Europe as “the Land of the Living Past.” That is to say, Gheg people (northern Albanians), were seen by western Europeans as a European people who by their culture, economy, and political structure were very much of an era that other European peoples had passed through thousands of years ago.

virgin

If a woman didn’t want to marry the man her parents chose for her to marry, she had the option of becoming a “sworn virgin.” not allowed to ever marry and Legally a male.

Those that saw Albania as a “land of the living past” weren’t incorrect in their assessment. The tribes lived as, well, agricultural and pastoral tribes do. The code that the people lived by, the Canon of Lek Dukagjini, is misogynist in the utmost, gratuitously violent, obsessed with honor, and unapologetically tribal. I will also add that it is fascinating and unfortunately still relevant for modern day Albania. This “Canon” or “Kanuni i Lek Dukagjinit” ,was written in the 15th century but dates back orally to prehistory. The Kanun still shapes modern Albanian culture, directly and indirectly, as evidenced by those men and boys who today cannot leave their homes lest they be killed to settle a blood feud.

people shaved their heads like this until recently in Albania. It is easy to forget how little  time separates Albania from its tribal past.

people shaved their heads like this until recently in Albania. It is easy to forget how little time separates Albania from its tribal past.

As a foreigner living in Albania for two years now, some of the cultural points that the author notices still strikes me as relevant today, 100 years later. For example, Edith Durham writes about how Albanians are, first and foremost, Albanian, and that Albanian culture takes precedence over religion. As many have written, this remains true today and I feel sorry for those foreign missionaries who come to Albania seeking new members in a population that doesn’t “do” religion.

Another point that resonates with me as a foreign resident of Albania is how stereotypes of Albania compared to the reality, in 1908 as well as in 2014. The modern stereotype of Albania is that Albania is a dangerous, lawless place. The reality is that Albania is safe and hospitable to foreigners. In 1908 when Edith Durham traveled through tribal Albania, popular opinion at the time held that the Albanian tribal people captured foreigners and kept them as slaves. She nonetheless traveled alone as a woman and was completely safe.

“High Albania” altered how I think of missionaries. Although un-governed, the tribal people were nominally catholic, orthodox, or Muslim and priests and hoxhas (like a muslim priest) were very active in the mountain communities. Although the priests had “gone native” in many ways, in disputes they often acted as the voice of reason by opposing the harsh dictates of Lek Dukagjini’s Canon. Before reading this book I thought of missionaries as people who, while trying to expand the membership of their religion, took advantage of “less developed” poor people whose religions are arguably no less valid. After reading about the work of the catholic priests in northern Albania who worked tirelessly to change the cruel “blood feud” culture of their flock, I see these Catholic priests living among tribal people as humanitarians rather than religious chauvinists.

Pagan symbols adorn this grave. Paganism survived in Albania in some cases until the arrival of Islam.

Pagan symbols adorn this grave. Paganism survived in Albania in some cases until the arrival of Islam.

At the end of the book, change has come to the Ottoman Empire and Albania. In order to subdue the Mirdita tribe, the young turks release their long lost prince to them. At the ceremony where the Mirdita people welcome their prince, their Abbot announces that soon there will be a cessation of blood feuds in that region. Crimes will be handled by the police and the government. The people, accustomed to personally avenging any wrongs against them violently, are at a loss regarding how they can make the transition to this new system. They look to their returned prince who confirms the abbot’s decree.  They ask “how is a man to keep his honor clean if he might not shoot?” and claim “it is better to die than to live dishonoured.”

In a similar way that those Mirdite people were challenged to change rom a system of blood feuds to one of a more formal and impersonal justice, modern Albanians are challenged to change from a culture of corruption to one with fairness and transparency in government. Corruption in the form of bribes, political hiring, and political favors/ vengeance cripples modern Albania’s economy and political development. The main obstacle, it seems to me, is that those who are in power use corruption to maintain their power. Those who would give up corrupt practices voluntarily will weaken themselves because their political rivals will harbor no qualms using corrupt practices to gain power. The populace will have to vote in the interests of the Albanian nation, rather than vote for the party who will simply, for example, give them a job. It is a paradigm shift and it is hard to transfer from one system to another because ways of thinking are hard to change. Let’s not forget blood feuds are, after all, still a problem in 2014.

In sum, “High Albania” is an enjoyable must-read for any Albanianist. The book is available for free in a number of formats.

For some funny folk lore from the book, see my post here.

 

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2 responses to “Why You Should Read “High Albania” by Edith Durham

  1. Pingback: 3 Folk Tales from Edith Durham’s “High Albania” | dude, where's my gomar?·

  2. I’m glad you’ve made a proper observation of our approach to religion. I’ve discussed with plenty of foreigners on the internet who think all sorts of weird things about our approach to religion.

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