An afternoon in Ohrid

Friday, December 3, 2010

Albanian History

I met a man the other day who had fought in the 2001 conflict for the Balli Kombetar. Balli Kombetar means Forehead of the People and was a resistance group in WWII, but it is the name of the group that fought in 2001 to unify Albania back to the borders it had from 1941-1943. In WWII they collaborated with the Nazis because they were afraid that the allies would give territories back to Bulgaria and Serbia, which is, in a way, exactly what happened - except it was to Yugoslavia. The partisans under Enver Hozha and Tito allied with the Allies, and thus we ended up with both Albania and Yugoslavia under communism. Anyway, the article I was reading referenced an ancient set of laws that guided the Balli Kombetar, the Kunan of Lek, and I was intrigued.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Wikipedia had a reference to the Kunan of Lek. It is a set of laws that governed all parts of Albanian life, and probably started around the 9th century. In the early 1400's a minister under Skenderbeg, the Albanian hero who fought the Turks, brought all the laws together under one legal umbrella, and the Kunan of Lek Kukagjini was born. The laws governed all parts of Albanian life, and were passed down orally generation after generation until the Albanian alphabet was developed in 1912, when it finally was written. What is so interesting to me is that much of Albanian life and their customs reflect the Kunan, and it explains so much.

The Kanun is based on four pillars:

I realize now how I insulted the honor of my host dad by carrying my dishes to the sink. As a guest in his house, I was a member of the family, and women over 60 are not supposed to do anything but be tended by the daughters in the house. When I continued to put my dishes in the sink, I violated his honor. Houses are built they way they are both because extended family/kin loyalty is so important and because part of the kanun defined the ways to conduct blood feuds. Blood feuds were a part of society - if one's honor was offended by another man badly enough, you had to kill him, and if someone killed your relative, you had to kill them back. But there were definite rules - a man could not be killed in his home, thus homes were built as compounds with big walls around them. There were ways of getting safe passage for awhile - oaths called besas, and sometimes it was possible to mediate or buy your way out of a blood feud, but many went on for generations.

The gender roles were strictly defined. Only men could carry weapons, and women essentially belonged to their husbands families. Marriage was arranged - this predated Islam and held true for Catholics as well. When a woman married, it was custom that the bride's family give the groom a bullet, so that if she cheated on him he could shoot her with her family's blessing. Countries were defined by common language and heritage - one of the reasons that it is difficult for Albanians to identify themselves as anything but Albanians - never Macedonian or Montenegran.

Hospitality is huge here - if you are accepted into an Albanian's home you are treated like a king or queen. It is one of the reasons that Albania was the only Nazi occupied country in WWII that ended up with a larger Jewish population after the war than before the war - not only did they protect their few Jewish citizens but with their commandment to help the weak and helpless they accepted a number of Jews seeking asylum into their country.

It is fascinating to me to see how an oral tradition handed down over the centuries still has such a strong hold, probably largely unconscious, on the culture of Albania. But then it makes me wonder - how many unconscious ancient customs do we act out - things handed down generations ago from England, Germany, and other ancestral homes?


  1. Hi, I like that bit about the women over 60 can be served and as it should be. In this country we are last to go thru the buffet line at Thanksgiving and our families want US to cook and serve them.
    I also like the respect of not killing people in their home. You should be able to feel safe in your own home.
    All of our culture is almost gone. It is fine to leave and not say "goodbye" to people. People never cook for each other anymore and if they do then it is "help yourself" maybe I am just in the wrong circles.
    Very interesting post Candy, love ya b

  2. Fascinating. A mix of "what a beautiful custom" and "no thank you". With the children taking off (to the cities or other countries), it will be interesting to see how these cultural mores evolve. Here's what I'd like: keep the hospitality and some of the honor,continue serving all women over 60 and be nicer to women under 60, and find a less violent way of resolving disputes. One ongoing debate about the nature of culture: is it more an ahistorical seamless whole that somehow persists regardless of individuals and conditions or is culture more a thing of bits and pieces where the bits and pieces may be connected but don't have to be - therefore, tinkering and change is possible.