Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

VIII. The Albanians

3. Customs and Feudalism
 

Two-thirds of the Albanians have embraced Islam. Everywhere throughout Turkey they are to be found filling high office in the civil and military services. The present Grand Vizier is an Albanian. The Sultan's palace guard consists of Albanians. At court, in the general staff, and in every konak of the provinces they are to be found. At home they are bribed with decorations, or permitted to sate their appetite for power and wealth by holding ranks in the police and the gendarmerie. The wealthier beys farm the taxes, and to that extent have an interest in the continuance of corruption. And yet they remain a race apart from the Turks and profoundly hostile to them. There is no community of blood between them, and even in their mosques the barrier between East and West divides them. For the Albanian is essentially a European a European of the Middle Ages. Alone of all races in Turkey, he has an hereditary aristocracy and a feudal system. Islam, among Eastern peoples, is everywhere a leveller. It obliterates birth and race. A labourer may rise to be a Pasha, and it is no rare sight to see a negro in officer's uniform commanding white troops. But the Albanians have kept their pride of birth. The Ghegs are organised in clans, which obey none but their hereditary chiefs. Even among the much more civilised Tosks of the South, wealth and rank count for little, and the poorest and youngest bey of an old family will claim precedence in public over the most venerable nouveau riche. The marriage customs of the Turks make no account of social distinctions. A Turk will marry some Georgian or Circassian slave. The Albanians who became Moslems have remained strict monogamists. [1] They never marry outside their own race and their own rank. A marriage with a wealthy Greek woman or an Albanian girl of new family is held to be a mésalliance. The mixing of

1. The only exception is that a childless wife will sometimes introduce a concubine for the purpose of perpetuating the race. But it is always understood that she herself must choose this second wife.


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blood which has resulted in the virtual extinction of the old Turkish stock in Stamboul is utterly unknown in Albania, and the primitive structure of society has remained unmodified by the conquest. In some sort, too, the Albanians have preserved the European attitude towards women. In certain districts the woman receives as the hostess, and even goes unveiled to market. No Albanian will fire at a woman, and even a man who travels with a woman is safe from attack. On the other hand, it must be confessed that the peasant women are little more than beasts of burden. The man's business is with the rifle, the woman does the work, and this doubtless explains why in Albania it is the man who must purchase the wife and not the wife who must find a dowry. But above all, it is in his conception of courage and his sense of adventure that the Albanian differs from the Turk. The Turk of to-day makes a good soldier, but that does not imply that he is really warlike. He is a man who can stand in ranks and obey commands. He will follow his officers with unquestioning obedience, make light of hardship, and fight with superb obstinacy on the defensive. But he has not the Albanian passion for movement and danger. He does not live to win praises for his courage as the Albanian does. He is stupid and unimaginative, and his courage is deficient in dash and aggressiveness. The Albanian, on the other hand, is a born fighter, who cares for no other distinction. It is true that he reverences birth, and has for authority all the respect of patriarchal times. Before the head of a family the younger members seem speechless and will-less, and a man's younger brothers will hardly dare to smoke in his presence unbidden. But far more powerful than this reverence for birth is the respect accorded to courage. Bravery is thought the best title for command, and the young men of a clan or village form themselves into parties, which sustain the rival claims of local heroes. Every spirited boy goes abroad in search of adventure, and one hardly knows whether to compare them to the knight-errants of the Middle Ages or to the head-hunters of the Malay Peninsula. Before he reaches the age of sixteen every lad


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is expected, in the more primitive districts, to obtain a complete set of arms by open robbery, and it is held to be more honourable to capture them far afield, beyond the confines of Albania.

In many tribes marriage by capture is still the only recognised institution. The Mirdites, for example, nominal Catholics, still obtain their wives by raiding the neighbouring Moslem clans. The modern Albanian has the same sentiment about his rifle that the mediaeval knight had about his sword. It is scarcely decent to go abroad without it. Even in Biglishta, on the confines of settled country inhabited by Slavs, I have seen the Albanians carrying their arms in the market-place and passed them ploughing in the fields with their rifles slung over their shoulders. Life is everywhere cheap in the Balkans, but west of the Pindus it loses even the poor value that belongs to it in Macedonia. Murder is reprobated only where it may lead to an inconvenient vendetta. To kill a stranger is barely an offence against prudence, and certainly no moral code forbids it. In some districts the loss of a kinsman is regarded as lightly as the murder of a stranger, and in one group of villages at least, etiquette forbids lamentation over the death of a fighting-man. His mother or his wife receives the friend who comes to offer her sympathy, with Spartan recitals of the dead man's deeds and with eulogies upon his courage, instead of the conventional wailing which is customary in most regions of the Balkan Peninsula. A life that is so full of accident and of perils faced with defiant joy inevitably breeds a certain stoicism.

There has grown out of this perpetual state of war an institution more curious and characteristic than the anarchy which it tempers the Albanian code of honour. In the absence of religious restraints or of Governmental interference it is obvious that this perpetual riot of violence must very soon have rendered life intolerable, if indeed it had not ended in the extermination of the Albanians themselves. To check these consequences a system of unwritten custom has grown up among the tribes, which limits and prescribes the right to kill. The Middle Ages


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in Europe invented the Treva Dei, which forbade murder during four days of the week. The Albanian plan is more usually to observe a close time during the greater part of the hours of daylight. Two clans which are in feud will agree to lay the rifle aside until within an hour or half an hour of sunset. This enables them to get through the ordinary business of the day in peace. The cattle are driven in a little earlier than usual, and the damage which can be done between the end of the close time and the fall of night is thus moderated and restricted to what is thought to be a reasonable limit. Usage invests such truces as this with an extraordinary sanctity. Equally sacred is the right of asylum, and a murderer who takes refuge even with a kinsman of the man he has slain, is safe beneath the roof which has sheltered him. This idea of truce, or the oath which sanctifies it, is known as the bessa, a word which gradually comes to cover any relationship of fealty or trust. No idea plays so large a part in the life of an Albanian, and it seems to have developed into something that deserves the name of a sense of honour. And if in general this wild life of brigandage and vendetta has created a state of society of which homo homini lupus would be the aptest description, it also leads to ties of friendship which introduce a structure of loyalty into the general chaos. The clan is as homogeneous and devoted as it was in the Highlands of Scotland. Kinship is jealously reckoned and highly valued. An Albanian of good family, for example, will offer a traveller, who is his friend, introductions to a legion of relatives scattered from north to south, few of whom he has ever seen, but all of whom he assumes to be ready to serve him when the occasion offers. There is too an institution of blood-brotherhood, which is also found among some of the Slavs of Macedonia. Friends who have taken the oaths and performed the simple rites of this bond are brothers and allies for life, and are even held to be so closely connected that they must not intermarry in each others families. These primitive traits belong to a level of social development little higher than that of the Pathans and Afghans.


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There is a picturesque side to this life of rapine and bloodshed. If Albania had been better known at the time of the Romantic reaction it would have become a place of pilgrimage and the fountain of much inspiration. It is all neither better nor worse than the wilder parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. The country of the Mirdites, who have preserved not only the feudal system but the Catholic religion, must offer a very fair replica of the condition of the Scottish Highlands, for example, at any period before the Reformation. The system at least breeds men, creatures of superb physique, who lead vivid lives, and mitigate their savagery by a courage and a chivalry which extort an admiration that may easily run into an extreme. They are Nietzsche's over-men, these primitive Albanians something between kings and tigers. Their present way of life dooms them to a degree of poverty which is a perpetual spur to oppression. Commerce is impossible, and labour is held in small honour, and the inevitable consequence is that sheer hunger drives the northern clans year by year over their borders to prey on their laborious Slavonic neighbours. Some tribes go abroad to work the Liaps, for example, frequent Constantinople. Others, especially during the past two centuries, have gradually spread themselves over the fertile plains beyond their original mountain haunts, becoming semi-civilised in the process. Scattered Albanian villages are to be found all over the vilayet of Monastir, and some of these settlements date from no more than forty years ago. But neither the annual migrations of labourers nor the permanent settlement of agricultural colonies has done much to modify the habits of the more warlike tribes e.g., the clansmen of Dibra, who are the scourge of the Bulgarians, much as the Kurds are the harrow of Armenia.
 

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