Albania’s Mountain Queen

“Extreme hospitality overwhelms me.” — Edith Durham, speaking about her time in Albania

My awesome friend Val bought me the book “Albania’s Mountain Queen” by Marcus Tanner because she knew I wanted to read it. I never read history books, except for the very occasional historical fiction novel. I am someone who prefers to experience history rather than read about it in books. I’d rather visit Gettysburg than read a book about Gettysburg, for example.

However, after living in the Balkans for nearly two years, I have grown very interested in the history here. Tanner writes about the life of Edith Durham, an Englishwoman who became a passionate crusader for Albanian rights. Durham was born to an upper-middle class English family. While her younger siblings went on to fantastic careers, Durham was something of a late bloomer. She was stuck in England caring for her ailing mother. She hated her life and decided to set out on an adventure, visiting the Balkans in the early 1900s. She went on to become a writer and reporter, urging British politicians to take notice of what was happening in the Balkans. (And so much was going on at the time … the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and different countries were trying to invade each other. I was having a hard time keeping it all straight).

As Winston Churchill once said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

Tanner gives an unflinching look at Durham’s life and influence in the Balkans. At times, I get the feeling he didn’t like her much, though of course he never met her and was writing about her after her death.

Despite not liking history books in general and at times being overwhelmed by the amount of information, I greatly enjoyed this book and learned so much about the history here. It gave me a greater insight into much of my own observations of Kosovo and Albanian culture.

I highlighted a good deal of the book as I was reading. I’d like to share some quotes I found especially note-worthy. Please note that anything in quotes are the words of Marcus Tanner, the book’s author.

On the Albanian language:

“Language … also isolated Albanians from the outside world … the Albanians inhibited a linguistic island and spoke a language that had no close relationship to any Indo-European tongue. Albanian was also split into two very different, usually mutually unintelligible, dialects: Tosk in the south and Geg in the north. Very little was written in the language.”

On religion (April’s note: I found this particularly interesting because I live in a Catholic minority village):

“In 1468 … the Ottomans completed their conquest and most of the population [of Albania] converted to Islam. In the mountains of the north … the Catholic church retained a foothold. The clergy were a poor asset … some were beggars … most did not teach, or appear to know, elementary Christian dogmas.”

On women:

The poet Byron visited Albania and said of the people, “Their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves.” Byron’s companion, Hobhouse, further remarked that “Albanians … treated their women like animals.”

“None of the Albanians [Durham] had met had objected to the choice of wife that had been made for them because they considered all women the same — put on earth only to work and breed.”

On Kosovo:

“Of all the Ottoman vilayets [provinces] in Europe, Kosovo was reckoned the most lawless and dangerous. The Serbs regarded Kosovo with longing as their ancestral homeland, and the feeling of longing was increased by the fact that Kosovo was out of reach, under the thumb of the Ottomans. They wanted it back.”

“Crossing the lawless providence of Kosovo all the way to Peja and Decan in order to gain a more complete picture of Serbian life was a feat of a different order. Peja was one of the few places in the Balkans where Durham ever confessed to having felt afraid.”

(April’s note: I have visited the monastery in Peja.)

On Macedonia:

“[Durham’s landlady in Macedonia] got on Durham’s nerves, creating a fuss when she needed a wash and took a bowl of water up to her room. The Macedonians observed this with suspicion. They rarely washed, and when they did so, conducted the ritual outdoors and with solemn ceremony, one woman pouring a little trickle of water over the hands and face of the other. The women of Macedonia did not remove any of their heavy and elaborate garments for this infrequent event and were alarmed by reports of the action involving bowls of water that was said to be going on in Durham’s bedroom. An even bigger scandal followed when her landlady discovered she slept in a nightgown. Macedonian women slept in the same gear they had worn all day and that they had probably worn all year. The idea of lying in bed, semi-naked, in a flimsy shift, horrified them.”

“The Macedonians’ passive resistance to learning or trying almost anything new got on her nerves. When Durham decided to vaccinate as many of the refugees as possible against smallpox, the refugees wanted nothing to do with it. As she had found out earlier with the affair of the indoor washing bowl, Macedonian women considered it indecent to remove any of their cumbersome drapes, and would not even bare their arms for any inducement.”

Some things never change …

“[Durham] had to avoid the packs of wild dogs that roamed everywhere, attacked strangers and fought until 4 a.m. every night.”

On differences between Albania and Serbia

“Overwhelmingly illiterate, possessing only a handful of schools, without roads that anyone could use in winter, the Albanians were divided along almost every conceivable line.”

“The comparison between Albania and Serbia, which had liberated itself from the Ottomans in the 1830s, spoke for itself … Serbian towns now had electric lighting, decent roads and trams, and were linked by railways, while everywhere phalanxes of uniformed school children were to be seen marching off to school.”

On Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985

“Hoxha had a cosmopolitan background. Born in 1908 to a Muslim family of land-owners and cloth merchants … [he was educated in France, and traveled Europe surviving on family money]. He was also intellectually superior to most of his Eastern European comrades. His belief in his own superior knowledge fixed in him a determination to become the Soviet bloc’s ultimate pedagogue. This was a task he never laid down and in the pursuit of which he created the most paranoid and xenophobic regime in Eastern Europe.”

“Hoxha’s goal was … to extirpate religious belief and practice … Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state. Not even China had gone that far.”

“In April 1985, Eastern Europe’s longest serving leader [Hoxha] died of diabetes.” The book notes the positives Hoxha’s leadership brought, including increasing the literacy rate, creating railroads, providing electricity even in remote villages, and a rise in overall life expectancy. But … “the population paid a high price …” There were labor camps, the death penalty could be handed down for 34 different offenses, and whole families were punished for the crime of one member.

In reference to Albania during the Cold War years: “The west … all but ignored the country. Occasional reports referred in a semi-jokey fashion to a ‘hermit kingdom,’ as if it were some kind of Shangri-La, not a boot camp. The Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia were preoccupied by their own struggles inside Yugoslavia, and some romanticized the situation in Albania. When the Albanians of Yugoslavia were finally able to cross the border, many were shocked by what they found there.”

enver hoxha house tirana albania
Enver Hoxha’s former residence in Tirana, Albania, as it looks today

On Durham’s life and legacy

“Edith Durham never returned to Albania, or to anywhere else in the Balkans. She was only in her late fifties but her health had been damaged beyond repair by years spent in Albania in all weathers. Now lame and in constant pain from sciatica, she found travel difficult. Almost a quarter-century of life lay ahead of her, but for the rest of it she was often housebound.”

“Over the border in Kosovo, Durham’s name and likeness made an equally sudden reappearance. She was less associated with Kosovo than northern Albania. After all, she had been Queen of the Mountains, not Queen of the Kosovo plain.” (April’s note: Funny to hear Kosovo referred to as a “plain.” This Midwesterner thinks of Kosovo as being mountainous. But anyway … ) Her denunciations of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in the 1920s ensured that she had a following there, too … as power finally passed into the hands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.”

edith durham street pristina kosovo
Edith Durham street in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo courtesy of Chester Eng.

On the region today

“[Durham] had not wanted Albania to remain a fossil and she had not idealized the traditional Albanian way of life. She had always been appalled by the poverty, dirt and disease, and by the stupider superstitions. She had condemned the custom of taking child brides and perpetuating blood feuds, and she had deplored the lack of education. What she did not care for in the new Albania was … a tendency in certain traditional societies to lose their equilibrium and ape the cheapest aspects of western society.”

“Whether Durham would recognize much of today’s Albania, or Kosovo, is another question. Pristina [Kosovo’s capital] and Tirana [Albania’s capital] are alike in their embrace of flashy modernity and apparent indifference to history. ”

I disagree with Tanner’s statement here. While it is true that Pristina and Tirana are westernized cities, anyone traveling to one of Kosovo or Albania’s villages (or anyone living in a village, like me) will notice many customs and traditions that are stuck in the past. Even Tanner himself notes that: “Many men still expect to marry virgins, and there are still a few ‘sworn virgins‘ around. The code of blood vengeance lingers on in the form of honor killings.”

(I once had a Kosovar man tell me he wanted to marry a woman who hadn’t had a previous boyfriend, even if she was still a virgin. Good luck with that, buddy!)

A take-away

I have visited Tirana, Albania a number of times and I love the beauty of Albania and the richness of its capital city. It is shocking to remember that as little as thirty years ago, no one was able to cross its border, either going out or coming in. Albania has long been a remote part of the world, first because of its inaccessibility due to its mountains and poor roads, and later due to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. I feel lucky I have been able to visit there.

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