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Robert Elsie and Antonia Young

Berit Backer. Behind stone walls
Changing household organization among the Albanians of Kosova.
Edited by Robert Elsie and Antonia Young,
with an introduction and photographs by Ann Christine Eek

Dukagjini Balkan Books

ISBN 9951-05-024-7
Dukagjini, Peja 2003
304 pp.


    'Behind Stone Walls' is a sociological, or more specifically, a social anthropological study of traditional Albanian society. It focusses, in particular, on the formation and evolution of household and family structures among the Kosova Albanians and was written on the basis of field work carried out by the author in the village of Isniq in western Kosova in 1975. The study provides the reader with a fascinating glimpse into an exotic world which will soon belong to the past, as the author predicted.
    Of all the phenomena which the 'tribal' society and heroic culture of the Kosova Albanians produced in the past, few have been regarded as more unusual than the family structure itself, characterized by a strongly patriarchal hierarchy and an extended family, with typically up to 50 members living in one family compound or indeed under one roof. This type of family structure, known to anthropologists commonly by the Serbian term 'zadruga,' still occurs in Kosova today, though in a more sporadic fashion than it did thirty years ago. In the other parts of the southern Balkans it has long since disappeared.
    Up to the 1970s, the Kosova Albanians lived in relative isolation from the rest of Europe and, despite the open nature of Yugoslav socialism, their traditional society had not been affected in any major way by globalization. The mid-1970s, however, marked a period in which Yugoslav gastarbeiters in Germany and Switzerland - many Kosova Albanians - were returning home and bringing back not only money but also new ideas.
    The author of this book, the late Norwegian anthropologist Berit Backer (1947-1993), had the good fortune of penetrating this very foreign, though European culture just before the turning point, i.e. before it was subjected to substantial foreign influence and change. It was a time of relative political stability and social order in Yugoslavia. After years of oppression by the Belgrade authorities, the Albanian population of Kosova had finally been given a modicum of autonomy and official equality with the other peoples of the Yugoslav federation. This period was brought to an end by the Albanian uprising of 1981, which signalled the beginning of the slow and irreversible demise of Yugoslavia.
    'Behind Stone Walls' was first submitted as a masters thesis to the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo in Norway in April 1979, but was never made available to the public at large. Berit Backer was a great friend of the Albanian people and, during the 1980s, became a leading human rights activist, in particular in defence of the cause and rights of the Kosova Albanians. Her activities on behalf of the International Helsinki Federation and her active support of Kosova Albanian refugees in Norway made it impossible for her to find time to prepare a definitive form for the publication of the thesis during her lifetime.
    Since her untimely death in Oslo on 7 March 1993, many people have expressed an interest in the publication of this work. For this reason, the editors agreed to prepare the present edition even though they were, alas, unable to consult the author herself. It is possible that, had the project been discussed with her, the author might have made substantial alterations, amendments, omissions or additions to the original manuscript. The present, somewhat revised version omits many of the graphs and charts of the original thesis as well as much material of purely economic and statistical concern. Readers particularly interested in the economic aspects of Kosova village life in the period are advised to consult the original typescript, of which a number of copies are in circulation.
    'Behind Stone Walls' offers much food for thought to anyone interested in the structures of traditional Albanian and Balkan society. It is hoped that through this publication, marking the tenth anniversary of the author's tragic murder, the memory of Berit Backer will live on.

Robert Elsie
Olzheim, Germany
Christmas 2002


  • Preface
  • Berita - the Norwegian Friend of the Albanians
    by Ann Christine Eek
    Family and household
    Family - types, stages, forms
    Demographic processes in Isniq
    Data collection
    Once upon a time
    Going to Isniq
    First impressions
    Sources of income and professions
    Traditional adaptation
    The household: distribution in space
    Household organization
    Household structure
    Positions in the household
    The household as an economic unit
    Ashtu është ligji - such are the rules
    The so-called Albanian tribal society
    The fis
    The bajrak
    Economic conditions
    Land, labour and surplus in Isniq
    The political economy of the patriarchal family or
    the patriarchal mode of reproduct
    The traditional social structure: blood
    The branch of milk - the female negative of male positive structure
    Crossing family boundaries - male and female interaction
    Dajet - mother's brother in Kosova
    The formal political organization
    Pleqësia again
    Division of power between partia and pleqësia
    The patriarchal triangle
    The process of the split
    Reactions to division in the family
    Love and marriage
    The phenomenon of Sworn Virgins and the future of sex roles
  • Glossary of Albanian terms used in this book
  • Bibliography
  • Photos
    by Ann Christine Eek

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