Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck
Lightning from the Depths:
Geographically, Albania has always been at the crossroads of empires and civilizations even though it has often been isolated from the mainstream of European history. For centuries in ancient times, it formed the political, military and cultural border between East and West, that is, between the Roman Empire of the western Mediterranean including much of the northern Balkans, and the Greek Empire of the eastern Mediterranean including the southern Balkans. In the Middle Ages, Albania was once again a buffer zone, this time between Catholic Italy and the Byzantine Greek Empire. Later, after its definitive conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, it formed a bridgehead between Christian Europe and the Islamic Orient. As a geographical and cultural entity, and as a nation, Albania has always been somewhat enigmatic and misunderstood. In the eighteenth century, historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) described it as a land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America. The spirit of this quotation has lost surprisingly little of its validity over the last two centuries. Bordering on Greece and what was once Yugoslavia, and less than one hundred kilometers from the southern Italian coast, Albania has until very recently been no better known to most other Europeans than Tibet or Timbuktu.
The Albanians are among the oldest inhabitants of southeastern Europe, having lived in that rugged, mountainous terrain since ancient times. Their presence has been documented for about a thousand years, but their roots go back much further. A great deal of speculation has been offered about their origins, in particular by the Albanians themselves who are passionately interested in tracing their roots and in establishing their autochthony in the Balkans. Despite this, nothing has been proven conclusively. What we can say with reasonable certainty is that there is no evidence indicating that the Albanians immigrated to their present homeland in the southwest Balkans from anywhere else. As such, it may be safely assumed that they are indigenous to the region, as opposed to their Slavic neighbors who invaded the Balkans from the north in the sixth and seventh centuries. In view of this autochthony, it can also be taken for granted that the Albanians are, in some form, descendants of the ancient peoples of the southern Balkans. To what extent they are the direct heirs of the Illyrians, the Dardanians, the Thracians, the Bessians, some lesser-known people, or a mixture thereof, is a matter which has been much discussed and to which substantial controversy has been attached from the earliest writings on the subject in the eighteenth century right to the present. It is particularly difficult to fathom the genesis of a people from the Balkan Peninsula, a place that has baffled scholars from Herodotus to recent generations of history students trying to sort out the Balkan wars.
Unfortunately, we possess no original documents from the first millennium A.D. that could help us trace the Albanians further back into history. They were nomadic tribes in the interior of the peninsula that seem only rarely to have ventured down onto the marshy and mosquito-infected coastline. As such, they long went unnoticed and their early history is thus shrouded in mist. An account of the Albanians must best depart from the moment they entered the annals of recorded history. The first references to them date from the eleventh century, a period in which these tribes were beginning to expand their settlements and consolidate as a people and as a nation. It is only in this age that we may speak with any degree of clarity about an Albanian people as we know them today. Their traditional designation, based on a root *alban- and its rhotacized variants *arban-, *albar-, and *arbar- first appears from the eleventh century onwards in Byzantine chronicles (Albanoi, Arbanitai, Arbanites), and from the fourteenth century onwards in Latin and other Western documents (Albanenses, Arbanenses).
With time, as well as with innate vigor, unconscious persistence and much luck, they came to take their place among the nation states of Europe. However, even in the twenty-first century, the term “nation state of Europe” may seem inappropriate for the Albanians. Their life and their culture are those of a developing country, of a third-world nation struggling for survival in every sense of the word. In material terms, they have been deprived of all but the bare essentials needed to stay alive. Indeed, the historical, political, economic and cultural development of the Albanians has been so arduous that those who know them well, can do little but marvel at how they have managed to survive as a people at all.
The Albanian Language
The Albanian language, an Indo-European idiom now spoken by about seven million people in the Balkans and in the diaspora, is divided into two basic dialect groups: Gheg in the north and Tosk in the south. The Shkumbin River in central Albania, flowing past Elbasan into the Adriatic, forms the approximate border between the two groups. The Gheg dialect group is characterized by the presence of nasal vowels, by the retention of the older “n” for Tosk “r” (e.g. Gheg venë “wine” for Tosk verë, Gheg Shqypnia “Albania” for Tosk Shqipëria) and by several distinct morphological features. The modern literary language (Alb. gjuha letrare), agreed upon, though not without political pressure, in 1972, is a combination of the two dialect groups, but based to about 80 percent on Tosk. It is now a widely accepted standard both in Albania, Kosova and Macedonia, although there have been attempts recently to revive literary Gheg.
In addition to three million speakers in Albania itself, the Albanian language is also spoken by two to three million individuals in what was once Yugoslavia. The Albanian population is to be found primarily in Kosova (Kosovo) with its capital Prishtina. In Kosova, the Albanians now make up about 87 percent of the population, the other ca. 13 percent being primarily BCS, Turkish and Roma speakers. The mother tongue of most Kosovar Albanians is a northeastern Gheg dialect, though the majority of publications here, as in Albania, are now in standard literary Albanian. In the southern Republic of Macedonia, Albanian speakers make up about a quarter of the total population. The Macedonian capital Skopje, which has one of the largest Albanian populations of any city on earth, serves as a secondary centre for Albanian publishing and culture, though it is less important than Prishtina itself, which can now vie with Tirana in every way as a focal point of Albanian literary and cultural activity and as a publishing center for Albanian literature. A substantial minority of Albanian speakers (about 8 percent) is also to be found in the Republic of Montenegro, mostly along the Albanian border, e.g. in the regions of Gucia/Gusinje and Plava/Plav in the mountains, Tuz/Tuzi south of Podgorica (formerly Titograd) and Ulqin/Ulcinj on the southern coast. There are, in addition, Albanian speakers throughout southern Serbia and indeed in virtually all other regions of the former Yugoslav federation, many of whom migrated from the economically destitute Kosova region to the more affluent republics of the north (Croatia and Slovenia) in search of freedom, jobs and a better standard of living.
A surprise to many is the existence of a traditional Albanian minority in southern Italy, the so-called Arbëresh. They are the descendants of refugees who fled Albania after the death of Skanderbeg (George Castrioti) in 1468. Due to a more favorable social and political environment than that existing in the Balkans, the Arbëresh were able to make a decisive contribution to the evolution of Albanian literature and to the nationalist movement in the nineteenth century. Older Albanian literature is indeed to a large extent Arbëresh literature. As a linguistic minority, the Arbëresh now consist of about twenty thousand active speakers, most of whom live in the mountain villages of Cosenza in Calabria and in the vicinity of Palermo in Sicily. Their language is moribund due to the strong cultural influence of Italian and to economic emigration. It is extremely archaic and differs substantially from the Albanian now spoken in the Balkans. Communication is difficult if Arbëresh speakers are not familiar with standard literary Albanian.
In Greece, the sizeable stratum of Albanians who populated much of central and southern Greece in the Middle Ages has been largely assimilated. The old Albanian language there, known in Greek as Arvanitika, can nonetheless still be heard in about 320 villages, primarily those of Boeotia (especially around Levadhia), southern Euboea, Attica, Corinth and the Peloponnese, and northern Andros. No official statistics exist as to the number of speakers since the language does not enjoy any official status. Arvanitika, which is dying out rapidly, is thought to be the most archaic form of Albanian spoken today.
A large Albanian community still exists in Turkey (Istanbul, Bursa and elsewhere). The ranks of these Ottoman Albanians were swelled by an estimated 230,000 Yugoslav Albanians who were expelled from their native land between 1953 and 1966 and forced to emigrate to Turkey.
Finally, Albanian speakers in varying numbers are to be encountered among the migrant workers of Europe, in particular in Greece, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, and now in the traditional countries of immigration, the United States (New York, Boston, Detroit) and Canada (Toronto), and to a lesser extent in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
Compared to the other national languages of Europe, Albanian does not enjoy a long literary tradition. In fact, it was the last national language of Europe to establish a written tradition. Nor was the establishment of a literary culture in Albania ever an easy task, though not for want of artistic endeavor and creative impulses. All too often the tempestuous course of Albanian history has nipped the flowers of Albanian literature in the bud and severed the roots of intellectual culture.
However, poetry has been an integral part of the life of the Albanians for centuries. Even today, the poet is a highly respected figure in Albanian society, and rare is the intellectual who has not tried his hand at verse.
The earliest poetry written and recorded in Albanian dates from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and had a primarily religious focus. It was composed by authors who were raised in the traditions of the Catholic Church, for the most part not in Albania itself, but in Italy. The earliest poem that we know of, written in 1592, was by an Italo-Albanian cleric from Sicily, Lekë Matrënga, who had probably never been to Albania at all. Other early authors, like Pjetër Budi and Pjetër Bogdani, who were from the Balkans though they published their works in Italy, wrote verse of primarily religious inspiration, and had evident difficulty putting their rough, unpolished idiom to paper. The traditions of Albanian verse in Italy were later furthered by the Albanian minority living in the mountains of Calabria and Sicily.
In Albania itself, the early tradition of Catholic poetry might have provided a foundation for literary creativity in the age of the Counter-Reformation under the somewhat ambiguous patronage of the Catholic Church, had not the banners of Islam soon been unfurled on the eastern horizon, and tiny Albania been destined to bear the full brunt of the Turkish invasion in the late fourteenth century. Subsequently, the majority of the Albanian population converted to Islam. The Ottoman colonization of Albania which had begun as early as 1385 was to split the country into three spheres of culture, all virtually independent of one another: (1) the cosmopolitan traditions of the Islamic Orient using initially Turkish, Persian and Arabic as their media of literary expression, and later employing Albanian in a stylized Aljamiado literature, the so-called poetry of the Bejtexhinj, (2) the lingering Byzantine heritage of Greek Orthodoxy in southern Albania which produced a number of religious and scholarly works in Greek script in the eighteenth century, and (3) the awakening culture and literature of the Arbëresh in southern Italy, nourished by a more favorable social, political and economic climate and by the fertile intellectual soil of Italian civilization.
A new poetic culture arose and flourished within the Muslim tradition. While the Ottoman Empire, with its centralist organization and power base focused on Istanbul, left Albania the cultural and political backwater it had been beforehand, Ottoman Turkish culture, which was to reach its zenith during the Tulip Age of the eighteenth century, penetrated the country thoroughly. Southern and central Albanian cities like Berat and Elbasan with their newly constructed fortifications, mosques and medresas became provincial centers of oriental learning and indeed experienced something of a cultural renaissance under Islam, as did the northern towns of Shkodra, Gjakova and Prizren. Wandering poets, minstrels and scholars enjoyed the patronage of local governors and pashas as they did throughout Asia Minor. Nezim Frakulla and Hasan Zyko Kamberi are excellent examples of this tradition. Of all the periods of Albanian writing, however, that of the Muslim tradition remains the least known, both by specialists and by the Albanian reading public. Many manuscripts have not yet been transcribed as there is a conspicuous dearth of experts qualified to deal with this literature on a scholarly basis.
The stable foundations of an Albanian national literature were finally laid in the second half of the nineteenth century with the rise of the nationalist movement striving for autonomy within a decaying Ottoman Empire. The literature of this so-called Rilindja (“Rebirth”) period of national awakening was one of romantic nationalism and provides an excellent key to an understanding of the Albanian mentality. The Albanians were striving for the consolidation of their ethnic and cultural identity within the vast Ottoman Empire, and this set them on the course to aspire to independence. Poets such as Pashko Vasa and Naim bey Frashëri stirred feelings of nationhood and ethnic assertiveness with their verse - works known and recited by Albanians even today. As so often in the history of Albanian literature, the very act of writing in Albanian constituted an act of defiance against the foreign powers ruling the country or dominating it culturally. Indeed, the Sublime Porte regarded most Albanian cultural and educational activity as subversive, and as such, saw fit to ban Albanian-language schools and the publication of all books and periodicals in Albanian. With no access to education in their own language, only a small minority of Albanians could hope to break through the barriers to intellectual thought and literary creativity.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Catholic education facilities set up by the Jesuits and Franciscans in Shkodra under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Kultusprotektorat paved the way for the creation of an intellectual elite in Albania which in turn produced the rudiments of a more sophisticated literature that expressed itself primarily in verse.
Albania finally attained independence in 1912. The struggle for nation building had ended, and Albanian became the official language of the new country. The poets of the early twentieth century were now able to use their talents for purely aesthetic endeavors rather than as a vehicle for nationalist struggle. Independent Albania soon developed a solid literature with a broad range of pleasurable and interesting poets. Among them, in particular, was the talented Franciscan pater Gjergj Fishta, lauded intermittently as the national poet of Albania, who, in 1937, had finished the definitive version of his stirring national epic, The Highland Lute.
Modern Albanian poetry can be said to date from the 1930s. It begins its course with two poets in particular: Migjeni and Lasgush Poradeci. Migjeni (acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla) from Shkodra, who died of tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-six, was one of the first poets to abandon the long-standing tradition of romantic nationalism in Albanian verse. His poetry, collected in the slender volume Free Verse (Vargjet e Lira), is characterized by a strong social ethic, not of pity for the poor, but of outrage against injustice and oppression. Lasgush Poradeci from the town of Pogradec on Lake Ohrid, on the other hand, who had very little in common with his contemporaries - the romantic Asdreni, the political Fan Noli or the messianic Migjeni - imbued Albanian letters with an exotic element of pantheistic mysticism, introducing what he called the metaphysics of creative harmony. Although he remained an outsider, his stylistic finesse was decisive in enriching and diversifying Albanian poetic meters. Migjeni and Lasgush Poradeci had liberated Albanian verse from the traditions of the past and had taken it to unprecedented heights. This modest golden age, however, was soon to come to an abrupt end.
The flourishing literature of pre-war Albania was swept away by the political revolution which took place in the country during and after the Second World War and was replaced by a radically proletarian and socialist literature. However, the heavy-handed application of the literary doctrine of socialist realism, introduced and made obligatory by 1949, and the intimidation and terror exerted upon writers and intellectuals by the new Stalinist regime created the opposite of what the doctrine intended - a cultural vacuum that lasted for over two decades. The results of this oppressive period of fear and stagnation can still be felt today. Few works of sustaining aesthetic value were produced or published in Albania in the following years, although a handful of writers, some of whom, like Martin Camaj, in exile, managed to produce works of stunning beauty.
When the communists came to power in 1944 under Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), substantial efforts were nonetheless made for the first time to provide the broad masses of the population with basic education. The post-war mass literacy campaign constituted a revolution in itself, and paved the way for a real national literature that could encompass all strata of society. In order to appreciate the reasons for the comparatively late blossoming of a written literature in Albania, one must keep in mind the fact that up to the 1950s, 80 percent of the population of the country, including virtually all the women, was illiterate. The twentieth century arrived late in Albania.
Despite the dictatorship, Albanian poetry managed to evolve. By the 1960s, writers had learned to wrap the requisite political messages and propaganda in innovative layers of aesthetics, endeavoring to appease the exasperation of the reading public. The foundations for this new literature were laid by a fresh generation of writers in search of something new, led by Fatos Arapi (b. 1930), Dritëro Agolli (b. 1931) and Ismail Kadare (b. 1936).
Albanian authors in Kosova and Macedonia also began writing in this period, and what they published, more than anything else, was lyric poetry. The extreme political divergence between Yugoslavia and Albania which erupted in 1948 made it evident to Kosova Albanians from the start that they could not look to Tirana for more than moral support in culture and education. The preservation and fostering of Albanian culture in Yugoslavia under often hostile conditions was of necessity to be the concern of Yugoslav Albanians themselves. Similar to the situation in Albania, the formidable problems posed by widespread illiteracy and dire poverty among the Albanians in Kosova were substantially compounded substantially by an unwillingness on the part of the Serbian authorities in Belgrade for many years to give the Albanians access to education and cultural facilities in their own language. After much delay, full cultural autonomy was first achieved under the constitution of 1974, but in 1990, Kosova lost its limited autonomy and freedom and was placed under direct Serbian military occupation. In 1999, the international community finally liberated Kosova from dictatorship after a decade of fear and oppression under the Milošević regime.
Though lacking the richer literary traditions of Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian, the literature of the Kosova Albanians evolved rapidly and is now just as dynamic as that of other parts of the Balkans. Unburdened by the ideological constraints imposed on literature and culture in Tirana during the Stalinist regime, the literature of Kosova was able to flourish free of dogma, and maintain a certain defiance. Thus, with regard to the diversity and expressiveness of its poets, in some respects it surpassed that of Albania itself.
Whether written in Albania, Kosova or elsewhere, Albanian literature is young and dynamic, reflecting a culture quite unique in Europe. But perhaps no European literature has been so neglected by Western readers, a neglect fostered by the lack of translations, of specialists in Albanian, and, in the second half of the twentieth century, by Albania’s political isolation. If Edward Gibbon’s remark about Albania is still valid, the real terra incognita is Albanian literature.
The tender plant of Albanian literature grew in a rocky soil. Time and again it sprouted and blossomed, and, time and again, it was torn out of the earth by the brutal course of political history in the Balkans. The early literature of Christian Albania disappeared under the banners of Islam when the country was forcefully incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The still little-known literature of Muslim Albania withered in the late nineteenth century when the Albanians turned their backs on the Sublime Porte and strove to become an independent European nation. The solid beginnings of modern literature in the 1930s were weeded out ruthlessly by the Stalinist rulers who took power in 1944 and held onto it until 1990. Finally, the literature of Albanian socialist realism, which the Communist regime had created, became outdated, untenable and unwanted the moment the dictatorship collapsed. Nonetheless, this tender plant has produced some stunning blossoms in that rocky and legendary soil, many of which merit the attention of the outside world.
For decades, and until quite recently, more poetry was printed and read in Albania and among the Albanians of the former Yugoslavia than all other literary genres combined. Is there a poet slumbering in every Albanian? Perhaps. Publishing statistics would certainly indicate a strong preference for verse over prose. In Tirana about 40 percent of literary publications in the 1990s were poetry, and in Prishtina at times up to 70 percent, something quite unimaginable in the rational West.
A nation of poets? When impoverished and ill-educated Albanian emigrants and refugees gather in Western Europe or in North America in their often dingy and always smoke-filled clubs, they most often congregate for a poetry reading. It is here that the soul of the Albanian nation finds its expression. Albanian prose of high quality is admittedly a more recent phenomenon, and drama is still a very much neglected genre, but the Albanians have always opened their hearts spontaneously to lyrics.
This anthology is the first of its kind in English to present the full range of Albanian verse, from earliest times to the present day. The collection endeavors to be representative in that it showcases the works of the best-known and most admired poets of the Albanian nation. For the vibrantly prolific contemporary period, admittedly, it can provide no more than a sampling, yet it is to be hoped that this selection will suffice to reveal some of the preoccupations, concerns and dreams of the writers of this fascinating part of southeastern Europe.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Oral Epic Poetry
The Songs of the Frontier Warriors
Early Albanian Verse
Pjeter Budi (1566-1622)
Poetry in the Muslim Tradition
Nezim Frakulla (ca.1680-1760)
Nicola Chetta (1742-1803)
Rilindja and Classical Twentieth-Century Poetry
Pashko Vasa (1825-1892)
Zef Zorba (1920-1993)