Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

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Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

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Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

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Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

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Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

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“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

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“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

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“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

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REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

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and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)

They made Kalashnikovs here…

This  extract from “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” by Adam Yamey describes a part of Albania where much weaponry was manufactured during the Communist era (1944-91).

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“We followed the River Osumi upstream [from Berat], passing an isolated working military camp with camouflaged concrete buildings. The road wound up the valley crossing numerous tributaries of the Osumi. Next to many of these small bridges there were construction sites, which were associated with the building of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. This will carry gas from Kipoi (just east of the Greek city of Alexandropolis) to Seman (a few kilometres north of Vlorë on the Adriatic). From there, it will go under the sea and resurface at the southern Italian coast south east of Lecce. This gas-carrying modern ‘Via Egnatia’ (or maybe it should be called ‘Via Igniter’) will follow the valley of the Osumi, then curve around Berat, before heading westwards towards the sea. It is part of a huge project to transport gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe.

The town of Poliçan was a pleasant surprise. We were expecting to find a drab place because of its industrial heritage. Far from it: Poliçan was a cheerful, vibrant place. We parked at the top end of the sloping triangular piazza named after the large mountain (Tomorr: 2,416 metres), which dominates the area around Berat and Poliçan.  The piazza, is a right-angled triangle in plan. Its two shorter sides were lined with well-restored, freshly painted Communist-era buildings with shops and cafés.  We joined the crowds drinking under colourful umbrellas outside cafés on the Rruga Miqesia, which runs off the piazza towards the town’s cultural centre and Bashkia (both built in the Communist period). It was about 11 am on a working day. There seemed to be many people with sufficient time for sitting leisurely in cafés or just strolling up and down the street. A girl, who ran a mobile ‘phone shop (on her own), sat with friends at a table in a café near to the shop, and only left them if a customer entered her showroom. A long out of date poster on a building advertised a meeting in Tirana for adherents of the Bektashi sect.

Near the upper end of the triangular piazza, there was a new marble monument commemorating Riza Cerova (1896-1935). He was born just south of Poliçan, and became a leading protagonist in the ‘June Revolution’ of 1924, when supporters of Fan Noli forced Ahmed Zogu to flee from Albania. For a brief time, Noli became Albania’s Prime Minister. However, at the end of 1924, aided by the Yugoslavs and Greeks, Zogu made a counter-coup, and then assumed control the country. Soon after this, he had himself crowned ‘King Zog’. Following Noli’s defeat, Cerova joined the German Communist Party, and later returned to Albania where he led anti-Zogist fighters. He died during an encounter with Zog’s forces.

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Poliçan was important during the Communist period. It was home to an enormous arms and ammunition factory, the KM Poliçan, which was opened in 1962. This produced its own versions (the ASH-72 and ASH-82 series) of the Kalashnikov gun as well as other munitions.  The factory lies amidst cultivated terraced fields on the slopes of a natural amphitheatre away from, and beneath, the southern edge of the town. Workers used to approach the factory from the town by a long staircase. We counted at least twenty-five industrial buildings in the complex, many of them with broken or missing windows. None of the numerous rusting ventilators on these edifices were emitting smoke, and there were no signs of life. The slopes surrounding the factory below were dotted with concrete and metal entrances to underground stores and tunnels. During the unrest of 1997, KM Poliçan was temporarily taken over by criminal gangs while the city was in ‘rebel’ hands. The factory is still used, but mainly to de-activate out-of-date Albanian weaponry. It was difficult to imagine that the peaceful scene, which we observed from a track overlooking it, had such an explosive history.

We travelled southwards through cultivated countryside and past occasional forests, always following the sinuous course of the Osumi. At the edge of Çorovodë, the administrative capital of the Skrapar District, we saw a tourist information poster beside a squat hemispherical Hoxha-era concrete bunker. It portrayed an Ottoman era bridge, which we hoped to see later. In the town’s main square, there was a socialist-realism style monument: a pillar topped by a carved group: one woman with three men. One of them was holding a belt of machine gun ammunition. The base of the monument had ‘1942’ carved in large numerals. On the 5th of September 1942, Skrapar became the first district in Albania to be liberated from the occupying fascist forces. There was a bronze statue of Rizo Cerova in a small park next to the square. Elegantly dressed in a jacket with waistcoat, he is shown holding a rifle in his left hand. His face looked left but his tie was depicted as if it were being swept by wind over his right shoulder.

We ate a satisfying lunch in a large restaurant next to the park, the Hotel Osumi. It backed onto a fast-flowing tributary of the Osumi. After eating, we entered a café a little way upstream to ask for directions to the Ottoman bridge that we had seen on the tourist poster. We were surprised to discover a ‘black’ man at a table, chatting with several Albanians. He spoke perfect English, which was not surprising because he was born in Tennessee (USA). He was teaching English in Çorovodë under the auspices of the Peace Corps.  With pencil and paper to hand, he was compiling his own map of the town. When we told his companions that we were trying to find the old bridge, they advised us that it was only accessible with a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle.

Driving further southwards, we reached the spectacular Canyon of the Osumi (Kanioni i Osumit, in Albanian). It is about twenty-six kilometres long, deep, and narrow. At places where the road came close to the edge of the canyon, we obtained good views. From above, it looked as if the cultivated rolling fields and pastureland had been cracked open. The crack’s walls were steep sided, with dramatic striations of whitish rock. Far beneath us at the bottom of this fissure, the River Osumi flowed around its many bends. Standing at the canyon’s precipitous edge, we could only hear birdsong and water rustling over the river’s stony bed far below us.

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Retracing our steps to Berat, we passed an abandoned building with a fading circular coloured sign painted on it. It depicted a grey cow standing between a woman in a white dress, who was writing on a clipboard, and a man in a white coat such as doctors wear. In the background, a man in an overcoat holding a shepherd’s crook, was leading a flock of sheep towards the grey animal and its attendants. Around the edge of the picture, we read the words ‘Stacioni Zooteknise’, which literally translates as ‘zoo technical station’. The building with its peeling plaster and patches of exposed brickwork had once been an animal husbandry centre.”

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Adam Yamey’s book REDISCOVERING ALBANIA is available from Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and is on Kindle

Albania’s got talent…

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The Albanian community in the UK has been in the country long enough for some of their children to have been born in the country. It would be easy for the first generation born in the UK, who have to attend British schools and mix with non-Albanians, to begin to forget their cultural heritage. However, thanks to various organizations that some of the children of Albanian heritage attend, Albanian language and cultural traditions are being kept alive in the UK. On the 27th of October 2018, I was invited to attend the finals of the, which was held in a school hall in London’s Chalk Farm.

The Albanian Ambassador to the UK, Mr Qirjako Qirko, was one of several well-known personalities who introduced the show in Albanian. He ended his speech with a few words in English. The gist of what he said was as follows. He thanked the Queen and her Government for allowing Albanians to maintain their traditions and language, which is not the case in every other country. The show which followed the speeches certainly demonstrated that despite being far from their traditional homes and many years away from them, the Albanian community is encouraging their children to keep alive the traditions of their forefathers.

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The show consisted of a series of performances by young people whose parents came from Albania or Kosovo. There were songs (traditional and contemporary Albanian as well as renderings of current and not so current popular songs in English). Small troupes of youngsters in traditional Albanian garb performed traditional Albanian dances. Others danced routines that they had choreographed themselves. Several youngsters declaimed poetry in Albanian. Naturally, the quality of performance was not uniform. Some of the young people were dazzlingly competent, the rest were not bad. None of the performers was shy or overtly lacking in confidence. Each of them performed with an enthusiasm that was refreshing to observe. The large audience around me encouraged each of the contestants as they performed on stage, cheering and clapping to the rhythm of the music. The five judges praised and gave friendly encouragement (in Albanian) to each of the performers when their act was over. Three of the judges were for singing, one for poetry recital, and one for dancing. The atmosphere in the hall was joyful and friendly. Everyone who passed my wife and me, greeted us warmly even if they had no idea who we are. It was great to discover that the famed hospitality of the Albanian people has been preserved in its British diaspora.

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Many, if not all, of the performers, who sung or recited in Albanian or who dressed up in traditional costumes and performed the dances of their ancestors, use English in their day to day life. They have given up parts of their precious spare time to learn Albanian and to help Albanian cultural traditions remain vital and vibrant. They set an example that many children of British ancestry might profitably follow.

Ephemeral Dreamscapes

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On the evening of the 20th of October 2018, I attended a superb orchestral concert called “Ephemeral Dreamscapes” at St Stephen’s Church at Gloucester Road (London SW7 4RL). The Albanian born conductor Olsi Qinami conducted the London City Philhamonic orchestra. They played four pieces. Three of them are well-known: Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain”, Wagner’s “Prelude & Liebestod”, and Ravel’s “La Valse”.  Although everything was beautifully played, the performance of the Ravel, a very difficult piece, was outstanding.

The fourth piece on the programme has rarely been performed live, as its score, written in the 1950s by Albanian composer Çesk Zadeja (1927-97), was only recently (2012) found in a Russian archive. Zadeja, who was from Shkodra, died in Rome. It was discovered by the composer’s son, who had been searching for it for many years. Described as ‘The Father of Albanian Music’, Zadeja studied in Moscow. The work performed at the concert was a stirring orchestral suite compiled from music that Zadeja composed for the soundtrack of the film “The Great Warrior Skanderbeg”. This film, an Albanian/Soviet co-production, was released in 1953. Some of the other music in the film’s soundtrack was composed by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-98). Olsi Qinami’s performance of the music by Zadeja was the British concert premiere of the work. The almost full house gave it rapturous applause.

In summary, the concert was highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami’s conducting gets the best out of his excellent players in whatever they are playing. I get the impression, having attended several of his concerts, that his orchestral players regard him with great affection. Watch out for his next concert at St Stephens, which is to be on the 9th February 2019.  

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

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LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

One body, two heads

A short reflection on the use and origin(s) of birds with two heads

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On a Hindu temple in Bangalore, Krnataka, India

The earliest archaelogical evidence of the existence of double-headed eagle (‘DHE’) or any other bird with two heads (each with its own neck) is in Bablylonian remains dating back to 3000-2000 BC.

The DHE is and has been used as a heraldic symbol by, for example: the Scythians, the Hittites, the Seljuk Turks, the Kingdom of Mysore (in India), pre-Columbian America, Cormwall (UK), Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, and several states in the Balkans. The Balkan states that use the DHE include: Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia.

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Map showing some of the many places where the double-headed eagle has been employed

I find the DHE to be a fascinating symbol because unlike, forexample,  the cross, Star of David, and swastika, it is not a simple geometric construction, which could be created by random ‘doodling’. Also, it is not naturalistic like the commonly used  such as a lion,  single headed eagle, bear, fish, and hound. 

There is a Hindu mythological creature, a bird with two heads, the Gandaberunda, which has been adopted by the Government of Karnatak (formerly Mysore) as its state emblem. The origins of this creature are obscure, but it has been described in the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas.

The DHE is an imaginary creature, a product of human thought. The Babylonians not only portrayed the DHE, but also other double-headed creatures.

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The Albanian double-headed eagle on the summit of the Llogara Pass in Southern Albania

I would like to SPECULATE that the origin of the DHE was Mesopotamia. From there, I imagine it spread through what is now Turkey to Europe, and across the Indian Ocean to India. If the DHE, or something similar appears in the Vedas, it would be interesting to know if this was by chance or as a result of some forgotten connection between Mesopotamia and the Indian sub-continent.

An Albanian outpost

In about 1480, Albanians fleeing from the Ottoman army that was invading Albaia were given land in Sicily, just South of Palermo.

They built the town of Piana degli Albanesi on this land, and it is still thriving. Most if the inhabitants speak an archaic form of Albanian as well as Italian and preserve many Albanian traditions.

This picture shows a bust of Skanderbeg in Piana degli Albanesi. George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, national hero of the Albanians, resisted the Ottoman army for about 25 years, saving western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.

Chicken tikka in Tirana

This war written in mid-2016, following Adam Yamey’s visit to Albania

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Tirana

Between 1944 and 1990, the tiny Balkan country Albania was governed by a Stalinist dictatorship. During that period, it was more isolated from the outside world than North Korea is today. My Indian wife, Lopa, and I visited the country in June 2016. We were open to surprises, but never imagined that we would discover what I am about to describe, namely some Indian connections.

The small town of Pukë is in the north of the country. Hardly visited by tourists, it is a pleasant place at a high altitude. During our visit there, we entered a small gift shop to buy a notebook. The shop-keeper looked at Lopa, and asked where she was from. When we said India, she pointed at a small television screen beneath the counter. We saw that she was watching something from Bollywood, but with Albanian sub-titles.

ALB 2 Vlora

Vlore museu,

Some days later, we were in the coastal city of Vlorë, visiting the house where on the 28th November 1912, the independence of Albania (after about 500 years of Ottoman domination) was declared. We were shown around the building, which is now a museum, by a lady who spoke only Albanian. An Albanian friend translated. As we moved from room to room, we noticed that the lady was becoming more interested in Lopa than the Independence of Albania. She kept touching Lopa and even hugged her from time to time. At the end of the tour, she asked Lopa why she was not wearing something like a sari as the actors in the Bollywood films do on the television shows that she loved.  A devotee of Bollywood soap operas, she was thrilled to have a real live Indian in her museum. She told us that Lopa was the first Indian women to visit her museum in the 11 years that she had been working there.

Later, we learnt that Bollywood television soap operas are extremely popular in Albania, especially amongst women viewers. The shows are usually broadcast in the afternoon, so a ‘savvy’ person knows better than to ring an Albanian woman during the hour that such shows are on-air.

ALB 3 Korce

Mosque in Korce

Love of Bollywood is not confined to Albanian women. In the southern city of Korçë, we were visiting an old (15th century) mosque, when an elderly man, who was just about to enter to do ‘namaaz’, saw Lopa, and asked if she was Indian. On hearing the answer, he exclaimed: “Rye Kapur”, which was his way of pronouncing Raj Kapoor.

Judging from the excitement that Lopa evoked when meeting Albanians, we guessed that there were probably few or even no Indians in Albania. Our guesswork ended when we met Vijay in the foyer of the National Museum in Albania’s capital Tirana. Vijay, who hails from southern India, lives and works in Albania with his family. He was waiting for his son to return from cricket practice. We were surprised to hear that cricket is being played in a country which has not ‘enjoyed’ the effects of British colonial influence. Vijay told us that not only were ‘ex-pats’ involved in cricket in Tirana, but also Albanians. There is an Englishman who has been training members of Tirana’s rugby club to play cricket. In late June this year, the Albanian team beat the ex-pat’s team by one run.

On the next day, we met Vijay, who teaches computing to Albanians in Albanian, with his family at a café. His wife had specially prepared some Indian snacks for us: chicken tikka and some aloo bhajjis. While we were sitting chatting, another Indian, Vicki, wandered past and joined us. Vicki was working for an Indian mining company, but has recently returned to India having spent a few years in Albania. When we had spent time with our new Indian friends, we got up but before saying farewell, they invited us for lunch the next day.

Apart from having been very fortunate to have ‘bumped’ into Vijay and his family and friends, we were very lucky to have met any Indians at all in Albania. This is because there are currently only about 50 Indians in Albania, and some of them are Mother Teresa nuns.

The following day, we met Vijay and Vicky in the centre of Tirana. A car pulled up, and we all piled in. The car was driven by yet another Indian, Father Oscar who runs Tirana’s large Roman Catholic Don Bosco establishment. He drove us out to Vijay’s flat on the edge of the city. There, we were confronted with a superb warm buffet prepared by Vijay’s wife. As I served myself with chicken biryani, dal, chappatis, channa, and so on, I had to pinch myself to believe that I was not imagining eating home-cooked Indian food in Albania.

PS: Finally, for those with Indian passports who wish to visit Albania, the nearest Albanian embassy to India, we were told by an Albanian diplomat, is in Beijing (China).