Robert Elsie | NEWS | AL Art | AL History | AL Language | AL Literature | AL Photography | Contact |

 

Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors

 

BACK

Ben Blushi

Ben Blushi

Webdesign J. Groß

Ben BLUSHI

 

LIVING ON AN ISLAND

It was torrid weather at a time of year in which people did not eat meat. The market was first to awaken, followed by the rest of the town. Normally at this hour, the inhabitants were exhausted from their activities at the market and took refuge in the church. But it was a Sunday and not everyone was at work. Though it was a customary working day for the people from the countryside, for the townspeople it was simply a day to go to church and do some shopping. After morning mass, the women hastened to market, returning home with bags swollen like their breasts. If they lingered to look at the luxury goods, their hungry children would be clamouring for their attention when they got home. The men sat smoking in the shade, staring at the women. The farm animals stood about in the sun and, waiting to be driven to pasture, watched the men. Those suffering from the heat, refreshed themselves in the lake. But the town was situated in the mountains and not everyone knew how to swim.

 

By the end of market day, he had still not sold his two sheep, so he gathered the money he managed to make and departed.

The mosque was situated at the edge of town. In wintertime, the road was covered in mud, but it was extremely hot that summer, and the soil he trod upon singed his feet and legs. The gate to the mosque was closed. He knocked on the little door with a stone. The imam soon appeared, tying a turban around his shaven head.

“Alekum Selam, hello,” he said. “I want to become a Muslim.”

“Come in then,” replied the imam. “You are the first to come today. The Christians are busy at Sunday market.”

He entered the building, relieved at the cool air inside. They sat down across from each other on a reed mat that looked unused on his side. The mosque was empty. A few rays of sun made their way through the four small archways, casting their light on one of the walls. In a sombre corner he could make out a large metal jug, beside which was a loaf of bread and some olives.

“Welcome to the house of the Lord,” said the Imam, trying to make him feel at ease.

“Does God eat olives?” he joked, endeavouring to lighten up the solemn atmosphere in the mosque.

The imam did not move a muscle. “I eat the olives. Physicians say they are good for the kidneys.”

 

“Why do you want to convert to Islam?” asked the imam dryly, interrupting his inspection of the unadorned walls of the mosque.

He replied, saying that he had no particular reason; he just thought Islam was something that would interest him. “I like to try things out,” he explained. “There is no particular reason. But Islam is the religion of the Empire and, as an obedient subject, I respect it. All our laws, taxes, the army, and the judges come from Islam. And you can’t implement the laws properly unless you know the source of the truth. Sooner or later everyone will become a Muslim. My father told me never to put off ’til tomorrow what you can do today. I get up early in the morning, like the animals I tend and sell, so I won’t have any problem praying at the times your religion wants. I know a lot of other people who would become Muslims, if it weren’t for the farm animals.”

“How old are you?”

“I turned thirty-nine in July.”

“Are there any other Muslims in your village?”

“No,” he answered. “I’ll be the first one.”

“Do you know any Muslims at all?”

He scratched his head and replied: “I know Ali Tepelena.”

“Who is he?” asked the imam.

“Ali is a brigand. He ambushes caravans and steals food, goods, and animals, and then sells them. He recently got a title from Istanbul and his men now call him ‘guard of the mountain passes.’ He has become master of the roads and the gorges that the caravans use and has taken all the other brigands prisoner. No one steals anything without his permission. A few months ago, he took refuge in my house when Kurt Pasha’s soldiers were trying to capture and execute him. He now brings his horses to me to be taken care of, and that is how we got to know one another.”

“Did Ali mention Islam to you?”

“He did. He once told me that if Muhammed had been an Albanian, the Greeks would have killed him.”

Unmoved, the imam murmured, “If Muhammed had been an Albanian, the Greeks would have been Jews, and the Jews did not kill Muhammed. Anyway, Muhammed could not have been an Albanian. All the prophets were born in the desert where there is no water and no winter. We have lots of water and a long winter.”

The imam then put his hand under the mat and took out a faded book with large Arabic letters on it. “This is the Koran. This is the book that Allah gave to Muhammed by means of his emissary, the angel Gabriel. It tells you everything a Muslim must do. And also what a Muslim must not do. Do not forget that the things that you must not do are more important than the things you must do. The Koran is a book of prohibition, not of permission. You do not know how to read the Koran, so I will tell you a few things about it. If you accept them, you will distinguish yourself from the rest, from the infidels.”

The imam continued: “Islam means peace. Peace will reign among the nations if they worship Allah and follow the commandments he set forth. God handed these rules down to Muhammed so that he would tell them to the people. Muhammed wrote the Koran, although he did not learn how to read and write until he was forty years old, like you today. This is only of the things proving he was an emissary of Allah, whose commandments were first transmitted to him around the year 610 when he was living in Mecca with his wife Hatije. By the way, Muhammed had many other wives during his lifetime. When he passed away in the arms of his beloved wife Aisha, the cities of Mecca, Medina and most of the people of Arabia had already accepted Islam. The Koran recognises all the prophets before Muhammed, like Moses, prophet of the Jews, and Jesus, prophet of the Christians. But Muhammed is the last in the line of prophets. So Islam is the only faith of Allah. The goal of the other prophets was to announce and to prepare the world for the mission of Muhammed, and so, the Christians must change their faith and convert to Islam. If Jesus Christ were alive today, he would join the faith of Muhammed.”

The imam paused and placed the Koran back under the mat. “You must understand what I am telling you because the Christians of your village will take you to task and make fun of you when you tell them you are a Muslim. Do not worry. All the prophets were cursed in their own villages. You said you wanted to become a Muslim. I asked you why. You said that Islam was something you wanted to try out because everyone would convert to Islam sooner or later. This is true. One day everyone will be a Muslim. But not for the reason you mentioned. I will give you the reasons. You will live with them and must pass them on to others.”

The imam continued: “Islam has five pillars, or duties. If you accept them, you are a Muslim.”

“I accept,” he replied immediately. It was a cold day and the sunlight falling on the archways was beginning to fade. “Hold on,” commanded the imam, “I first have to tell you what they are, one by one. Stand up.”

He rose to his feet and so did the imam after him. Half of the imam’s face was still shining in the waning light. The other half was gradually receding into the dark. Islam and Christianity are like the sun and the moon, he thought. Both are trying to shine and light up the earth. When one departs, it is day, and when the other one departs, it is nighttime. I am in twilight at the moment. The sun and moon are exchanging seats like Christianity and Islam in my soul. As long as I live, I will strive to understand which one of them is the sun and which one the moon, he reflected. He then turned his attention back to the imam, whose face had completely receded into the shade entirely.

“Do you believe that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammed is his prophet and emissary? The world is a much more peaceful place with only one God ruling it. At the time of the ancient Greeks, there were many gods who were all jealous of one another and there was much chaos on earth.”

“I do,” he answered.

“Do you agree to worship Allah and pray to him five times a day?”

“I do, but what happens if I pray to him six times?”

“Nothing at all,” replied the imam, “but you shouldn’t. In the beginning, God said to Muhammed that Muslims should pray fifty times a day, but Moses, the prophet of the Jews, asked Muhammed to reduce the number of prayers because it would otherwise be difficult for believers. After many requests, Muhammed agreed and reduced the number of daily prayers to five. This was because of the Jews who, as you see, even barter with prayers to the Lord.”

“Moses was right!” he exclaimed. “Fifty times a day would mean that we would do nothing else but pray all day.”

“Allah knows our weaknesses, so he alleviated the burden,” explained the imam and continued, “Do you agree to keep Ramadan?”

“What is Ramadan?” he asked.

“Ramadan is the ninth month of the year. It is the month when an angel, sent by Allah, first appeared before Muhammed. It is also the month of fasting, the month when Muslims dedicate themselves to their God by not eating, not drinking and not touching their wives. Ramadan is the main period of fasting, although there are other times of the year in Islam with other types of restrictions - for instance, the month of Shaban, the six days of fasting in the month of Sherval, which is the month after Ramadan, fasting for the day of Ashura, fasting on Fridays, etc. You will learn about these with time and I will remind you of them now and then. Just remember for now that fasting during Ramadan is an obligation for you and for all Muslims. During Ramadan, you are not allowed to curse, to shout, to fight, to slander or to gossip. If someone strikes you, you must not strike back and must tell them you are fasting. Fasting means releasing man from his bodily needs, from the stomach and from lust caused by the spells cast upon him by women. Ramadan is beginning in a couple of days. It starts in the month of September, the moment you see the new moon.”

“But if it’s cloudy out, how will I see the moon?” he inquired.

“No cloud can prevent a Muslim from meeting his God,” replied the imam.

“But the Christians eat when they are fasting,” he noted. “How can I survive a whole month without eating at all?”

“Christians fast for forty days before Easter and have other periods of fasting during the year. Don’t worry, you can eat two times a day. You can have something sweet, like figs and water, when the sun sets at iftar, dinnertime. That is the moment you must say your evening prayers. You can also have a little something to eat in the morning, at dawn, before your first prayer. This is syfyr, Ramadan breakfast. Ramadan is the greatest sacrifice a Muslim can make to show his respect for God. When you fast, you are showing Allah that you were not born simply to fill your belly with the flesh of animals and to fill your wife’s belly with the flesh of man.”

“Do I have to force my cows, calves, sheep and lambs to keep Ramadan?” he asked innocently.

The imam grinned painfully, but continued, “Fasting is a sacrifice of the conscience. No one else checks if you are eating, drinking or making merry with your wife. When fasting, you are face to face with God and your conscience. Animals have souls, but they have no conscience, so they do not self-sacrifice in the Koran. Nor did Muhammed force his camel, Kasun, to fast. Your farm animals do not become Muslims and they have not been Christians,” added the imam.

“I agree,” he said. “I accept Ramadan. If I tell my wife it’s a duty, she will understand; the animals will not understand a thing and will continue to obey me as before.”

“Let us carry on,” said the imam, glancing at the sun hiding behind the windows. “I must prepare the call to prayer shortly.”

“The fourth pillar of Islam is almsgiving. This means that you give food and clothes to the poor and help them. It is not throwing things away; it is a distribution of wealth. Muhammed believed that the poor had the right to profit from the assets of the rich. The alms are usually distributed after the sacrifice, the fasting, at the end of Ramadan. You can give money if you prefer.”

He reflected for a moment and countered, “There are a lot of poor people in the village. If I give something to all of them, what will be left over for me? I think Ramadan is a better idea because it allows you to save money, but almsgiving means spending a lot. Won’t I become poor myself one day if I spend my time distributing what I own to the poor?”

“Well, you can always live off the alms of others,” replied the imam. “This is Islam. You distribute your wealth in order to gain peace of mind. Do you accept this commandment?” The imam was losing his patience. He had the impression that the fellow was wavering, and many an imam would have thrown him out and not let him become a Muslim. But he decided to give it one more try.

The fellow refused to be convinced by this rule that the imam had described to him. How could he give away a sheep or a calf at the end of Ramadan?

“You told me that I must give alms if I want to become a Muslim, didn’t you?”

“I did,” answered the imam, somewhat surprised by his insistence.

“But the person who gets the alms, does he have to be a Muslim, too?”

“I believe so,” replied the imam, now somewhat bewildered himself.

“I am the only Muslim in my village, and it will likely be so for quite some time. All the poor people there are Christians. Do I have to distribute the wealth that Allah gave me to those who do not pray to Allah?”

The imam gave no reply, instinctively placing his hand on the Koran under the mat.

“Are Christians to profit from almsgiving? That is what I want to know,” he uttered, well aware that he had won a battle of logic over Islam on his very first day.

“I do not know,” replied an embarrassed imam. “Perhaps you must wait until there are other Muslims living in your village.”

“Then, I accept,” he answered right away. “I agree to start distributing alms when the poor in my village have converted to Islam. I accept the commandment. Are there any others?”

“One final thing,” said the imam with a sigh of relief.

“You must go to Mecca at least once in your life and must circumambulate the Kaaba seven times.”

“How far away is Mecca?” he inquired.

“Mecca is in Arabia,” explained the imam. “It takes one month to get there. You pass through Istanbul. Every Muslim must make the journey there once, to the Kaaba, a holy place for Muslims. The Kaaba is a stone that has been worshipped since ancient times, but Muhammed transformed it into the centre of the Islamic world. Muhammed was driven out of Mecca by the Jews and pagan Arabs and was forced to fight several battles in which Muslim blood was spilled before he returned to Mecca with his head shaven, as you should be when you go there.”

“When do I have to go?”

“You may decide for yourself,” said the imam. “You just have to get there before you die.”

“I accept,” he said in a calm voice. “I still have a good thirty years to get there.”

He was not bothered at all by the fifth pillar. The mosque was almost dark now and the noise of the town outside was beginning to die down. He had accepted the five pillars and was waiting for the imam to pronounce his verdict.
“There is one more thing,” remembered the imam.

“What now?” he countered impatiently. “You told me that I had to accept the five pillars to become a Muslim, and I already have.”

The imam looked relieved, like a wet nurse after labour.

“Today is your first day of life as a Muslim and you need a new name that you can choose yourself. Whichever one you like, it doesn’t matter,” he replied.
“Call me whatever you want, imam.”

“Ibrahim, then,” proclaimed the imam. “You will be called Ibrahim. Ibrahim was neither a Christian, not a Jew, nor a Muslim. He is one of the great prophets to whom God taught the art of vaticination. In Ibrahim’s day, people lived longer than they do now. Ibrahim stemmed from the seed of Noah, and Noah stemmed from Adem who was the first man created by God on earth and of earth. From one of Adem’s ribs, God created Hava, who was the first woman on earth. Adem and Hava initially had two cons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, and this was the first time one man had killed another. Later, the seed of Cain withered due to the unspeakable sin of fratricide. Adem and Hava later had a third son called Seth, from whom the human race stems. Ibrahim is of this lineage. From Ibrahim’s seed come the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians. The Koran says that Ibrahim had one child with his slave Hagar, and this child was called Ismail, which means ‘savage’ and ‘strong.’ But his wife, Sara, who later gave birth to Isak, the ancestor of Moses of the Jews and Jesus of the Christians, expelled Ismail and the slave woman into the wilderness. Ismail grew up as a savage amidst the sand and thorns. One day, Ibrahim went into the wilderness and came upon his son, and the two of them set up the Kaaba where Mecca was founded, the place where Muhammed was born. We Muslims are descendants of that seed. The Christians also have the tale of Ibrahim in their Bible. They call them Adam, Eve and Abraham.”

“Nice story,” he said.

“I am glad you like it,” replied the imam. “Welcome to the fold of Islam, Ibrahim, son of Abdullah.”

“Who is this Abdullah?” he uttered. “I accepted my new name, but my father is dead and I can’t change his name after his death.”

“Abdullah means ‘servant of God’ and this name is given to all young Muslims like you, whose fathers had Christian names that are unacceptable to Islam.”

“No,” declared Ibrahim, staring the imam in the eye. “I accepted my new name, but I cannot alter my father’s name. Abdullah is a silly-sounding name anyway, and I cannot pass it on to my poor children. I will not accept it, even if it means going back to being a Christian, as I was this morning.”

The imam smiled, and did not insist. He approached him, kissed him on both cheeks and said. “Peace be with you, Ibrahim. I hope you will be a good Muslim.”

“I will try,” replied Ibrahim, making his way towards the door of the mosque. As he was leaving, the imam called to him from the dark. “Ibrahim, you can now have up to four wives, as every Muslim can.”

“Is that another commandment?” asked Ibrahim, without turning around.

“No, it is not a commandment, but if you like women, Islam allows you to.”

“I’ll think about it,” replied Ibrahim and he departed. “Good night, imam.”
“Farewell,” said the imam, “and don’t forget your circumcision, Ibrahim!”

He had left the mosque behind. Nighttime lay before him.

 

[Excerpt from Ben Blushi, Të jetosh në ishull (Tirana: Toena, 2008), p. 7-15. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]