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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors

 

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Arian LEKA, 2004 (Photo: Robert Elsie).

Arian LEKA, 2004
(Photo: Robert Elsie).

Webdesign J. Groß

Arian LEKA

 

ME, MY PEOPLE AND ÇORBA

“…we are not them, but something of theirs is ours.”
from a poem by Azem Shkreli

1. A Tale of Childhood

In my childhood days, the seasons were not just seasons, marked by natural phenomena. More than a result of the tilting of the earth’s axis, they seemed to me to be periods of time marked by the people who lingered in my childhood world as merchants, master craftsmen and artisans. From time to time, I envisaged them as ancient warriors who used to fight not with arms, but with some very simple instruments and tools. Their names were full of ancient sounds. The Bosnians are coming… the Macedonians… the Vlachs… the Greeks… the Serbs… the Montenegrins are coming… All of these phrases reminded me of “the Illyrians are coming… the Spartans… the Myrmidons are coming...” Echoes of Cavafy.

The arrival of autumn was marked by a ritual of insults and of all kinds of curses that my relatives would begin uttering about the Golloborda men of Macedonia who never arrived on time to repair the walls eroded by the humidity or to fix a leaky roof.

Next, we waited for the muhajir fellow to show up, “our Bosnian” with his fine moustache and pocket chain-watch, who used to come from some small village near Shijak carrying yellow tobacco for my grandfather, fresh vegetables for my family, and shiny fruit for us – the children of the house.

With the approach of spring, we knew that Grabovar – “our Aromanian” – would soon show up. He was the man who cleaned out the drains and the sewage system, and sometimes appeared to my naïve imagination as a warlord, except when he started talking about the effects of curative mud, of leeches and the benefits of bleeding cures. He believed that leeches were God’s messengers, whose mission was to purify us. “They get the worst of us. They do to men what trees do to the soil - they absorb the evil. The leeches and the trees are veritable saints”, he used to proclaim solemnly.

All of us, both the children and the adults, knew that by the beginning of summer the Roma fellow “from India” would return to our neighbourhood, the place where I grew up, at the far end of the marshy fields outside of Durrës. He would bring nails, fix the wheelbarrows, and do any kind of handyman’s job, while his kind wife would tell fortunes by reading palms and at the same time sell scarves, mirrors, and flour strainers. I still think back fondly at the days when they would improvise roles for a little circus they performed for us.

As summer passed, the first questions about Hekuran (his name meaning “the iron man”) would arise, - what happened to that gypsy guy, the evgjit – our “Egyptian” – who used to sharpen our kitchen knives, fixed the few tools we possessed, repaired umbrellas, jugs, and troughs? Hekuran would bring us nails, too. Some people believed his nails were cursed, as he was one of the descendants of those who crucified Jesus Christ with their nails. I was always afraid to touch the nails brought by the Roma, and was equally afraid to have anything to do with Hekuran’s nails. How could I tell which ones were cursed and which ones were blessed? I couldn’t tell which nails crucified Jesus and which ones he used when he was doing his carpentry. I can remember the songs that Hekuran used to sing while working in our neighbour’s backyard. Hekuran had another trade that only older people appreciated. If you were planning a wedding and needed a band of musicians for the occasion, he was just the man to consult.

No, I will never forget those sweltering afternoons, trying to take a nap and almost certainly being interrupted by that bothersome guy from the north, “Ghega”, with a loud voice and mountain-high pitch. He was too lazy to walk down the alley ways, so he would shout at each corner and fill our ears with the names of his fermented beverages and desserts: “ice cream, bosa, cookies, sweets - again and again ice creaeaeaeeeeeem!” His voice screeched like that of the muezzin, who led the call to prayer from the minaret. For us children, the voice of Ghega was more impressive than that of the muezzin. A voice calling from the market was always more enticing and audible than a voice calling from the mosque.

Our Bosnian…! Our Aromanian…! Our Roma…! Our Greek! Our Egyptian…! Our Ghega…! My Bosnian…! My Aromanian…! My Roma...! My Greek…! My Egyptian…!

I felt like a sort of pasha, yes, a real Turkish pasha with my own empire, a small one admittedly, like my grandfather’s garden. All of the people around me were my servants, wise and knowledgeable slaves, who arrived from afar to teach me that the world was wider, larger than my garden. They were my empire.

Meanwhile, my “humble servants” carried out their activities, as all the other people on earth do: gardening, farming, factory work, where they produced all the little metal objects and tools we needed, and made furniture, glass, plastic utensils, paper... and nails too. But our nails were different from the nails of the Roma or those of Hekuran. Of this I was convinced.

In my imagination, our neighbourhood - every house, every small street, every corner and alley - was like an international corporation run by merchants and masters from all lands, who would show up with instructions and give us a hand with errands and housework.

The world that I imagined around me, that little clash of cultures, people who were there intentionally or not, added spice to our lives and a strange cosmopolitan dimension to the tiny neighbourhood where I grew up. All those memorable characters still waft in and out of my dreams.

I am not sure if any of them is actually still among us, but yes, they hover in my memory, bringing with them the ever-repeated swear words and curses of their trades. They are all there: the Golloborda repairman who plastered the humid walls and fixed the leaky roof, the nice Bosnian fellow, the muhajir with the pocket chain-watch who will always be selling fruit at some heavenly fruit stand, the Aromanian who will always be cleaning the ditches and offering us words of wisdom about curative mud and leeches, the visitor from the distant Nile, that “Egyptian” fellow still sharpening scythes, repairing tools and umbrellas, our Roma friends doing what they knew best, telling fortunes and selling roasted chestnuts and, last but not least, “Ghega”, the guy from the north, whose sweets had sweetened a part of my life.

I was distraught, pained when I realized that they were no longer there, that the annual procession of figures had stopped. They were frozen in my memory, like a beaker of formalin left in a lab. All the men with their trades and handicrafts had vanished, and only the stereotypes and prejudices about them remained. The cubby holes were waiting for them, but we were now alone. It was now just my people and I, alone out there.

Was this the epic of a paradise lost or was it a childhood lesson in nationalist distortion? Whatever it was, it was the multicultural reality, in which the “we” and the “they”, in which “ours” and “theirs”, were the ingredients of traditional Balkan cuisine. Yes, whatever it was, it tasted delicious and we lapped it up.


2. Çorba -a secret recipe, or how to live in the United States of Çorba.

A “European” visiting the Balkan Peninsula is amazed at the number of ethnic conflicts and trouble spots. Historically, the peoples of this peninsula have interpreted their land and existence in terms of ethnic and linguistic distinctions and of religious and cultural differences among the groups. This is one of the main reasons why “identity” is still a dominant feature of Balkan discourse today.

Despite all the diversity, the peoples of the Balkans have many things in common. In particular, there is one delicacy, a dish known as çorba. For those who are not familiar with the Balkans, it may be necessary to provide a brief explanation of what çorba is and what it connotes.

Çorba is a thick broth or soup. Almost all Balkan peoples know how to make it and do so with much creativity. They cook it even better than the Persians or the Turks who invented it. One could imagine that making çorba would be a difficult enterprise? I don’t think it is, although I am not entirely sure. Here, at any rate, are the ingredients you will need to make a typical Balkan çorba:

 

- two tablespoons of misunderstanding,

- one ladle of contempt,

- one teaspoon of offence and predominance,

- two or three slices of chauvinism and megalomania,

- one measure of extremism and some irredentist egoism,

- a dash of collective madness and intolerance,

- some paradoxes that substitute for kitchen herbs,

- and a couple of ghosts and spectres

(as you may be aware, there are more ghosts and spectres in the Balkans than there are habitants).

 

For ages, çorba has been one of the most common dishes in Balkan cuisine. Whenever they make çorba, Balkan people have an overwhelming desire to share it with their guests, friends or alter egos across Europe. Çorba is a mystic dish - it can never be enjoyed alone.

It is easy enough to make; you don’t need any special skills, abilities or technical knowledge. Just add the ingredients, put them over a low fire, stir slowly for several minutes and it will soon be ready to consume. One should wait though until it forms a thick swirl, similar to a perfect Archimedean spiral.

I imagine you remember that Archimedes loved spirals. There are some who say that he perished because of them. Dante Alighieri loved circles, too.

Modern man is lucky for he can choose for himself. He can live within a perfect Archimedean spiral or in one of those horrible circles of Dante’s inferno, or, if he wishes, he can stand rigid in our damn çorba. We have no reason to complain. All these circles are liveable and our nations always feel best when they are confined in them. The golden rule here is: “Keep to your own circle.” That’s all you need to know!

My impression is that life within the swirl of our daily çorba can be fun. It is a delightful and amusing experience, much more so than life within the boring spirals of Archimedes or Dante’s circles. We know this to be a matter of fact and are witnesses to it. And it is a perfectly organic meal, too. What more do you want? We nourish our children on this çorba of ours, chocked as it is with prejudices and injustice. We feed them our poetic inspiration. Did not Paul Celan remind us in Todesfuge to drink the black milk of daybreak, to drink it come midday and morning, to drink it come night?

We live well in our çorba, in perfect bliss. It is like a puzzle put together, when every last piece is in place.

 

Albanians with all their Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins, Vlachs and Roma,

Croats with all their Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes and Italians,

Macedonians with all their Albanians, Bulgarians, Roma and Turks,

Slovenes with all their Serbs, Croats, Roma and Italians,

Greeks with all their Albanians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Romanians, Russians,

Bosnians with all their Serbs and Croats,

Montenegrins with all their Serbs, Bosnians and Albanians,

Serbs with all their Hungarians Roma and Bosnians,

Turks with all their Kurds, Bosnians, Albanians and Georgians,

Bulgarians with all their Turks and Romanians,

Kosovars with all their Kosovo Serbs,

Romanians with all their Moldavians and Bulgarians, too.

 

God bless us! We are all model citizens of the United States of Çorba. Do you know why? It is because the spiral takes care of us. It protects us from the others and from ourselves. The spiral is our mentor, our Maecenas, our Muse. One day, however, someone may ask the question: What does it mean to be a model citizen? What does it mean to be a good Albanian in Croatia, for instance? What does it mean to be a good Greek in Albania, a good Serb in Kosovo, or a good Italian in Slovenia? Indeed, what does it mean to be a good Turk in Haskovo, a good Croat in Mostar, a good Hungarian in Subotica, or a good Albanian in Ulcinj?

Arthur Schopenhauer was perhaps right when he argued that what was important was the opinion one had of oneself! Equally important, though, it the opinion others have of you. Up to now, we have been inclined to live our lives and react according to the prejudices we hold about others.

For instance, what is it like to be an Albanian in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia or Macedonia? The stereotype would have it that an Albanian in Croatia is an ice-cream king, a pasha of oriental sweets, or a craftsman who fashions golden rings and filigree ornaments.

But what happens one day if our Albanian changes his mind and goes to university, if he studies to become a professor or a judge? Nothing really. He can do whatever he wants. We are all cultured and civilized people, are we not? Yet we all know secretly that something in the frozen spiral begins to quiver and shake. The ice-cream king is out of place, he is no longer in his right position in the swirl.

A Bosnian in Albania, whom we often called a muhajir, or a Turk in Bulgaria is an excellent fellow as long as he keeps digging ditches or works as a carpenter or a blacksmith. But, if one day, he changes his mind and wants to become a teacher for Albanian or Bulgarian children, the spiral quivers and the problems start.

An Albanian from Ulcinj is a splendid fellow, too, as long as he sleeps through the winter and sings old pirate songs. If he wants to publish a newspaper or write a textbook in his language, he reveals to us all that he is no longer the same nice guy he used to be. Further a-field, a Serb in Mitrovica can be a great fellow, too, someone you would be delighted to have a glass of slivovica with or watch a soccer game on TV with, for as long as he avoids words like “independence, war, Ivo Andrić and all the ‘they don’t care about us’ nonsense.”

The same goes for a Roma who closes his little shop and creates a political party, or for a Kurd who wants to open a small souvenir shop in Istanbul, for an Albanian girl in Italy who quits her job as a dress maker and wants to set up her own fashion studio, for a Romanian in Greece who, after being a doulós for ten years, wants to open his own shop and so become an afendikós? There he is in the ring dance of Zorba and, suddenly, he is back into the thick swirl of our çorba? A Kosovar in Belgrade, who wishes to open a bookstore, will be looked at askance, like an Englishman who sips his milky tea while surrounded by rabid coffee drinkers. We all know examples, more chilling than these, of what happens when one forgets one’s place in the swirl of things.

But let us return to Cavafy: “And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?” Can we live our lives without the “others”? They may be better or worse, but they will never be like us. They are different, are they not?

Alas, I have more questions than answers. But perhaps it is not the task of the poet to provide answers and explanations. Indeed, I am afraid that to have more questions than answers is not just a problem of poets, but one of modern civilization in general. Or is it simply an issue for someone like me in his forties, going through a long mid-life crisis.

 

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

ché la diritta via era smarrita….

 

(In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself astray in a dark wood

where the straight road had been lost sight of)

 

Dante wrote these lines for the first canto of the Inferno and at some point in the middle of one’s life, everything does begin to oscillate until one is caught up by the swirl.

Let me, in conclusion, return to the essence of my main argument. But I do not understand why we live with such suspicion and ill feelings toward one another. Where does all the hostility come from?

In my language, Albanian, we have a word called mëní (anger, wrath, loathing, hatred), which seems to be the centre of it all, the vortex of the spiral. It is an ancient term that evokes in me a Cyclops roaming o’er the wastelands, a groan emitted from an ancient Homeric age:

 

“Menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos”

(Anger sing of, goddess, of Peleus’s son Achilleus)

 

None of us, not even writers, can escape our mëni. We are by no means vaccinated against the virus lurking in our Balkan çorba. We are the ones who eat it and take sustenance, and we are the one who make it.

 

[Ne, njerëzit tanë, dhe çorba jonë. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie. Published in Literature in Flux: a Literary Journey, HALMA, the European Network of Literary Centres, Berlin, 2012, p. 161-178]