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Visiting Skopje, Macedonia last summer, I was surprised to learn that it was the birthplace of Mother Teresa.  I had thought she was Albanian but as a heathen, I certainly was no expert and didn’t think any more on the subject until the fateful day I went on a millenium long hike (but that’s a whole other story you can read about here).

Gondola to Millenium Cross, Skopje

Gondola to Millenium Cross, Skopje

So I was just innocently hiking along and over the course of nine hours of walking, I had ample time to bore our guide silly make various insightful comments.  One of them being that I had for some reason always thought Mother Teresa was Albanian, not Macedonian.  Our kind and gentle guide, Xhemal, was able to explain to me an astounding fact that I had not picked up on in a year of living in the Balkans and several extra months travelling there.  But his explanation was an “Aha!” moment and made a lot of things that had previously been confusing, all fall into place.

We hiked, we talked, we learned

We hiked, we talked, we learned

What I learned was this: to be Albanian does not necessarily mean you are from Albania.  It means you are ethnic Albanian.  Or that you just happen to be from Albania regardless of ethnicity but that is too confusing and not what we are taking about today.

Downtown Skopje, Macedonia

Downtown Skopje, Macedonia (Millenium Cross just visible at the top of the hill)

There is no consensus among historians and scholars on the origins of ethnic Albanians.  They could be descendents of the Illyrians.  Or the Dacians.  Or they may have come from Thrace.  Xhemal (who is, by the way, Albanian) told me that they are decendants of ancient Illyrians going back thousands of years.  The Albanian language is distinct from the Slavic languages in the area.  It is an Indo-European language but one unrelated to any others.  It is unique, like the people themselves.  Most ethnic Albanians are Muslim but there are Christian Orthodox and Catholic Albanians like Mother Teresa as well.

Church, Katlanovska (Macedonia)

Church, Katlanovska (Macedonia)

This is all very well and good but let me tell you what I find to be the most interesting thing of all.  Ethnic Albanians are found in large numbers in Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and, of course, Albania.  Centuries-old Albanian communities are found scattered throughout the Balkans.  They have not assimilated.

In Macedonia, Albanians are the largest ethnic minority at 25% of the population.  Albanians marry Albanians and their children go to Albanian schools.  Macedonians marry Macedonians and their children go to Macedonian schools.  There are Albanian spas and Macedonians spas.  There are Albanian names and Macedonians names.  Albanians speak Albanian and Macedonians speak Macedonian.  There are Macedonian villages and Albanian villages.

Mosque in Tetovo, Macedonia.  Tetovo is an Albanian town.

Mosque in Tetovo. Tetovo is an Albanian city in Macedonia.

I am always fascinated by minority cultures who have such resilience.  Being Canadian, one of the dominant themes here is the need to protect Quebecois culture from erosion.  Mostly by enacting silly rules like sign laws that are highly inconvenient to the inhabitants and businesses of Quebec.

Being a traveller, I have seen too many minority cultures become the next hot thing in tourism to the devastation of the local way of life.  What is it that gives some groups the ability to keep ancient traditions strong?  Is it good for a group of people to be so insular?  I love to think about these things but the more I ponder, the less I know.

Tetovo mosque, columns

Tetovo mosque, columns

Tetovo mosque, painted ceiling

Tetovo mosque, painted ceiling

Another interesting thing about Albanians is that so many of them live in the former Yugoslavia.  Especially in Kosovo where well over 90% of the population is ethnic Albanian.  What does this mean?  Well, unless you have been living under a rock, you are aware of the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia.

That topic is a whole PhD thesis in itself.  Or rather, many, many PhD theses.  In short, the Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization but since it was a region with little opportunity, over the years Serbs migrated to more prosperous areas of Serbia.  Albania (the country) was the poorest and most closed country in Europe for many years.  Many Albanians fled Albania and settled in neighbouring Kosovo.  Eventually, they made up 90% of Kosovo and they wanted autonomy.  Hence the conflict.

Fig tree, Macedonia

Fig tree, Macedonia

Albanians in the former Yugoslavia (many families of which have lived there for eons) share a history that Albanians from Albania do not.  They share the history of the war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Kosovo.  That history makes people prejusticed against others.  For example, it is not safe to drive a car with Serbian plates into Kosovo.  Our CS host in Niš (Serbia) has been treated badly by Albanians in Macedonia.  But he is an open man trying to build bridges.  He plans to visit Albania because there he can meet Albanians who won’t see him as an aggressor just because he is Serbian.

Whose leg is this?!  Why it’s the leg of the cousin of our ethnic Albanian guide from Macedonia.  Where is this leg?  Beautiful Matka Canyon, Macedonia.

Whose leg is this?! Why it’s the leg of the cousin of our ethnic Albanian guide from Macedonia. Confused yet?  Where is this leg? Beautiful Matka Canyon, Macedonia.

And Albanians from Albania share a history of isolation as part of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania which lasted until 1991.  This is something that ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia have no experience of.

Wild fennel, Balkans

Wild fennel, Balkans

All this has made me realize how lucky I am to be Canadian.  Travelling to developing countries, we often meet people who would give anything to be travelling on a Canadian passport like us.  I have long understood that inequity.  It is only on this trip, however, that I came to realize how lucky we are to be seen as neutral and to have people take us for who we are, no matter where we travel.  If only others had that same privilege.  Isn’t that what Mother Teresa would have wanted?