Friday, January 23, 2009

Very Superstitious

We all have our little superstitions, our lucky charms. Knock on wood. Cross your fingers for luck. We've inherited these from long ago and most of us don't give much thought as to why our ancestors started doing these things. Modern life has insulated us from the immediate effects of our environment which gave rise to these practices.

Albanians are a little closer to the source. The threats to their lives and existence aren't all that far in the past. Plus they have a huge number of cultural sources which contributed to their arsenal of superstitious rituals. I suppose if I lived in a land that was continually invaded by neighboring powers; attacked by pirates; ruled by despots; plundered by empires; subject to flooding, earthquakes, wildfires, landslides; and burdened with a traditon of revenge killing, I would hoard and employ every talisman possible.

Any visitor to Albania will be familiar with the dordolec. The term roughly translates to "scarecrow" and is used to ward off the evil eye. The phenomenon is so common it gave rise to a scholarly tract by Kirstin Petersen-Bidoshi. Kolin in Shkoder has an excellent entry in his blog about this practice. I was prodded to add my two cents to the discussion when I saw the latest version of this totem.

At first I thought I was witnessing the aftermath of a suicide. Hanging by the neck from the third floor balcony of a newly built villa near student city was a young girl. Dressed in red, shoes still on, a string of fake pearls dangling below the cord that bit into her neck. Her hands missing, replaced by three-inch screws .... wait a minute! Thats a mannequin! Evidently the concept of outdoing your neighbor even extends to protecting your new house from the covetous gaze of passers by.

The theory behind the practice is based on the belief that the gaze of certain people has the power to curse an object. Some people believe the power is only resident in certain classes of people. The Roma, are often suspected of having this power. Blue-eyed people are also more likely to be credited with the ability to curse with their gaze. Others believe the power comes from the intention of the person looking. If they look with envy or jealousy, those emotions are the source of the curse. Hence the dorodolec. If the eyes of the onlooker are distracted to the talisman, the curse is misdirected and the object being protected is spared the inevitable misfortune.

The Egyptians held similar beliefs. Also the Greeks, Romans, Hindu's, and nearly every Mediterranean culture. They each countered the threat in different ways. Turks use the nazar, a symbol resembling an eye. You see it on boats, airplanes, and on charms worn around the neck. Vehicles also sport the modern version of the nazar in the form of a compact disc dangling from the rear view mirror. It's shimmering presence quickly draws your eye, saving the car from the curse of your envy. Afghan and Pakistani "jingle trucks" are the apotheosis of this practice. Covered in all manner of garish, sparkly doodads, they afford little chance for you to covet the truck since you can hardly recognized its form under all the junk!

Yes, the dordolec is alive and well in Albania. I've seen Mickey Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and all four of the Teletubbies dangling from the top of houses. I must admit I think the Teletubbies deserve it. "Where's your hat now, Dipsy?" The talisman isn't limited to dolls. Garlic is often used as are horse shoes. It's all part of the constant battle against misfortune which crops up again and again in daily life here.

You hear it in the loving babble of grandparents who coo "O te keqen!" at every child. It's short for "Te marrsha te keqen" which loosley translates to "May I take the evil." It's a compliment that implies the child is so innocent and beautiful that the adult wishes to suffer all misfortune in the child's place.

Other verbal talismans include "Larg qoft!" which you hear in relation to expressed fears about illness or misfortune: "I'm worried little Flutura might catch cold at school."
"Larg qoft!" ("May it stay far away!")
The first time I tried to use this phrase I said "Larg qofte" meaning "distant meatballs!"

Marshallah is also very common as it is the only really safe way to compliment a child without the risk of calling misfortune on the child. Spitting evidently helps too. I suppose a child covered in spittle is less likely to draw an envious gaze and susequent curse. OK, they don't really spit. The practice has evolved from expectoration to just making a vocalized noise reminiscent of spitting. It sounds like "pu-pu-pu-pu-pu" and is used in conjunction with marshallah and te keqen.

There's a lot of superstitions that I am only just learning about. For instance, if you inadvertantly point a knife at someone, you must quickly tap the point of the knife three times on the ground. As strange as this seems, it pales in comparison with the latest custom I stumbled on.

While talking with co-workers about these practices, two females whispered something between themselves, giggled, and looked away. Of course I had to ask what was up. It took a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get them to speak up. Evidently, the only sure-fire protection from evil is for a woman to briefly touch herself. Yes, there! It can done through the clothing, but to ensure the strongest protection the touch must be skin-to-skin.

I was skeptical at first, but the all-knowing Wikipedia convinced me it could be a very ancient practice. The power of the "evil eye" was thought to bring a curse of withering in ancient times. The evil eye could bring drought, shrivelling, dessication, and infertility. To protect male children, an amulet shaped like a phallus was tied around their neck. Further protection was provided by a female presence. Proximity to the source of reproduction and fertility countered the dessicating effects of the curse. To this day, Albanian women invoke the mystic power of their reproductive organs in defense of themselves and their loved ones.

Distant meatballs, indeed.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pettifer Writes Again

Just in time for the beginning of the New Year and all the potential it brings, James Pettifer published a very interesting piece on Albania in light of Kosovar independence and the NATO invitaiton. It's a good read for those of you who have an interest in Albanian politics without getting too in-depth on the byzantine intricacies of the subject. The article was published in PDF format under the website of the UK Defence Academy. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Always the Same Problem

The holidays have come and gone here in Tirana and once again we find ourselves suffering from the same problem this country has had every holiday season:

THERE'S ......

NEVER .......


ENOUGH .......


Maybe it's just a case of "the more you have, the more you need!" Seriously, Tirana was lit up like never before this year. A lot more of the shops and homes got into the act with beautiful displays as some very garish lights. Gezuar Vitin i Ri!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Good News

I was wrong and I'm glad. A few posts down I wrote about the upcoming holiday season and how bad the traffic would be. I predicted chaos on the roads and a surging casualty count. I'm pleased to report Albania and it's drivers didn't live up (or down) to my expectations.

Oh, the traffic was bad enough this year. The head of the border police, Pellumb Nako, reported over 100,000 vehicles had crossed into Albania for the New Year holiday. That seems like a lot, but the streets of Tirana were teeming with Greek and Italian license-plated cars and I'm sure the situation was the same in all the major cities of Albania. Despite this deluge, there were relatively few reported traffic accidents. The weather was also very bad for driving, with up to a meter of snow in the mountains.

There were some crashes, including a few fatalities, mostly on the Highways of Death listed below. One unusual accident did grab my attention. Seems a late-night reveler got a little frisky with the throttle in the rain while heading down the boulevard next to the Lana river and went off the road. I imagine the internal dialogue went something like this:

"I can probably go just a little faster here..... Ooops, starting to slide left, better hit the brakes! Damn, where'd that curb come from. This is gonna suck! OK, a rollover. Not too bad. Car skidding along the grass on its roof .... Oh crap! Not the river, not the river. Get ready to roll again. What? Upside down IN the river. OK, it's not so bad. It's not too deep.... But it's the Lana!"

No doubt this driver headed home quickly for a long, hot shower. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of strolling along the Lana, let me illuminate you. The river serves as informal sewer for a good part of Tirana and is populated only by the elusive "Lana Brown Trout," if you get my meaning.