New Year in Derviçani: loving to come; dying to leave; fireworks; hate that won’t die; and a judo fantasy

14 Jan

Dropoli Road 1
I spent New Year’s Eve and Day in Derviçani, my father’s village in Albania, and as always it was an exhausting experience. No matter how well I arm myself emotionally to take this place on: knowing how it’ll test my eating and drinking prowess, my instant access to genealogical knowledge files, my capacity for being immersed in the constant love, attention, curiosity and just physical presence of scores of relatives, the emotional demands of everyone – not that they’re not normal; they’re perfectly sane – we’re the emotional cripples compared to them – the memories of those people lost who I never got to know, the steady haemorrhaging away of those who still remember those people and the mentally exhausting task of drawing often traumatic memories out of those who are still around; the whole community’s looking ahead with indifference to the past I’m here to excavate, while they’re still stuck in a different past I’d like to change: one of hurt, deprivation and ethno-religious – sorry I can’t call it anything milder – hatred — and especially around holidays – hatred armed — often hidden but nonetheless real and present and easily accessible; it all drains every drop of my emotional energy. All that, and then the going through the borders and customs and floodlights that still reek of Stalin and enclosure and entrapment…as soon as the vehicle has picked up speed and we’re riding through the ugly brush country of Greek Pogoni and on my way to Jiannena, my body feels this, excuse me, defecatory freedom that I only know from a New York cop letting me go with a typical: “Ok, git outta heeya.” I love coming here. I love leaving perhaps even more.

A friend of mine, E., who came here to a family wedding with me last summer, something of a professional Balkanist, I guess one would call him, sent me a very sweet email about what a “lovely evening” it must’ve been when I sent him pictures of the fireworks that Derviçani and all neighboring villages shoot off; but he should have known that all the bright lights might have had a slightly more sinister edge than is immediately evident. The immediately neighbouring village to the north of Derviçani is is the Muslim-Albanian Lezarates, for example, with whom we’ve had a centuries-long blood feud – why and how is lost in the past but I’ll give you what I know and why a bit further down. Needless to say, a fireworks display at New Year is anything but a piece of innocent joy. It’s a minor war-skirmish from a distance, which my buddy should have guessed.




To begin with, in the Greek villages of Dropoli, the valley south of Gjirokastër (Argyrocastro) down to the ridge and now Greek border of Mourgana, New Year is celebrated by Greek time, one hour ahead, while Albania is one hour behind. “They think they’re Italians,” we like to make fun of them. Then, among the fireworks, at least in the past, innocent Roman candle stuff, were also included the firing off of Kalashnikovs, dynamite, and what sounded to me, frankly, like rocket-propelled grenades…the Kalashnikovs are still around for sure. Then at midnight local time, the Albanian villages of the valley come out with an even bigger barrage of rockets’ red glare.  They blow it all. We wait about twenty minutes, and at 12:20 shoot off some more of our flares. They’re “Arvanites,” i.e. — you draw your own conclusions – so they shot off all their stock at one time, while we’re crafty Greeks who held back on some to send out a second ball-busting round a little bit later. A few tiny spurts from Lezarates itself or the Muslim Libohovo across the valley was all we got in return.


*   *   *

I wrote in my preface to Annia Ciezadlo’s beautiful piece on the Syrian refugees and Mytilene: “Be Like Water: The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.” that:

Across exactly from Mytilene is the Turkish town of Ayvali (Ayvalık). Ayvali was one of those products of the Ottomans’ improvisatory policies for managing the multiple ethnic and religious corporate groups that constituted the empire, and usually worked; in the 18th century, the coast of the Anatolian Aegean being underpopulated and underutilized economically, a grant was given to Greeks to settle the region that didn’t just encourage Greeks, but excluded Muslims from settling there, to make the area even more attractive for Greek settlers…



“And very soon, Ayvali grew, out of its seafaring activities and the fertility of its hinterland, into a prosperous and what is, architecturally, still a beautiful small Greek city, the object of much nostalgia in the Greek genre of Anatolian martyrology, but more, the symbol of what Patricia Storace calls “the voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with their former paradisiacal life on the Aegean coast…

[It’s also made Ayvali, the neighbouring island of Cunda, and the formerly Greek-inhabited islands of Tenedos and Imvros to some extent, newly fashionable for White Turk hipster tourists, since their parents’ generation didn’t get a chance to turn it all into Bodrum or Benidorm like they’ve done to the rest of the coast.  They’re the Aegean coast equivalent of Pera/Galata and like neighborhoods in Istanbul.  See my Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013]

“So the two regions came to fit into each other like a Yin/Yang symbol, and when the Exchange came, most Ayvali Greeks were settled in Mytilene, while the Turks of the island were shipped just across the water – the often treacherous channel were so many refugees today have drowned (it’s a great error – popular and tourist-based — to see the Aegean as a benign sea), and settled in Ayvali and its neighboring villages.”

“…the Ottomans did odd shit like this, to keep everybody happy and for the most part it worked.  Like Ayvali and its environs, in Istanbul, for example, in the 17th century the Porte granted the mostly Chian shipyard workers from the tershana in Hasköy on the Golden Horn/Keratio, the right to establish a village around the pre-existent shrine of St. Demetrios on the hilltop which the gulley up through Dolapdere leads to, and where no Muslims, weirdly, were allowed to settle.  This was the nucleus out of which the legendary Greek neighborhood of Tatavla grew, and which, due to its rough, working class character, was an intimidating place for Muslims to enter until the end of the Empire.  Except for its famous Carnival, when everyone was allowed.

“The same would happen in highland regions of Greece, Epiros especially — where remittances from emigrant locals provided the wealth to pay for it — and autonomous privileges were bought from the Ottoman authorities by groups of villages in return for a modest amount of self-government and the right to not have Muslims settle there and not be subject to Islamic proselytizing of any sort — violent or otherwise.”

*   *   *

For many reasons that’s not what happened in the Christian villages of the valley of Dropoli. At some point in the late 17th and early 18th century the region was subjected to a violent wave of Islamization. There are little bits and pieces I’ve been able to put together on my own, though I’m anything but a professional historian, but I haven’t been able to come up for a single, holistic theory of why this happened across what seems to have been much of the western Balkans at the time. Was it Mehmet IV’s failing at Vienna a second time, this time with the Hapsburgs chasing the retreating Ottomans as far south as Kosovo? (The subsequent Austrian withdrawal and the violent anti-Serb reprisals that followed — the whole internecine blood-letting mechanism worked like tragic clockwork — is part of what set off the Great Migration of the Serbs northwards at the time and accounts for the demographic shift of the of the Serbian nation’s center of gravity far north to the Hapsburg frontier and the movement of a great many Serbs across the Danube into Austria itself.) Was it the simultaneous urban revolt of what had always been the loyal city of Jiannena, under the leadership of a charismatic priest known as Dionyses Skylosofos, which had always sounded to me doomed from the beginning, and ended in the expulsion of the Christian population of the city from inside the walls – a common Ottoman response to infidel misbehaving – while the city’s walled neighbourhoods became exclusively Muslim and Jewish till the 1920s and the Exchange?

Was it the spread of Bektaşism that needed to be put down? Because this is the period when Bektaşism: an originally Sufi order from Anatolia that ended up becoming an Alevi-like, quasi Shia branch of Islam, eventually became Albania’s and Epiros’ most naturalized form of the religion. I asked a British academic that I once met personally and who’s a specialist on Bektaşism, and incidentally – or maybe not – of Turco-Jianniotiko descent himself, something I always wondered about: Bektaşism was pretty much the official Islam of the Janissary order and the Classical Ottoman period Janissary corps was of disproportionately Albanian, Serbian and Bosnian stock. We now know that Janissaries maintained much closer contact with their communities of origin than previously thought. Was the spread of Bektaşism in the western Balkans a kind of circular process, where young men taken away into the corps came back to their communities and there spread their new form of Islam, more digestible to Christians willing to convert: pacifist — paradoxically for a warrior corps — full of semi-Christian elements, again like Alevism, like music and dance and shared, liturgical feasts? “That’s an excellent question,” he responded, “but not one we have any way of answering.” (That’s the cynical explanation of Greeks of our parts anyway: that so much of southern and central Albania is Bektaşi because Albanians just couldn’t give up their drink.)

Dropoli Road 2.jpg

For our case, did the discouraging of Bektaşism by an Ottoman power-that-was, after a humiliating defeat that spelt out clearly that they were never getting the rich plains of Hungary back (as that ass Orbán insists on reminding us) and certainly not ever a chance at Vienna, go hand in hand with a wave of violent proselytizing and conversion in southern Albania/Epiros? That is, did defeat and suppressing disorthodoxy within the faith come hand in hand with converting the real giaourides as well? (Mind you, I’m not even sure there was any suppression of the Bektaşis at the time — sure only of that that occurred with the disbanding of the Janissaries in the 1820s by Mahmud II.)  The period left its mark on Dropoli in any event, whatever other events it was connected to.

There is, as a result, a violently defensive Greekness about our villages, which I’ve tried to respect and tried to free myself from intellectually and spiritually at the same time for most of my life, that is clearly a descendant of a violently defensive response to attempts at forced conversion. The “national anthem” of the Greek villages of Dropoli is “Δεροπολίτισσα,” “Dropolitissa,” — girl from Dropoli — a song heard at least once at every feast, wedding and other gathering:

“Dropolitissa, when you go to church,

When you go to church with lamps and candles.

Pray for us too, for us Christians,

For we’re being crushed by Turkdom*

And they’re slaying us like lambs,

Like lambs at Easter, like goats on St. George’s Day.”**

Μωρ’ Δεροπολίτισσα,
μωρ’ καημένη
μωρ’ Δεροπολίτισσα, ζηλεμένη,
βάλ’ το φέσι σου στραβά
σίντα πας στην εκκλησιά,
με λαμπάδες με κεριά
και με μοσχοθυμιατά.
Και προσκύνα για τ’ εμάς,
για τ’ εμάς τους Χριστιανούς,
τι μας πλάκωσ’ η Τουρκιά
και μας σφάζουν σαν τ’ αρνιά,

σαν τ’ αρνιά τη Πασχαλιά

τα κατσίκια τ’ Αϊ Γιωργιού.

* The word used is Tourkiá, not a plural, but a great, overwhelming singular mass, which is…I dunno…a collective noun, I guess, grammatically? The verb for “crushed” — “plakose,” comes from “plaka” which means “slab,” usually of stone.  The image is one of a great big slab of granite falling onto you.  Not Turks, but Turkdom: “Türklik”

** St. George’s Day is April 23rd always near Easter; with the Calendar change, it often comes before Easter, so if Easter is May 1st, like it will be this year, St. George’s Day will be moved to May 2nd so that so important a saint’s day doesn’t fall during the lenten period or Holy Week. So the two are closely related, in Greek folk songs, especially, one coming as the non-rhyme ending of the line after the first.

*** “Οι ερευνητές του 19ου αιώνα, Παναγιώτης Αραβαντινός και Κωνσταντίνος Σάθας, πιστεύουν ότι αναφέρεται σε εξέγερση του 1565 και στις τραγικές συνέπειες που είχε η αποτυχία της. Κατά τους Ν. Παπαδόπουλο και Α. Μαμμόπουλο το τραγούδι χρονικά πρέπει να τοποθετηθεί στην περίοδο 1600-1700.”

“According to folklore researchers Panagiotes Aravantinos and Konstantinos Satha, the song refers to the an uprising dated 1565 [before my estimate] and to the tragic results of its failure. According to N. Papadopoulu and A. Mammopoulo the song should date chronologically to the period between 1600 – 1700…[ which is more in keeping with my theory of larger Ottoman and Central European events — second siege of Vienna, Great Migration of the Serbs — and to local folk-historiography about the slaughter of Christians, the song itself and the conversion of Lezarates, all during and around the time of Mehmet IV’s reign, the spread of Bektaşism in the region – almost as a compromise form of religious change – all coming at around the same time and resulting in Dropolites’ reputation as Orthodox Christians of an almost nationalist fanaticism, including their later and current resistance to language change and…of course…as if Lezarates weren’t unpleasant enough neighbors, they’re inatlı refusal to ever forgive them for converting.]”

This is a recording of the song; though it’s from a formal folklore performance and the women aren’t wearing Dropolitiko dress (like in the very old photo below), the vocals and clarinet and violin soloists are superb.  Young Greeks suddenly became fascinated with our dronal, polyphonic singing, that of Greeks and Albanians in southern Albania, in the mid to late 90s.  And the style, the “code” of the dancers — I don’t know what to call it except the deadly seriousness with which we used to take our song and dance tradition, perhaps most important — is gorgeous:

Dropolitisses sitting

Apparently, the Christian peasant women of Dropoli, serfs essentially of the çiftliks of Gjirokaster’s ağas, went around till the mid-nineteenth century with a tattooed cross on their forehead, like Egyptian Copts still put on their wrists, to defensively state their faith, to prove a girl’s religion when/if abducted by a Muslim man, or to prevent seduction by sweet-talking Bektaşi babadhes, though there’s no living memory of that practice, at least not of Bektaşis as agents of violent conversion: if anything, quite the opposite. What there is living memory of, though, is of Lezarates and their ‘opportunistic’ conversion to Islam at some point in the early 18th century, for which they will never be forgiven: turn-coats that we will now have nothing ever to do with. And there’s the alternative, totally science fiction myth, that Lezaratinoi are descended from a legion of Janissaries who had some contagious disease, and were abandoned to die by their comrades on the bare rocky plateau that Lezarates is built on. And yet survived. And today’s Lezaratinoi are the descendants of these Janissary-cyborgs: ruthless, tough as nails…Albanian.

This is our view of them at least; maybe we should take a look in the mirror.

In any event, the depredations of the now upper-handed-because-Muslim Lezaratinoi –- constant raids, shootings, encroachment on flocks and fields, bride-snatchings — none of which any Christian in Ottoman times had any real legal recourse for — it meant taking things, and a rifle, into your own hands – had gotten to a point where the population of a once entirely Greek village located between the two villages, Kolortse, up and moved to the safety of numbers in Derviçani in the 1860s, and there’s still a sub-ethnic difference recognized between “Old” Derviçiotes and them.

Buci grave 1

The death toll of this current feud between the two villages – though nobody seems to know when we’re counting from – now stands at Lezarates 23 – Derviçani 21: that’s how many fatalities in the other community we’re each responsible for, the “Lazides” two points ahead. A not so recent one, but one that is pretty much illustrative of the whole “geist” of these incidents, is this young man, Gazmend Buci, shot at the age of 21 in 1999 while walking through some fallow field on the northern end of Derviçiotiko territory. Two Derviçiotes saw him there — this was a couple of years after the Albanian army just self-disbanded, and the entire state came close to collapsing, during an economic crisis caused by a ridiculous pyramid scheme the government was part of and when people had just walked off with anything the fleeing conscripts left behind: guys proudly driving tanks back home to their village, whole vans of Kalashnikovs pounced on and distributed to anybody who wanted one, or two or three if you had the guts, and it took the Albanian police quite a while to get things under control. But no mass collection or return of arms was ever conducted so you can bet that most households in the region still have one or two or more firearms under the floorboards.

He was “looking to steal” something was the excuse. What, what, what, he could’ve possibly been been looking to steal in the empty, gravelly no-man’s land between the two villages?…or is “stealing” just what Albanians do? Anyway, the Derviçiotes just blew him away with two volleys in the chest. His family took his body and buried him in Lezarates…but set up this semi-grave monument to him in 1999 in the middle of the Derviçiote’s empty field where he had been killed.

Now, you don’t think that’s the end of the story just because it happened in 1999, seventeen years ago, do you? As more and more Albanians of all countries and of all religion and ethnicity are migrating again: some, especially Kosovars, are joining the larger sweep of refugees heading north; others are leaving a Greece in deep economic doldrums, and returning north to their villages and trying to make use of the arable land they left lying fallow since they fled through the seemingly magic opened gate they feared would close on them again in 1990-91. These gulley-striated hills between Derviçani and Lezarates – the old lands of Kolortse – used to grow a deep black grape with a high sugar content and thick skin that could be left to macerate pretty heavily, produce a strong, tannic wine like a Cahors, and then still leave mash powerful enough to make excellent raki out of. And people are at it again. Fields dead since the 90s are sprouting everything you can imagine. It’s just a matter of time before the Derviçiote owner of this plot is going to put it to plow again and the kid’s from Lezarates soi is gonna come make a fuss about it and claims for blood price and a new round of other dumb, Balkan male shit will start all over again.

Buci grave 2.jpg

Especially now, Lezaratinoi are hurting economically. Because, between the late 90s and 2013, Lezarates gave up almost all other form of economic/agricultural activity and dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the cultivation of hashish.  And of excellent standard mind you, in case you think we’re all subsistence-level barbarians – this was hash of good Bordeaux quality; and not just producers of it, but merchants of Uzbek and Afghan product and blenders of some pretty fine dope that they sold through networks they had all over the rest of the Balkans and Europe. This made us happy because it kept them prosperous and off our case and we were free of the petty-and-not-so-petty thievery they were always supposedly agents of. If you had looked at a Google Earth map of the region at the time you could see the whole barren, rocky slopes south of Argyrocastro, and every field of Lezarates’ (Lazarat in Albanian) in a bright, fertile green.

Valley Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 8.40.26 PM

When you went into the village – which we Derviçiotes never do, out of both disdain and fear, but I did once out of curiosity in 2013 — it had turned into an Albanian version of a south Afghan Pashtun village, nothing but high, cement-brick walls, topped with barbed-wire loops, the random Mercedes that there was no room for with the others in the compound, sitting outside, and not just no women, like in Afghanistan – no people, at all – in the empty lanes, no coffeehouse, a pitiable little mosque put up recently for the wear-it-lightly Islam most Albanians practice. (I’m sure that if I could make a normal, human visit of the village and actually speak to people, there’d a ruined Bektaşi tekke, destroyed by Hoxha’s Chinese-inspired cultural revolution in the 60s, round a holy man’s grave that I could find, but…τρέχα γύρευε…στα μέρη μας…) But soon, I think, the European Union got wind, no pun intended, of what most of the Balkans had already known for years and a huge police operation moved in, burst into every family’s compound and burned everything they had growing to ashes – “even their basil,” said one cousin of mine from Derviçani with glee. And her glee was made even greater because Lezarates’ humiliation was augmented by the fact that the police operation had entered the village through the upper mahalladhes of Derviçani (see map above), and — don’t quote me, what the fuck do I know — but I’m pretty sure with info from Derviçiotes who had been doing business – of some sort – with them for quite some time.

*   *   *

So yeah

So yeah, E., New Year’s Eve in Derviçani was lovely. Great wine, great raki, the most delicious you might have ever imagined of any form of animal protein: lamb and rice, boiled ram, goat, farmers’ cheese with red peppers, feta, the paça and işkembe traditional on New Year’s Eve, the right sweets – kurabiye and melomakarona. A scary amount of heavily imbibed, hair-trigger male anger at a teenage kids’ game of twenty-one, the sound of vaguely artillery-sounding fireworks at midnight. And the relief that I’m no longer one of the kids, and don’t have to go out on a drive in the region on a night like that or go to a neighboring village’s – even a Greek one’s – café for a party or a “pop-up” disco in Argyrocastro that lasts till noon the next day.

Pitta 1.jpg

Pitta cutting 2.jpg

The next morning-more-like-noon comes the cutting of the Vasilopitta.  I had known that in certain parts of western Greek Macedonia, the Vasilopitta was an actual food, meaning, not a sweet çörek like in most of the north or a soggy poundcake like Old Greeks make, but pitta — spinach or cheese or cabbage — that the good luck coin was baked into, like it is in many sweet breads and cakes in many parts of the Christian world. I didn’t know that in Derviçani it was a deep dish börek casserole made with a yufka crust and filled with all of the previous night’s left-over, shredded meats mixed with tarhana and a copious amount of butter, all light as a brick and delicious but not as good as the leftover paça you’re looking for desperately for your hangover. I got the lucky “flouri” this year (from florin?) and promptly lost it.  What are you going to do?  “Δωρεάν ελάβατε, δωρεάν δώτε” – “Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

Pitta plate flouri 3

K., one of my favourite nephews, never not a joke or laughter on his tongue, never not a smile on his face, comes bursting into his “mana’s” (granma’s) house that midday, probably hasn’t been home yet, and among his stories of the previous night’s revelry is a stabbing, at a party at a bar in Argyrocastro, between two Albanian kids.  (This is fascinating: part of them — our kids — think they’re fabulously superior to Albanians, but unless things get ugly for some real reason, they’ll easily be best buds.)  “Ώ, μω…” says babo in the classic vocative call of the region, “Why didn’t one of you stop him?” “Cause then we’da had two stabbed guys to take to the hospital, μω μάνα…” trailing off in the the way the region’s drawl does…says K., giggling as usual.

Now ‘mana’ goes off on another song I had never heard before, but which is of the same timbre, and certainly same time period or, at least, subject matter:

Σ’ αυτή τη τάβλα πού’ μαστε

σε τούτο το τραπέζι,

Άγγελο φιλεύαμε και τον Χριστό ευλογάμε.

Και την Κυρά την Παναγιά, πολύ την προσκηνάμε.

Βοήθα Παναγία, για να γλιτώσουμε,

Κι όσες καντήλες νά’ χεις

Θα σ’ τις χρυσώσουμε.

“At this meal we’re sharing, and at this table where we are,

We were hosting an angel guest and blessing Christ,

And we were praying to our Lady Virgin.

Help us, Panayia, help us and escape,

And all the lanterns we have for you,

We’ll cover in gold.”

*   *   *

The rest of New Year’s Day is spent visiting Vasilys for their namedays – hoping for some quick raki for your hangover — and, for me, spending time with the old people who didn’t have the energy for pop-up parties or even for playing cards till past midnight. The personal stories I’m looking for are usually told me in some intimate corner when enough raki has been shared between me and teller; the teller wants to say it all but it’s too painful and difficult and the older they get the harder it is to get them up to speed; the tales’ status is already too reliquary to just blurt out all over the place — and there are too many young people around who don’t have enough memories of past totalitarianism — arrests, informings, beatings, labor camps, executions, mass graves — to think that the wandering misery and half-assed violence of now is really all there ever was – and they just won’t know how to pay the proper respect.

There’s a great deal of grumbling and complaining about their position as Greeks in Albania.  But other than the suffering of a totalitarianism past — I could never say any of this there openly, mind you — what’s the problem? Who knows, really? Do you know how good you have it – to me, at least, a person from the outside – I feel like saying? Your churches and schools are functioning unobstructed. The border that was a barbed-wired death-zone that kept people from their loved ones for generations is basically a formality now. The Orthodox Church of Albania is, in fact, headed by a Greek, Archbishop Anastasios, a cleric of exceptional intelligence and cosmopolitanism in the Bartholomew vein and compassion for what he knows is the wounded society that’s been given to him to heal. He’s rebuilt its destroyed institutions and churches and monasteries, opened up dialogue between Christians and the country’s Muslim majority so that relations between the two are probably better in Albania than practically anywhere else in the Muslim world.  And, in fairness to both Greeks and Albanians, liturgical practice and administration are fully bilingual according to community — in the best openness of Byzantine tradition.  He may have brought Greek and Albanian Orthodox closer than they have ever been in the past two hundred years of their history simply by recognizing Orthodox Albanians as Albanians and not as a part of his flock that needed to be “Hellenized.”

On a village cultural level, you’re the ones not taking care of your inheritance and birthright: your art and song and dance, your dress, your architecture – that made and make you what you are – so don’t blame the “Arvanites.” All that’s been forgotten in just two decades is mind-bogglingly sad: the singing that’s on UNESCO’s list of intangible art forms has practically died; you’ve torn down most of your traditional homes to build bad imitations of Northern Suburb villas. But you’re just still sitting around and talking about how Greece sold you out and the Protocol of Corfu and its promises of Northen Epirote autonomy reneged on. The contentlessness of nationalism. Even my hippest nephew, my favorite of all of them, who’s the d.j. and organizes the pop-up parties in Argyrocastro that go to midday of the 1st, and the only one likely to read this, is bitching about autonomy for the minority. And busy – well, in his case maybe not hating, just feeling slightly superior – but everybody else: hating. Like for its own effing sake. Even he, the super-suave one from Tiranë, who speaks more and better Albanian than he does Greek, got a little perturbed once when I told him that frankly I can’t see the difference between the kids from Libohovo (an Albanian Muslim village right across the valley from us) and our own. What for?

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.30.13 PM

The 2014 annual paneygyri of the Greek youth of Derviçani…(video by Alexandros Nekos)…in Albania, just to make sure…and here. They put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 — a short-lived experiment after the Balkan Wars that was then abolished due to Italian objections, since Italy considered Albania their sphere of influence — and the Albanian police came and made them take it down.

*   *   * 

I have this fantasy. And who knows what I’ll do with it one day, because right now it’s nothing but that…not a fantasy I hope or think might actually drop into my lap, or a dream I think I’ll ever find myself in the process of actively working towards. Just a fantasy…

Dropoli Road 3

I’d have a few million dollars and I’d find a big empty plot of land outside Derviçani somewhere, on a low hill, but no so low or central in the valley that the river would flood it every other year. And I’d build a big, architecturally beautiful judo dojo there: yeah, with a weight room or maybe an interior basket-volley-ball court; but mostly two, haydi, three, beautiful regulation-size tatami spaces, and cedar wooding and perfectly sprung floors that would suck up force like heaven. And it’d be a low-slung compound and look like kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie house, except with the beautiful grey-white local stone and where possible, large glass windows with views of the mountains all around.

I’d find two or three open-minded senseis to teach there. Fuck, I’d even invite Iliadis to come give guest-star classes, though this would piss off the Albanian kids, and the Greek kids would get irritated when the Albanians pointed out that Iliadis isn’t even really Greek.  Or I’d invite some of the other younger, the real, Georgians, Tchrikishvilli or Liparteliani – perfect candidates for these fuckers — if they’d come.  They’d be towards the end of their careers by then — God grant them many more victories — and they’d be used to the Eastern European living standards and they’d teach the slightly more rough-house ex-Soviet judo these kids would love. (We’d move on to a more elegant Japanese style later – for that I’d bring my man G. from Athens, or D. and A. even from New York as guest teachers, for the subtler understandings of certain things.)

Yes, at first they’d come armed and we’d have to pat them down. And we’d have to explain that jiu jitsu and judo were created precisely in order to fight with no arms. And that would take a while to permeate their thick Albanian/Greek skulls. But apparently it took a while to convince the Japanese of the same in the 19th century, when the carrying of weaponry was forbidden by the reforming Meiji regime to the samurai class, the only ones who had the privilege anyway, which I kinda don’t doubt. And I’d persevere. And knowing them, they’d first learn all the moves with which one can seriously do another guy damage. And we’d have to steer them away from that inclination. Tough.

Exterior of Robie House designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

Exterior of Robie House designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

There would be a lot of serious injuries in the beginning, but we’d have a good physical therapy team. And we’d spend the first few years explaining: “Guys, hurting each other is not what we’re here to do.”  And if they asked why we don’t do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or the so-called “Mixed Martial Arts” they see on television or YouTube, I’d tell them they’re not mature enough for that stuff and that judo is a much more difficult and challenging, and much more beautiful sport anyway…harder – more “archontiko,” as G. in Vyrona likes to say.  It’ll be a base for anything else they might want to learn after. And that single element: “archontia” – style, elegance, nobility, seriousness and sobriety — bet you any money, would convince them.

Most importantly, membership would be free to kids from Derviçani and one super-low, nominal price for kids from any of the region’s neighbouring villages in Gjirokastër county –irrespective of language or religion.

And given the physical and mental toughness land this hard breeds, the steely alacrity, and the perseverance and stubbornness – or just the inat that’s our curse that we can transform into something else if we want to — we’d have an international level, at least juniors,’ team put together in a matter of years.  And the place would be a lightning rod that would suck up all that extra testosterone and drive it right into the earth.

And then maybe something would snap. And something would come of it. And they’d see themselves all as a team and not as Greeks and Albanians or Christians and Muslims.  And then you’d see. The whole region would change.

Dropoli Road 4


Post-datum: A Kosovar production of an Albanian-Serbian Romeo and Juliet was produced in Belgrade last year, directed by one of Serbia’s most prestigious actors, Predrag Miki Manojlović, as a cooperation between Radionica Integracija: Belgrade and Qendra Multimedia: Priština.  Read Armandra Kodra Hysa’s  glib and cynical to the point of nastiness review of the production in The Balkanist.  It’s the perfect example of “throw out the good because it’s not perfect” pettiness and more of the negativity our countries already have an excess of.  It’s infuriating.  It’s a start Anthro Al!  I’d love to see it staged at the dividing Mitrovica Bridge too.  But you can’t ask for too much too fast. That there was no violence is cause enough for some contentment.  Forget about recent soccer nonsense; do we remember the reception given Angelina Jolie’s Land of Blood and Honey when an attempt to screen it was made in Belgrade a few years ago?  Think of how far from that this has come.

Below are Alban Ukaj as Romeo and Milica Janevski as Juliet.




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