26 Jan 16

Spiritual Awakenings

Vladimir Karaj

Faith finds ways into a country childhood in communist Albania.

The mosque in Kuturman,  Çermenika, the author's home village, and surrounding countryside | Photo: Vladimir Karaj.

I was born into a world where the otherworldly was banned. Faith was considered reactionary in the Albania of 1982. It barred progress, it set you back. So under Enver Hoxha's brand of hardline communism, it was simply not allowed.

Comrades from the Sigurimi, the secret police, watched to make sure no one lit a candle for the spirit of the dead or fasted during Ramadan. In effect, there was only one God and he was a balding elderly man in a light grey suit who smiled from retouched photos in the living rooms of almost every home, in every classroom and workplace.

It seemed like Hoxha was watching everybody behind the glass of the picture frame, or from the large portrait overlooking the square in our village of Cermenika in the east of the country.

One day, probably after communism crumbled in 1990, “God’s photograph” in our living room fell down and its frame broke. My uncle took it away to glue it back together, but my pipe-smoking grandpa — a communist but never a fan of the ban on religion— declared with prayer beads between his fingers: “Leave it. God brought him down.”

Hoxha’s regime was ruthless in trying to crush spiritual life but, as with almost everything else it sought to enforce, it failed miserably in the end. Indeed, my country childhood was filled of magic, fairies and ghosts.

Babies that died sudden deaths were really baby dragons born to fight hydras, my aunt would say and believe, and they stopped breathing after someone other than their mother saw their wings.

When a wart stiffened the skin of my thumb at the age of five, my mother took me to an old lady who would “blow it away”. I remember the gust of her breath on my thumb, and also her strange whispers. Somehow, the wart was gone in a few days, and this experience was incomparably more enjoyable than going to the dentist.

And all of us were scared of Lluka, the river monster who took pleasure in swallowing little children. “Beware, Lluka will eat you!” we were told. We had never seen Lluka, nor had she gulped down any of us, but she definitely swallowed one or two babies in the time of our grandfathers.

God too found ways to seep in.

I experienced my first religious festival during that time, although I learned its religious significance only as an adult. This was the Summer Day (Dita e Verës). It honours a fairy - zanë in Albanian - every March 14.

Vladimir Orel, a Russian etymologist who compiled an Albanian dictionary, thinks the word zanë is related to the Latin name Diana, the forest deity, goddess of hunting, the moon and childbirth. The feast included rituals of setting fire to stakes around the village and putting a clod of earth at the main door of the house.

The person who woke up first in the house that day would sprinkle water over all the other family members who were still asleep. Children would wake up to sweets, fruit preserves, and a game in the yard involving four nuts which my grandmother called vol, our own version of pétanque.

Communism did not bother to stop this ritual, though we knew from school how wrong superstition was.

People celebrate Summer Day with a traditional picnic in the hills of Krraba near the city of Elbasan | Photo: Vladimir Karaj.

As dictatorship withered away in the early 1990s, missionaries of all sorts of denominations poured in from all corners of the world. I remember American Protestant evangelists bringing us children together one evening to watch an animated film on the life of Jesus in a makeshift open-air cinema.

I barely recall the movie, but I was agape at how pebbles we threw up in the air were transformed into bright sparkles by the floodlights.

Muslim charities claimed the potato storage depot at the top of the village to turn it into a fully functioning mosque again, equipped with a new, whitewashed concrete spire for a minaret. History books now included references to religion, and we were taught how Albanians had changed creed multiple times down the centuries. Indeed, even though my village was Muslim, two landmarks were called The Place By the Church.

Religion was now present in many different ways. The feasts of the main religions became national holidays - Christmas, the two Eids celebrated by Muslims, the eastern and western Easters, and the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, celebrated by the Bektashis, the Islamic mystical movement that is Albania's fourth main religion. Such frequent days off made elementary school more bearable.

At the age of 14, I left my family home to go to high school in another town. We were 10 boys in our dorm, from different backgrounds: Sunni Muslims, Bektashis, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians. The dorm introduced me to the people and the faiths behind all those holidays.

For many years now, Albania has taken pride in the fact that people from different faiths have lived peacefully side by side, just as we did in that dorm in the 1990s. But the emergence of an intolerant strain of Islam in recent years has placed strains on this tradition of coexistence. Will we be able to live together in the same way in the years to come — people of different faiths and of none?

That is the question I wanted to explore in my fellowship story.

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