نحن قوم أعزنا الله بالإسلام ، فهما طلبنا العزة بغيره ، أذلنا الله

We are the people whom Allah honoured through Islam, so whenever we seek honour other than it, Allah will disgrace us.

The blog is under slow transition to http://specifichumidity.wordpress.com

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


::The Traveller’s Log::
III : What to eat?

‘These European Muslims are unlikely to make any great contribution to the general life of Islam in the visible future, but influences from other parts of the Islamic world might some day lead to revival and renewal among them.’
[Montgomery Watt, What is Islam, (1968)]

Since leaving Berat, the city of One Thousand Windows which had functioned briefly as the capital of liberated Albania close to the end of WWII, we had not had any proper meal. It was not because we were cheap, but more so due to the scarcity of a halal eating place; a surprising fact not withstanding with post-Communist Albania open assertion of its Muslim identity.

We had stopped briefly in Elbasan, to connect with the train, whose timetable I had secured through some crude ways prior to leaving the UK, and to break for the daylight prayers. Included in the itinerary was also a planned lunch, but as we made our way to the small, modern mosque in the middle of the town, a man told us that apart from a bakery, there was no other halal place. The restaurants here in Elbasan, as also in the capital and in Berat, were mostly owned by the country’s Christian community, or by lax Muslims who, after more than a century under Communism, no longer give distinction between what is halal and haram.

Along the way to the train station, we passed several groceries, where we were able to buy some Turkish biscuits, potato crackers and bananas. We ate all the bananas and crackers on the slow train journey, which severely affected our time of arrival in Pogradeci, and with that any hope to find place of respite for our grumbling stomach.

The last row of Turkish cream biscuits was all we had that night in Pogradeci, before we retired to bed. Thankfully, tiredness overwhelmingly overtaken us and the demanding stomach had little chance in stopping us from getting some sleep.

The Turkish cream biscuit, however, is a common sight in Albania, and as we were later to discover, in all Balkans groceries, street stalls and town markets we were to visit. Although the Ottoman had all vanished, the influence from Istanbuli was still strong here in the Balkans. In Budapest, when I visited the city a year ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a halal Turkish restaurant selling Adana and Urfa kebab, right in the main thoroughfare of the city. The tomb of Gul Baba, the primary objective of my visit to the Hungarian capital was well-maintained, owing largely to handsome annual contribution from the current Turkish government. Similar endowments, from the government, private foundation and the public of Turkey, contribute to the preservation of countless other Islamic and Turkish monuments all over Balkans. Islam here, like the local biscuit industry, dependent still, in many ways, on the supply coming from Turkey.

Despite whatever the press and historians wanted us to believe, the relationship between the Balkans and the Ottoman, though indeed was mostly of the love-hate type, was not much due to religious hatred or racial discrimination, than political enmity and jostling for power which used religion and race to substantiate their claim. At least as far as the Ottoman was concerned, this was true and one need not look far from the Vizierate of the three sultans reigning during the most important period of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.

Length of rule
Grand Veziers
(by nationality)

Murad III (1574-1595)
20 years, 1 month
(Grand Vezier changed 11 times)

Bosnian-Croat (11 years),
Albanian (7 years),
Cicassian (1 ½ years), Unknown (6 months)

Muhammad III (1595-1603)
8 years, 11 months
(Grand Vizier changed 12 times)

Bosnian (4 years),
Albanian (3 years, 10 months),
Turk (1 month),
Sicilian (2 months),
Unknown (9 months)

Ahmed I (1603-1617)
11 years, 11 months
(Grand Vizier changed 6 times)

Bosnian-Croatian (6 years, 10 months),
Albanian (3 years, 2 months),
Turk (2 years, 1 month),
Armenian (1 year, 1 month)

The Ottoman was true the pure administrative value of the faith that it founder, Osman Ghazi, had vowed to represent. The Caliphate showed nor affiliation or preference to any races, despite its heads continually from the Turkish House of Osman, interracial marriage was a common feature in the royal family, the administrative bodies were fully of people from various cultural background and religious identity. The Sultan Muhammad III, for example, had a Jew by the name of Solomon Askenazi appointed as the court physician, a post that endowed him a great influence within the royal circle. Another lady, Esther Kira, was an influential Jewess in the Harem, and was known to have influence over the Sultan Valide (Sultan’s Mother) if not upon the Sultans (Murad III and Muhammad III) themselves.

It was under the Ottoman system that many great leaders were groomed, and even as the Caliphate fallen apart in 1920, it was its administrative legacy that had ensured and formed the new administration emerging in Syria, Algeria and elsewhere. The rise of Pan-Arabism aimed to cut off its ties totally from the Caliphate, but in the Balkans, despite suppression under the Communists, the vigour and idealism of the Ottoman Caliphate survived and lent its ideology to Izetbegovic’s Pan-Islamism, which he bravely and astutely proclaimed in his ‘The Islamic Declaration’:

“Pan-Islamism has always come from the very heart of the Moslem peoples, nationalism has always been imported. Consequently, the Moslem peoples have never had ‘aptitude’ for nationalism. Should one be distressed by that?”

I was never distress by that fact; what faced us the next day when we woke up was more appropriately distressful. First, we had woken up a bit late, barely able to do our morning prayer within the time. We unpacked and reordered our stuffs in the backpack and went downstairs to the restaurant hoping for breakfast.

We had no worry about its opening time; people in Albania and Balkans as a whole, wakes up very early in the morning. Buses and minibuses departed from cities as early as 5 am. However, the late afternoon services dissipated very quickly. By 5 pm, it was hard to find transportation to cities or town more than an hour distance away. Apparently, years of banditry that plagued the rural areas of Balkans had produced this system, and despite the government successful effort in combating banditry, nothing has changed the transport system, and with it other aspect of Balkan life that revolves around it.

We enquired about breakfast, and failed spectacularly to make ourselves understood. The restaurant owner invited me into the kitchen area, and the ladies helpfully scooped up things hidden at the bottom of large pots of gravies. In one I saw pieces of meat, but was unable to tell what the origin was. In another, I was shown hoofs of cows. In the other, to my shock and horror, was what appeared to be like a snout of the snorting animal.

Appalled by what I saw in the last pot, I walked back to my companion, who was sitting at the table guarding our bags.

‘They have rice,’ I said, and trying hard to put a positive tone, ‘And meat.’
‘Halal?’ he asked.

I spurned around and saw a large portrait of St Mary adorning the wall. An equally large cross adorned the opposite site.

‘Rasanya tak.’

My companion had an unemotional look. ‘Aku tak kisah. Aku lapar sungguh ni!’

‘Aku tak tahulah daging yang dia tunjuk tu daging apa. Kalau kau nak makan juga, cumanya aku tak sure mereka ni Kristian jenis apa. Kalau practising dan kalau Orthodox, mungkin boleh, tapi aku tak tahu macam mana nak tanya,’ I said.

We had to decide. The stomachs were empty, but the journey was still long and we will have to cross a border. None of us knew what awaited us there; it could be smooth sailing, it could be worse than the short, casual interrogation we had when we tried to enter Albania via the port of Durres. My faithful companion, who had yet to make noises over any of my, sometimes could accurately be termed, selfish decisions, had also been complaining of a throbbing headache, made worse by the sudden storming of snow and dropping temperature outside.

We looked to each other, groping for an answer. The warning of the Balkan Sufi-poet of old, Mustafa Huluki in his diwan, meanwhile, hanged in the air,

‘How many a worshipper and servant of God, who displays
His integrity and his piety, yet who, in the closet, is in direct contact with sins,
If he beholds the Dinar, bows adoringly, and says, O
Lord of ours, O fulfiller of our needs, our heart’s desires.’

Sunday, February 05, 2006


::The Traveller’s Log::
II : A miracle?

‘To those who have not visited them, the Balkans is a shadow land of mystery; to those who know them, they become ever more mysterious… You become, in a sense, a part of the spell, and of the mystery and glamour of the whole. (…) Intrigue, plot, mystery, high-courage and daring deeds – the things that are the soul of true romance are today the soul of the Balkans.’

Arthur Douglas Smith, 1907

I did not have to count jumping sheep, or from one to a hundred, or imagined twinkling stars. Sleep came effortlessly; I snugged beneath the woollen blankets and immediately dozed off to sleep like a baby.

The room at the nameless guesthouse, on top of a nameless restaurant, was cosy, and more than what we could have hope for. The police minivan had dropped the train conductor and us, in front of a grocery store last night. The conductor had said that it is bad for us not having any particular hotel booked in advance. Have we not planned our journey? This is dangerous and foolish, especially this late at night at a border town, he reprimanded us.

But hope is not lost. He knew a place where we can get a room. Pray tell, if they are still open. We have to hurry, he said, bidding us to follow him.

We walked along the deserted streets of Pogradeci in silence, the train conductor was leading us, and himself was completely drowned in his own thoughts. I have started to like the man. When I looked at him from behind, walking happily, perhaps entertaining the thought of his wife and the two grandchildren he said waiting at home, I glimpsed the figure of my late grandfather, an ex-police sergeant, who was stern and uncompromising in his dealings with strangers, but a generous, protective and doting grandfather to all of his grandchildren. I shrugged off the painful thought almost instantaneously; the grandfather had passed away within days before my departure to the UK, and the memory of him brought me back within his final hours, when he had writhed in pain on my very own lap.

Instead I ruminated on how lucky we had all been today. The train conductor and his police friends had been thoughtful enough to allow us into their minivan for a free ride into town. My companion and I for a short few minutes had doubted the Albanians friendly gestures, and were convinced that we were destined to spend the night in some hideous ex-Communist prison. We could imagine the faces of our friends back in the UK, who now might have their last laugh at us and our witless travel. Only a miracle could save us!

Thinking about miracle, my mind trailed back to some Sufi-Dervish stories I have learnt some time ago. In one such tale, two religious men, one a Sufi and the other a Dervish, travelled from their hometown in Khurasan to perform the pilgrimage. The dervish, the practitioner of the Sufi Way but not yet a Perfected Man came back to his village with the stories of his adventures:

‘Traversing Persia,’ he said, ‘I was surrounded by bandits, thirsting for my blood and hoping to plunder me. But I called upon the Name of God, and they suddenly took flight. In Syria, a lion pounced upon me and was about to break my neck, when he slunk away as soon as the Name of God was recited. In Arabia, I fell from the back of my camel and broke my leg. I bound it with a cloth I had recited the Name of God over it, and it healed swiftly.’

The dervish made such an impression on his people that he was appointed the village spiritual leader. His fame travelled beyond Khurasan and people flocked to receive his audience.

The Sufi, the Perfected Man, travelled back to his village without a single incidence happened to him. ‘You mean no perils, no attacks, and no disasters?’ people, craved for wonders from the Sufi, persuaded him. ‘No. Nothing at all.’ Finding him short of strange things, people took leave of him, and went to the dervish. It was not after the Sufi had passed away, that another Sufi explained to the people, that the miracle of being protected from all calamities is a far greater one than miracles which have to come into being after the bad luck has descended.

Knowing that neither me nor my travelling companion was properly a Sufi or a Dervish, my heart sank, regretting the years not spent in bowing and prostrating, as if these alone could have made miracles become handy at time of desperation. I was stinking of ignorance.

When we finally got off the minivan, and the policemen waved and shouted energetically, ‘ Natën e mirë’ - meaning Good Night – I gladly returned their waves, guessing silently whether a miracle has indeed happen or not. Then, I shockingly realised we had fall foul of the very notion about Balkan we had tried hard to make our friends understand.

In Western literature, the Balkan region has persistently been regarded as a land of contradictions and secrets, and despite the collapse of Yugoslavian Federation this myth has not drastically changed. Perhaps the Yugoslav wars that follow accentuated further this notion. The negative spotlight cast over the region, due to the raging wars, revived the historical metaphor of the ‘Balkan powder keg’, ever ready to explode.

Now, as we walked its streets, the Balkans remains the eternal heart of European darkness. In media, and in the mind of people who never venture to see Balkans as it is, despite its growing importance, interesting profile and hybrid, multiethnic and multicultural character, its gloomy secrets remains mysteriously unveiled.

We should have known better, having treaded on the soil of Albania for the past one week. In nearly every corner of the country, the people, Muslims and Christians alike, had showered us with untold hospitality.

When we were lost, in the capital Tirana, looking for a bus station that only existed in our guide book’s map, the local people went out of their way to help. A man suggested a ride on his motorcycle and a shopkeeper had almost offered us a lift to the actual site, when a policeman, who had come to investigate what the commotion was all about, for indeed when Albanians discuss among themselves they tend to shout and shrieked, and then looking back at the startled foreigners they would smile and apologise for their manners and then resume their spirited discussion, came up with a much better idea.

Putting on his white glove on, and a red whistle in mouth, waived a local bus, already pack down the steps and to its door with people, to stop. He went up to the bus driver, ordered him to bring us to the closest point to the bus station and warned him not to charged us anything, and pushed us in. I, with my bulky rucksack, just managed to squeeze in, had to hang tightly to the step’s bar, for dear life. When the bus had moved, the ticket conductor, who was deep inside the bus, and was unaware of what had happened, had reached us to demand the fare. He was surprised when the driver, and the crowds, shouted back to prevent him from charging us. Wow, I never knew that Albanian police had such an influence.

The Albanians, at least as so far as we had seen up to this point, were not congenitally irrational and bloodthirsty mobs as would often be portrayed by the Western media. It is so unfortunate that the Albanians and the Balkans are viewed in the opposite stubbornly by the Western media and Western policy makers, including those who have participated or are still participating in the crisis, and whose influence helps to perpetuate the myths.

I blamed the panic that crept in as we found a comfortable seat on the minivan. We were strangers in a strange land and when nervous, our emotions and rational return to what is most familiar, presented none other by the Western media: a picture of Balkans that is full of chaos, and people who are never happier than when they are slitting the throat of their neighbours.

When we arrived at the nameless restaurant, the restaurateur, who also rent out rooms upstairs, was about to call it a day. We took a seat near the door while the train conductor, who seemed to know the restaurateur rather well, bargained for us a room. He came back asking if 5 Euro sounds good to us. Of course, it was. Anything sounds good to travellers who had had enough of the day!

In post- communist Albania, as also elsewhere in the post-Yugoslav Balkans, tourism is a nascent industry, and good hotels are not in abundant. Most hotels in Tirana advertised themselves at about 15 Euro per night per person without breakfast. The homely, traditionally-built hotel in ancient Berat was truly an exception. We had a big, carpeted, en-suite room for 8 Euro per night per head, with a hearty breakfast thrown in.

The Pogradeci hotel had an oldish air to it, but the heating system was on placed, and we were able to wash under refreshingly hot water. Only after we had clean ourselves, and performed the night prayers, that we realised we have not done one more important thing.