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.

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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.


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