One of my personal goals while serving as a PCV in Albania was to read an entire book in Shqip. Unfortunately I don’t see that being a realistic possibility, but I have a close second. I’m going to read as many books by Shqiptare authors as I can. And the best of those authors is easily Ismail Kadare. Kadare has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times but never won. His books are known for their tangible descriptions of Albanian culture…which is exactly why I’m trying to read them all. Every time I finish another of his novels, I feel like I have a better and deeper understand of this strange place that I’m living in.
On that note, I just finished this book (Broken April) by Ismail Kadare and I can’t recommend it enough. I picked it up casually the other day and then spent an entire afternoon sitting on my porch reading; I seriously couldn’t put it down. That might not be the case for those of you who don’t know Albania, but for me this book was so real it was jarring. From the way he describes the feeling of being cold to your bones when you live in the mountains to his images of the mountainmen wondering along the winding roads in northern Albania…I was smiling and shaking my head and laughing and crying at every word because it was just so true and accurate to what I see around me. And the man wrote the freaking book like 30 years ago and has been living in France ever since. That’s how much Albania has changed over the years (aka not very much).
So this entire book attempts to explain the Kanun and how it has sculpted the culture of northern Albania by telling the story of a young man who is born into a blood feud and is pre-destined to die because of it. It tells his journey to avenge his brother’s blood and the last month of his life before his own murder is avenged and he loses his life as well.
To give you a little background, the Kanun is a book that was written more than 200 years ago and it is the reason why the tradition of blood feuds were started in Albania in the first place. It’s the bible and constitution of the mountains all rolled into one.
Way back when, the north of Albania was completely beyond the realm of the police and the government (due to distance, lack of infrastructure, harsh terrain, etc.). So to create their own form of law and order, Leke Dukaqjini wrote this code called Kanun which explains every single aspect of life – it tells the roles of each member of the family; it tells the punishments for every kind of crime; it tells how to get married, how to cut your hair, how to baptise, how to treat a guest, how to have a funeral, how to sell your produce, how to keep your house…literally everything. And people here take the Kanun seriously, even still today. It’s the reason blood feuds still exist in Shkoder. The code of Leke Dukaqjini is so ingrained in these people that try as negotiators might, the tradition of blood feuds runs too deep to be stopped.
Reading this book is like reading 1984 or Animal Farm or Anthem or The Giver…except that it’s real. The laws of the mountains under the Kanun seem so cruel and outrageous and far-fetched that they must be from someone’s imagination. I kept saying to myself, you have to be joking. But then I found a copy of the Kanun in English and couldn’t believe the reality I was confronted with. And to think that people in Albania still live by these laws. Its terrifying and awe-inspiring and mind-boggling all at the same time.
So here are some of my favorite rules and laws from the Kanun, just so you can get a taste:
900. Kanun extends the blood-feud to all males in the family of the murderer, even an infant in the cradle; cousins and close nephews, although they may be separated, inur the blood-feud during the 24 hours following the murder.
918. Blood is never unavenged.
9.10 If someone abuses me and I kill him, I incur blood.
911. If someone comes to set fire to my house, and I catch him and kill him, I incur his blood.
912. If someone comes to robe me and I kill him, I incur his blood.
945. If a gun is fired accidentally, its owner incurs the blood-feud if someone is killed or wounded.
962. If a son kills his mother, he incurs the blood-feud with his mother’s parents.
988. Once the hearts of the members of the family of the murderer and the family of the victim have been reconciled, they drink some of each other’s blood. Two small glasses are taken and filled halfway with water or raki. Then one of the friends ties together the little fingers of the two parties and pricks them with a needle, causing a drop fo blood from each to fall into the two glass.
It goes on and one like this. And talk about overly specific stipulations in law…the Kanun covers even the most bizarre possible situations that might occur:
913. If someone comes to empty my sheepfold, and I seem him driving the flock before him and he refuses to release them regardless of what I say, if I kill him I incur the blood-feud.
946. If someone enters another person’s house and, while hanging his rifle on a hook, the strap breaks and the rifle discharges, killing someone in the house, the owner of the rifle incurs the blood-feud.
951. If someone kills a pregnant woman and, upon opening her body, it is found that she was carrying a boy, the murderer aside from paying for her blood, must pay 6 purses for the boy; if she was carrying a girl, he must pay 3 purses for the child and 3 purses for the woman.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”