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ENGLISH VERSION6 мая 2008 7:41

Albania sticks with who's stronger... Today's U.S. is the USSR of yesteryear

U.S. flags hang high in Albania as a sign of thanks for independent Kosovo. But everyone over 40 remembers Russian and sings Soviet songs
Darya Aslamova with Lucciano Augustini, pontiff of the Albanian Catholic Church.

Darya Aslamova with Lucciano Augustini, pontiff of the Albanian Catholic Church.

Final installment. See the previous installment in the May 5 issue.

Oddly enough, Albanians love us!

Ram legs, intestines and a carafe of house wine stood on the table of the roadside restaurant. An elderly Albanian intellectual named Socrates recited Yesenin. After half an hour, I admitted defeat. Socrates knew our poetry much better than I — the daughter of a Russian poet. He recited brilliantly, drinking red wine and demanding Soviet songs.

"Let's sing the one about soldiers and birch trees," he said.

I was stunned. "Aha, I forgot you're from another generation!" I said. "You know our old Soviet war songs. How about, 'So Many Beautiful Girls,' instead?" A second later the power went out. We sat there singing Soviet songs in the dark. Guests at neighboring tables hummed along quietly.

Socrates is of a generation of Albanians that remembers the country's short fervent friendship with the Soviet Union. Soviet specialists organized an education and health care system in Albania, and built companies and military objects. Almost 2,000 Albanians were educated in the Soviet Union, and some even married Russian women. The Soviet mechanism for making friends in warring nations is worthy of admiration. The state provided young energetic foreigners with knowledge and in turn received eternal sympathy and/or loyalty.

When the two countries' friendship ended unexpectedly, Russian remained an obligatory subject at schools for 10 years. So if you ever get lost in Tirana, you can ask almost any Albanian over 40 for help in Russian.

When our accumulator died, two older men walked over to our car and offered to push us down the road. When they learned that we were Russian, they were visibly pleased.

"We can't speak Russian, but we understand almost everything," they said.

In short, Albania isn't Kosovo where locals don't care much for Russians. Albanians are very hospitable and always ask you to drop by for a drink. It's an old tradition that swallows a fair share of the family budget. Even the secretary of an Islamic organization invited me for a shot of rum. Usually the meeting begins with coffee — and ends where it ends...

Edmund Ziso runs a local alcohol factory and is crazy about Russia and Russian vodka. Russian birch trees blossom on the territory surrounding his plant. He keeps a superb collection of vodka in the cellar.

"What do you like so much about vodka?" I asked. "It's so sour! Balkan rakia is much better." We sat in the cool cellar and warmed up drinking shots of 50-year-old rakia.

"You don't understand!" Ziso said. "Vodka is an ideally clean drink. I'm telling you as a chemist. Vodka is neutral and stresses the flavor of any dish."

Ziso is a dreamer and a realist. He's gone to Russia on numerous occasions to organize shipments of Russian vodka to Albania. But he always stumbled across Russian bureaucracy and unbearably high prices.

"But that's okay," Ziso said. "Everything will work out. As soon as I start bringing Russian vodka to Albania, I'll open a Russian club — sprat, herring, caviar, salted foods, volba. Albanians interested in Russian culture will meet and enjoy traditional cuisine, literature and conversations. It will be wonderful."

Ziso even does business with Serbia. "You're not afraid to get killed?" I asked him.

"It's not me that needs to worry. It's my liver!" he said. "I can't drink like the Serbs. But a brave man is respected everywhere. When I say I'm Albanian, they always invite me to have a drink. Generally speaking, I think you Russians are too taken with these Serbs. They don't deserve it! I mean what did the Serbs do for you anyway?"

"What can they do?" I asked. "They're small and we're big."

"Eh, they won't do anything for you," Ziso said. "They're just using you for their own ends."

"But the Serbs are our relatives, and you don't choose your family," I said. "Good family or bad, rich or poor, it doesn't make any difference. You don't betray your own."

Most liberal Islam

Heavy rain poured on the street. I was met outside the entrance to the holy temple, known as a tekke, by the young dervish Mikel. Completely forgetting I was talking to a devout Muslim, I extended my hand to him in greeting. Much to my surprise, he reciprocated and said energetically: "Welcome to our temple!"

Inside I saw rows and rows of cold rooms (there's no central heating in Albania), carpets and pale green walls. I was shocked when I saw the huge statues, goblins with woven images of Imam Ali, paintings with Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima and Imam Ali, and chubby Christian-like angels.

"Forgive me, dervish Mikel. But aren't paintings and statues forbidden by Islam, especially with images of Prophet Muhammad?" I asked.

"People give us gifts out of the kindness of their hearts. We don't refuse them," he said.

I'm was at the Tirana Bektashism Center. The influential dervish sect was founded in the 15th Century in Turkey. The religion was prohibited in 1826 due to its tolerance and love of freedom and officially exiled in 1925 during Ataturk's secular reign. Today, Albania is an international center of Bektashism (one million believers, or one-third of the population) and keeps close contact with members all over the world. The Bektashi are often referred to as "Islam's epicureans." They're open, enjoy life, forgive human evils and are kind-hearted toward Christians.

"Тhe tekke is something like a monastery," Mikel said. "The dervish live here, but anyone can seek refuge among us. We also have a hotel for wayfarers. They used to build these temples so that the traveling distance between them was no more than 6 hours. No one here has the right to ask what your faith is or who you are. The shelter is open for everyone. We have Bibles and Orthodox icons that foreigners give us. Sometimes I think that future archaeologists will have a hard time deciphering our tekke. 'Who were these people?' they'll ask. 'What did they believe in? The Koran, Bible, crosses, icons and a mosque? Who were they?' That will be a difficult riddle to solve! But we just love God and people" "How do you Muslims feel about wine and pork?" I asked.

"There's nothing wrong with a glass of wine," he said. "What enters the mouth is good and what leaves the mouth is bad. Moderation is very important. Too much food or alcohol leads to vulgarity, insult and vomit. But you can't force people to be righteous. You can only point out their mistakes, but violence is forbidden. Our dervish are missionaries. In the past, they wandered the world and gave people the gift of enlightenment through Islam. They lived according to basic rules — 'Only teach using the language of the people. Defend the interests of the people sheltering you wherever you live. Accept their culture and if you don't agree with changing times, learn to walk with them.' Cars, computers, Internet and mobile phones. Does this contradict a love for God?" The young dervish touched me with his gentleness, understanding and tolerance. This is why the Bektashi are known for their "human beliefs" — love life in religion, and religion in life.

Attempts to bring radical Islam to Albania have been unsuccessful. Rich Arab nations like Saudia Arabia and Kuwait built mosques in Albania that have young radical members — but they are few.

"There's no basis for radical Islam in Albania," said Lucciano Augustini, pontiff of the Albanian Catholic Church. "They love their rakia and pork too much! Also, Albanians are skeptical of the traditional Muslim attire and beards. It's difficult for Arab nations to introduce propaganda in countries where sympathy for Christianity has always been strong (23- 25 percent of the population is Orthodox and 15 percent — Catholic). Few people in Albania voluntarily converted to Islam in the Ottoman Empire. Since the days of the Turks in the Balkans, the concept of crypto-Christians has existed ('secret Christians' from the Greek). These are people who took up Islam out of fear, went to the mosque officially, but worshiped at the altar at home."

Oasis of ecumenism

In Albania, the ancient battle between cross and crescent moon reached a compromise. Here people honor any ritual that helps a person pray to God. Albania was officially the only atheist country in Europe until 1991. Under the dictatorship, churches and mosques were destroyed and priests and mufti were shot or forced to emigrate abroad. Ever since, Albanians have been calm believers. It's not unusual to meet families where the husband is half-Orthodox and half-Muslim, and hasn't yet chosen a faith, and his wife is Catholic.

"During the Christian holidays, when I walk down the street to bless someone's home or family, Muslims come outside and say: 'Why are you walking past us, Father? Bless our home, too," said Augustini. "During the civil uprisings in 1997 (when the financial pyramids collapsed and $500 million in investments was lost), people took to the streets, destroyed military warehouses, rode on tanks, and various malefactors appeared who started setting people of different religions against each other. And the three of us — the mufti, Orthodox priest, and I — drove around in an open van demonstrating our unity. My Orthodox colleague and I even slept at the mosque as a show of faith."

Religious belief in Albania is like watered-down wine. It hardly gets to your head. But there are always exceptions.

The young Dr. Spiro is an unusual case. He is a passionate Orthodox believer who wears an icon on his key chain and has an image of Christ on his mobile phone.

"As an Orthodox Albanian, how did you feel when Albanians burned old Serbian monasteries in Kosovo?" I asked.

"When was that?" Dr. Spiro asked. "I didn't hear about that!"

"It can't be!" I said. "The whole world knows."

Dr. Spiro was quiet. Then he replied slowly: "We're praying for our Serbian brothers. That's all we can do to help them. Albania was always a Christian nation in spirit. When the Turks arrived, many Albanians didn't stay their ground and converted to Islam to avoid taxes or make careers. Do you know how the Albanians strengthened their position in Kosovo? The Serbs showed firmness in their faith, and Kosovo was the cradle of their religion and a symbol of their nation. Then the Turks sent Albanian renegades there, who took state positions, power and money. Kosovo ceased to be Orthodox, and became an outpost of Islam."

Dr. Spiro talks about the Turks' sly political game as if it was only yesterday. For Dr. Spiro faith is a living passion, not a battle of old feelings and prejudices. But most Albanians treat religion like a profitable trade, or fleeting political game.

My new acquaintance Kleart is a shining example. "Our belief is the U.S.," he said. "We're a small country and believe in whoever is stronger. There was a time when the Soviet Union helped us and was our friend. Now the U.S. is good for us because they're defending our interests. We're always on the side of the stronger party."

"But that's complete hypocrisy!" I said. "That's how you traitors once sold Christ!"

"You're calling us 'traitors?!' We were the first Christians in the Balkans! Who am I hearing this from? You, Russians, who weren't even a nation when we had already converted to Christianity!" he said.

"Аnd then you sold him to the Turks like Judas for 30 shekels! Just to free yourselves from taxes and advance your careers!" I said.

"We were pagans and will die pagans!" he said. "When it was necessary we converted to Islam in order to survive. But just like the Serbs you fuss over your Christianity as if you were never pagans!"

The wine pitchers were empty. It was after midnight. We were fighting it out as if it was a matter of life or death.

"Even your emperors bowed their heads before Islam!" Kleart said raising his voice. "They built a mosque in Saint Petersburg as a sign of humiliation before the religion of Prophet Muhammad!"

"What?! The Russian Empire built mosques as a symbol of tolerance!"

"You built them out of weakness! And we, if we need to, will conquer Macedonia with the aid of the U.S., take a piece of Greece, and then go to Belgrade and convert the Serbs to Islam. We always fight for our own well-being, not big ideas!"