America at last ! (part I)

They came as group, as usual. Looking great, as usual, smiling the smile jet lag makes kind and generous. As usual.The buyers, a typical trade fair phenomenon. They bring fresh air with them, everybody is happy and good humoured when they come by.
He looked at our floor cushions. « Nathalie Lété ? You know we work with her. »

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I was happy. The right time to tell the whole story, develop a few details, serve everyone a coffee from our special espresso machine, relax a while, talk about old times…
One of the group, an efficient blonde, spoke before I could, mentioning lead time requirements, packing and labeling. The man added a quantity, distracting me from my line of thought.

« You were about to tell us about them » the other blonde with a shade of red said kindly.

Once the right momentum is lost, inspiration can disappear. « you can send us an email, we would like to communicate on that »
Standing there babbling, my mind was back in Albania at the time of our first trips to the North.

“It’s on the news everyday”. The driver had a gift for multitasking.

He could make a phone call, change gears and overtake a truck on a mountain road, racing at full speed. I was glad we engaged in a conversation, hoping he might slow down.
It seems like a long trip to the North. In our early days in Albania even our driver was uneasy to start the journey after sunset. Nothing better than a conversation to let time pass and relax.

He was from Tirana, proud to be a city boy of the capital of Albania, and very critical with regards to the customs of the people from the mountainous North.

“You don’t believe me do you. It can be dangerous, not much for you perhaps, because you are a foreigner…”
It sounded like a place plagued by clan warfare and revenge over trivial matters. A place where one is careful before speaking.
“Isolated episodes you say?” he wasn’t enjoying this. I could sense he was really trying to make me think “A month ago, a man shot a boy because he stole electricity, my father saw it on TvSh, and then there was that one they found in the ditch up in the mountains, they spoke about that even in Germany because he was a German national- an argument over a girl promised to someone else…”
Exaggeration. Typical of the city boys from Tirana. Something you learn here in Albania. There is truth in every sentence, but not always the relevant truth.
Outside the black night was enveloping the countryside. Lights from a roadside hotel approaching and disappearing in the rear mirror.

It was during our first trip to Shkodra that we had met Alketa on the metal bridge built by the Austrians in the 19th century. She mentioned the possibility of making hand knotted carpets in a certain sector of the city where her organization was starting something.

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The city of walls they call it, a « llagja » -neighbourhood in Albanian- sprouted from nothing, built by the families who had come down from the isolated villages in the mountains once they were free to move after the fall of the authoritarian communist regime in 1991.
My driver never enjoyed our trips there, because of the Kanun.
« it’s on the news everyday… »

The  Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit “, the traditional common law coded in the 15th century, regulated justice between clans and individuals in ancient Albania, amongst other things.
According to the Kanun, revenge through the use of violence  is a good and straightforward method to pay a moral debt.

The notion of « respect » is essential. You break the rules of respect, your are certain to pay a price. And there is no prescription period as the bill can be settled generations later.
Payment is usually asked to a man, as women play a limited role in the Kanun.
My driver explained that the Kanun had been liberally interpreted after the fall of communism.
In a suddenly fast moving society, modernity and change hit this displaced community very hard with plenty of collateral damage. With unemployment soaring, well organized criminal organizations from east and west made good business with prostitution, child trade and drug dealing. Ancient traditions were seen as the only possible solution to keep the community in one piece. In certain cases extreme measures of violence had been applied to trivial wrongdoings, some of which involving honour.
Each time we drove up to the north I was told in detail about those gruesome episodes, apparently happening at every hour of the day.

That morning walking alone between the high walls in Mark Lulaj, my mind went back to those conversations.
In front of the tall metal gate I felt invisible eyes following me. I avoided turning around, just as I used to in my grand mother’s house’ dark corridor when I was told to go to bed after the evening film. I knocked smiling at my cowardice.
My driver  never came when I needed to go and pay a visit to the girls.
He had particularly insisted on the importance hospitality in the Kanun.
Hospitality is a man’s duty. A household without a man cannot welcome another man under it’s roof.
Till relatively recent times, if a family had lost all it’s men, a young girl voluntarily chose to take the masculine role, so that the family could take part in clan’s activities. She abandoned her femininity, took up swearing, smoking and spitting, wore trousers and become some kind of male creature so that the family could avoid isolation.
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I was working with women who work at home weaving.
A nice project.

To be continued: america-at-last (part II)

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