Blood and hospitality

There are two aspects of life in Albania that totally stand out for me. First, the jaw-dropping landscapes and second, the overwhelming here-have-the-shirt-off-my-back-and-my-last-malteser hospitality.

This generous, and at times overwhelming, hospitality is deeply ingrained. It’s why Albanian housewives keep their homes so immaculately spic and span and always have food in the cupboard. Should a weary traveller turn up on the doorstep, they will have everything they need.

This hospitable culture is due somewhat to the kanun, Albania’s traditional laws which evolved over hundreds of years as a way of maintaining a form of law and order, particularly in the isolated communities in the mountainous north of Albania.

There are four pillars of the kanun: honour, hospitality, right conduct and kin loyalty, and it covers all areas of life including family, property, work and punishments for crimes.

Its authority was strong right through the period of Ottoman rule but weakened during the strict Communist regime. After the fall of Communism, the kanun made a bit of a comeback – but with some rules losing popularity. For example, it is no longer usual to give a groom a bullet on the occasion of his marriage – to be used on the wife if there is any infidelity on her part!

However, one disturbing cultural practice still in existence (albeit on a small scale) is the practice of blood feuds. The kanun sets out rules regarding avenging the murder of a blood relative which gives the aggrieved family the right to avenge the death. This can result in blood feuds lasting decades.

There are rules to follow in the conflict. Only the men of the family are supposedly targeted – excluding priests. (Unfortunately with the revival of the kanun, some rules were bastardised and it isn’t unheard of for boys younger than 15 to become victims of the blood feud.) And the family home cannot be violated. This means that any male blood relative of the offender will go into a self-imposed house arrest immediately following the killing. This can last for years while peace between the two families is negotiated or the death is avenged when someone else is killed. Then the coin flips and the men of the other family will go into hiding. It can all result in many deaths and families being ‘locked in’ for years – their sons unable to go to school and the women of the family struggling to earn enough money to support everyone.

(Another effect of this practice is that all the men in a family can be wiped out. When this happens, it has been known for a woman in the family to take on the role of a man. These ‘sworn virgins’ wear men’s clothing and carry out the man’s role in the family. This is a very rare practice nowadays and there are very few ‘sworn virgins’ left in Albania.)

It is estimated that there are still more than 1000 families in Albania currently ‘locked in’ due to blood feuds. NGOs and charities work hard to negotiate forgiveness between the parties but the process is delicate and often fails.

If you are interested in finding out more about this practice, iTunes has a great contemporary Albanian film ‘Forgiveness of Blood’ available for download (with English subtitles). Or this little documentary gives a great overview of the issue.

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