Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


The Central Town of Albania - Albania like Scotland and the Highlands in the Sixteenth Century - Chronic Guerilla Warfare - Elbasan - Twenty or Thirty Murders a Week - Ducks as Scavengers - Albanian Silk - The Best Hotel in Elbasan - A Single-minded Landlord - Mr. Carnegie's Fame

WERE the Albanians to cease their vendettas, stop their clan wars, and cohere into a nation, Elbasan would be the capital. It is the most central town in Albania. But there is little chance of that taking place so long as the present blood courses in the veins of these mountain warriors.

Like hillmen all the world over, they are much more independent, defiant, and even aggressive than peoples who live on the plain. To the north, in the Dibra district, a Turk's life is not worth the toss of a medjedeh, so fierce is the hatred of the Albanians in that part. Further south the rancour against the ruling power is not so strong, and ebbs the further south one goes, until down near the Greek frontier it practically disappears.

A week of hard travelling by horse will take one from the northern parts to the southern. In the course of the journey will be found very striking differences in feature. The northern men are shorter, more swarthy, and have the quick, black eagle eyes of those who are ever on the watch to


give offence or to repudiate insult. Present-day Albanians are a mixture of races - Italian, Greek, Slav, Bulgar - whose ancestors in the olden times, driven by the conquerors of Macedonia, fled to these mountains, whither they could not be pursued, and where, although they had common interest in resisting aggression from the outside, they have never allowed to die out the flicker and often the flame of tribal animosity.

Seeking for a simple parallel, I might say that the condition of Albania is not unlike that of the Highlands of Scotland in the sixteenth century, when the clans were at constant feud with one another. Many a time I thought of similarities between Albania and Scotland. There are parts of the country reminiscent of the Highlands. The passionate love of country is a characteristic of both. The alertness of the Scotch Highlander to resent insult is only equalled by the quickness of the Albanian to shoot anyone who may disagree with him. The quilted petticoat of the Albanian is certainly similar to the Highlander's kilt. And if you could hear the wail of Albanian music in the hills you might, without much stretch of the imagination, fancy you were listening to the skirl of the bagpipes.

Albanians acknowledge the authority of their own Bey, or chieftain, whilst they repudiate the authority of the Turks. The head of the clan will inflict punishment on any clansman who offends against the common good of his tribe. Every valley has its own Bey, and most valleys are in a condition of war against one another. Clansmen are


afraid to cross the ridge of mountains into neighbouring valleys for fear of falling a prey to an enemy's bullet. This fact caused me inconvenience because I found it difficult to secure guides who would show the way over the mountains to some village or town I was anxious to reach, because either they did not know the route or were afraid of the consequences.

The clan feuds were so disturbing that a few years ago some of the great Beys did meet at Elbasan and make a truce. The order that a member of a rival clan was not to be shot on sight had its effect for a time. You cannot, however, make an Albanian behave otherwise than as an Albanian. Now the truce has lapsed, and guerilla warfare is again the rule.

So self-contained are these valleys, with such a lack of communication, not only with the outer world, but with each other, that in the course of half a day's ride I frequently noticed distinct changes in details of costume. For instance, in one valley the men would wear tight-fitting, thick felt caps, looking for all the world as though they wore white smoking caps. In an adjoining valley the men would wear tight-fitting linen skull caps,whilst still further on were men with black felt caps.

Not only are the Albanian clans in a state of perpetual conflict with each other - if they were able to join forces they could clear the Turks out of Albania in a year - but members of the same clan are engaged in constant vendetta. Albanians occasionally die from ordinary disease, but most of them die from


differences of opinion. When a man kills his enemy he must flee to the mountains, because it is the duty of the nearest of kin of the dead man to sally forth with gun and stalk the murderer till he kills him. Sometimes he gets killed himself. Then the family of the dead men wage war on the family of the man who shot first. The vendetta begins, and lasts for years. Straight face-to-face fighting is not necessary. A bullet from behind a boulder or a stab between the shoulders in the darkness of night are constant methods by which wrongs are avenged. There is nothing very unusual in finding a murdered Albanian; indeed, it is so usual that the Albanians take it all as a matter of course. They know nothing about courts of law and such-like methods of settling differences. Their instincts are primitive: a man offends you and you remove him by killing him.

Elbasan is a town of some twenty thousand people. There is plenty of room for quarrelling. A murder in the streets is rather more common than a street fight is in an English town on a Saturday night. The Chief of Police, a Turk, told me there were twenty or thirty murders every week. He added that not one murderer in ten is caught and imprisoned by the authorities. It is not the "game" for the Turks to meddle. When a man is killed his friends like to have the settling of the account with the murderer, whilst if he is thrown into prison, not only do they feel they have a distinct grievance against the meddlesome Turks, but the friends of the captured man have also a grievance in that he


was not given fair play, allowed to escape or take his chance in the vendetta.

To put it quite plainly, the Turkish authorities are in dread of an Albanian outbreak. They will do anything for peace and quietude. This explains why they do not make many endeavours to collect the taxes which are exacted from other Turkish subjects. Even if an Albanian kills a Turk they find ready excuse by declaring there has been serious provocation. The Sultan conciliates the Albanians by having his bodyguard at Constantinople composed of Albanians. He breaks the power of the Beys by inviting them to Constantinople, making much of them and covering their breasts with decorations.

There is no stricter monopoly in Turkey than the tobacco Régie. For a Turk or an Armenian or a Bulgar or Greek to infringe the Government monopoly is to run risk of being cast into prison. The Régie at Elbasan is defied. Tobacco is openly sold. The soldiers of my escort did a little trade in it. Their bread-bags they loaded with tobacco, stuffed their pockets with it, even their pistol holsters, so that they might take it back into Macedonia and sell at a profit. I know they went on short commons in the matter of food so that their bags could be used in this illicit traffic. The captain of the guard knew what they were doing. They grinned when they saw that I realised it also. Afterwards I heard that each of them made a profit of about two medjedehs, because there is a demand for such tobacco, it being much superior to that obtained from the Régie.


In most Turkish towns the scavenging of the streets is left to the dogs. In Elbasan this useful sanitary function is performed by ducks. There are hundreds and thousands of them in the streets, belonging to nobody and picking up a precarious livelihood from the refuse which is cast into the alleys of the bazaars - for drainage is a thing that is expensive, and which, therefore, the Albanians can get along very well without. The much-talked of Oriental odours of the Eastern bazaars are, in hot weather, not so productive of poetical sentiment as fanciful writers would indicate. There are no windows to the shops; rather, the shops are all windows, with no glass, but the proprietor sits in the centre, hammering copper pots in which the inhabitants can stew their meals, or sharpening daggers with which they may settle their differences. Every man carries a dagger - usually two. The women, closely cloaked in black, slither along with downcast eyes. If any man is so foolish as to let his approving eye fall upon one of these ladies a quick and sudden death by stiletto at the hands of her male folk is the consequence. If she acquiesces, and is inclined to soft glances, the only difference is that both get killed. I made no experiments myself, but I was assured that Elbasan is the most dangerous town in all Europe in which to make any endeavour toward flirtation.

Do not suppose that the people of Elbasan have nothing else to do than quarrel. Some of the finest silk in Europe is manufactured there. All the fields in the vicinity are given over to the rearing of silkworms


on mulberry trees. There are no big factories, but the manufacture is carried on by the women of the households, who do the weaving, casting the shuttle from hand to hand. The weft is not so close as in silk produced by modern machinery in France, and it is impossible to obtain a piece more than some thirty-six inches in width. But there is a quality and a distinction about the Albanian silk which none of the silk of more cultured manufacture possesses. What the price would be in a European market I cannot say; but in Elbasan itself I obtained the finest possible material at about two shillings a yard, and then I fancy I was paying twice as much as an Albanian would have paid. The trade with outer countries is disjointed and fragmentary. A merchant proceeding to Monastir on the one side, or Durazzo on the coast, will take a mule-load of the silk by way of speculation. So after he has had his profit and the purchaser has made his, and the man who trades with Trieste has secured his share, and the Trieste man has passed it on to the dealer in Vienna, and the Vienna merchant has doubled the price, and the shopkeeper has made his legitimate profit, the lady who desires a frock of Albanian silk must pay a considerable figure for it.

There is no regular trade or any other communication from Elbasan. I wanted to despatch letters. I was told that about once a week the post went to Monastir, but it did not go unless there were plenty of letters to take; whilst the Durazzo route, which was much the quicker way to get a letter to England if it could be started on its way at once, was


more uncertain because the conveyance was more haphazard, and no one could say within a couple of months when letters would be despatched.

I had been told by the officer of my guard that there was one good hotel at Elbasan. I stayed at it. It was a loft-like place, with a broad, dark passage way leading into a courtyard, where caravans and muleteers rested. It abutted upon a narrow, evil-smelling roadway. A covered balcony was on the first story, and right over the doorway was an old oil-tin, occasionally filled with brownish water, which was the only washing accommodation in the place. The result was that when one was doing ablutions the slops were spilt on anybody who might be coming in at the main entrance. There was no channel to carry off the stuff; the neighbourhood might, therefore, without exaggeration, be described as unwholesome.

By paying the excessive price of about two shillings a night I got an apartment to myself. The planks in the floor were warped, providing ready entrance and exit to the innumerable rats with which the place was infested, and giving me casual glimpses of the horses, pigs, ducks, and hens in the stables beneath. It reeked with the odour of a byre. During the two days I was in Elbasan it rained a lot. The weather was sultry, and I was not at all surprised at a chronic headache.

The landlord of my inn was a big, deep-throated Albanian who had met Europeans elsewhere, and displayed his gratification at the opportunity of showing his acquaintance with the world to fellow


Elbasanites by bringing troops of his friends, insisting on shaking hands with me and getting me to shake hands with all of them. It became so monotonous that at last I was obliged to get a couple of soldiers to guard the stairs. Nothing, however, could restrain the curiosity of my host. When I stripped to the waist and proceeded to have a wash and a shave he stood by the doorway narrating all I was doing to a crowd of his fellows who blocked the way in the street below. He spoke only Albanian and Turkish; but he would stand by the hour with head cocked attentively on one side listening to my dragoman and myself conversing in English. "Wonderful! wonderful!" he constantly exclaimed in Turkish; for how on earth two people talking such gibberish could be intelligible to one another was something he was incapable of understanding. When I made notes in my diary he looked at me with the amazed eyes of one witnessing the performance of an adroit acrobat, in that I wrote from left to right instead of in the usual sensible Turkish way of from right to left. When he knew my weakness in diet was well-made Turkish pilau, he brought three of the cooks from adjoining cavernous restaurants, struck an attitude, pointed to me, and informed them that here was the honour of their life - to make pilau which was much beloved by the effendi. "Wonderful! wonderful!" he exclaimed when I opened a tin of sardines. He ran and told all his friends about it, and probably to this day it has not been decided how the fish got into that tin. Amongst the eatables I had with me was a Dutch


cheese. That filled him with the greatest astonishment of all. He looked at the red thing, turned it over, shook his head, and sighed, "Wonderful! wonderful!" Would the great and distinguished effendi let him taste it? He munched a piece. "Wonderful! wonderful" said he. Then he told my dragoman he was more convinced than ever that the English were a great people, when they could grow melons like that!

Most of my time in Elbasan I spent as the guest of the principal Albanian gentleman in the town, a young man whose knowledge of languages outside Turkish and Albanian was limited to Italian. He had never been abroad - not even to Italy. One thing he knew about England was that good guns were to be bought there. The possession of a double-barrelled gun of English manufacture was the ambition of his life. Of course, the English were a great people - because they were rich! When I assured him that we were not all rich, that some of us were very poor, he suddenly asked, rather inconsequently, "What about Carnegie?" Here was a gentleman in the very heart of wild Albania who knew that Mr. Carnegie was a person who spent most of his time writing cheques for anybody who might desire them. Did I know Mr. Carnegie? No, I had not that honour. Was it likely that Mr. Carnegie would ever come to Elbasan? Possibly, but I did not think it at all likely. Did Mr. Carnegie speak Turkish? He might do, but I doubted it. Was not Mr. Carnegie a man who gave away money and money and money - and he threw wide


his arms as if to indicate Mr. Carnegie's illimitable millions. Oh, yes! Then if Mr. Carnegie really wanted to be the hero of the Albanian people - as great as Gladstone or Byron - let him send a million of money to the people of Elbasan, so that they would never have to do any more work. I replied that the idea was a good one, if Mr. Carnegie could be persuaded. But why not to Elbasan as well as to any other place? I really could not say, except that perhaps the Pittsburg multi-millionaire had been so busy that he had never had time to think of the modest claims of Elbasan upon his munificence.

For two hours my friend the Albanian talked about Mr. Carnegie and the obligation under which, it appeared, he was to send money to Elbasan. The conversation was only concluded when I made the solemn promise that if ever I met Mr. Carnegie I would lay before him the claims of Elbasan. Which I will.

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