Immersion Trip: Day 3

We had brunch with Mindy and Melissa, who will be our neighbors in the neighborhood of Selitas (assuming that I’m spelling that right; at any rate, we’re living off the Embassy’s housing compound). Photos of our house are to the right. The house has about 6,000 square feet of space with a garden and is ridiculously huge; we’ll be taking visitors once we settle in! We also were joined by Alma, Abby’s incumbent, so a lot of the talk was about Embassy business, but we also covered the general points about Tirana. Parties where people discuss Embassy business are going to be a major part of my life in Tirana.

To get to Selitas, we walked along the river. Just as the clock tower was smaller than we’d expected from our readings in class, the bridges are similarly small – nothing like the P Street bridge over Rock Creek Park, for example. As I noted before, there are no street signs in Tirana, and while people call this this the River Road, none of the ex-pats knew its actual name. However, most people know the way toward our house well, not only because the River Road is a major thoroughfare, but because at the end of the stretch of this road, before you turn on the bridge to get to our house, is the blood feud house, so called because the residents inside are subject to gjakmarrje, and they cannot leave for fear of being killed.

Gjakmarrje (which means “vengeance” in Albanian) has a long history. In the 15th century, a prince named Lekë Dukagjini created the Kanun to establish laws for the people over (according to Wikipedia) “Church, Family, Marriage, House, Livestock and Property, Work, Transfer of Property, Spoken Word, Honor, Damages, Law Regarding Crimes, Judicial Law, and Exemptions and Exceptions.” Out of the Kanun came the practice of gjakmarrje: a male avenges a family member’s death or some other assault on the family by murdering a male from the family of the offender, after obtaining permission from the village elder who governs the Kanun. It is supposed to end there, but somehow, the rules have been changed or misunderstood or manipulated (since the village elder collected a blood tax on the taking of revenge) so that a male from the family that suffered the revenge then kills a male from the family that took revenge, and a male from that family seeks its revenge, and so on. As one of our instructors explained, when a family is under gjakmarrje, it is literally unsafe for the adult males to leave the house, and gjakmarrje can go on for generations.

Despite the havoc, there are precise rules: you cannot shoot someone in his house; that person can invite you in, and you must obey the rules of hospitality; you cannot shoot someone in the back; and if your intended victim asks you to let him leave the house with safe passage for, say, a funeral, you must allow it. Gjakmarrje is not so common in the major cities, but it is practiced in the countryside, and has become stronger since the fall of Communism. Even organized crime honors gjakmarrje (and this is one reason that the traffickers do not kidnap girls whose family can do something about it, as this would be an offense under the Kanun). Yet in this case, in the case of the house by the bridge that leads to our neighborhood, the blood-letting has gotten so bad that even the women are in danger under the gjakmarrje. This is unheard of.

Finally, here are more images from our first few days of walking around Tirana: fallout from the February local elections, a scene from the local park near the University of Tirana and the U.S. Embassy housing compound, and a memorial to Osman Kazazi, former head of the Association of Ex-Political Prisoners. It reads “He devoted his life to the Fatherland”. “With great respect for Osman Kazazi.” Sadly, it’s tucked away on a dusty commercial side street.