Music in Europe’s only majority Muslim nation

George Bush receives a hero's welcome in Albania, so here is a reflection on that fascinating country.

‘Albania was also for centuries an important centre for Suf’ism, Islamic mysticism, and when Kemal Atatürk closed the Sufi centres in Turkey, the headquarters of the Sufi Bektashi movement moved to Albania. The Bektashis, as part of Islam’s heterodox tradition, incorporated many of the traditions of pre-Islamic central Asia in their rituals. By their wanderings and easy-going emphasis on spirituality – in contrast to Arab formalism – they played an important role in the spread of Islam through the Ottoman Empire. They emphasised spiritual communion with God through prayer and meditation, rather than the importance of orthodox Islamic ritual. Women are admitted to the tekke (prayer house) without a veil and are recognised as having equal rights to men. A Bektashi meeting might include a meal where a sheep will be slaughtered, and washed down with wine – forbidden for Muslims – before the start of religious discussion.

Under (Marxist dictator) Enver Hoxha Albania’s Bektashi heritage was almost wiped out. Of fifty-three tekkes, only six were left standing. In the mid-1940s there were about 285 Bektashi Babas and dervishes, both grades of membership in the Bektashi hierarchy. By 1993 there were five Babas and one dervish left alive. The Bektashis met their deaths in prison, or at the hands of Hoxha’s executioners. Their beliefs though, live on. In March 1991 the Bektashi headquarters in Tirana, formerly converted into an old people’s home, reopened. Speakers from all of Albania’s four main religious traditions spoke at the opening – Bektash Sufis, Sunni Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox. Each led the crowd in prayer, and each paid homage to Albania’s multi-faith heritage.’

That extract is from A Heart Turned East – Among the Muslims of Europe and America by Adam LeBor (Warner Books ISBN 0751522910). LeBor travelled across Europe and America to discover what it means to be Muslim, living in the west but with a heart turned east. The book’s 1997 publication pre-dates 9/11, but this is a strength rather than a weakness as it allows important matters to emerge from the shadows of the 2001 tragedy - recommended. Adam LeBor's latest book is City of Oranges, an intimate history of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, which has also received excellent reviews.

It is not well known that Albania is Europe’s only majority Muslim nation, and 70% of the population are followers of Islam. (Muslims account for 40% of the population in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina). Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years, and this resulted in an Eastern facing culture. There is a rich heritage of Balkan ethnic music, but little tradition of western classical music. The best known Albanian composer in the Western tradition is Çesk Zadeja (1927-1997) who worked under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha as professor of composition at the Academy of Arts in Tirana. Zadeja helped found several of the country’s music institutions, and there are several CDs of his music available.

The author Ismail Kadare (born 1936) is another leading creative figure from Albania. His novels have been compared to those of Gabriel García Márquez and Gunter Grass, and his books are best sellers in mainland Europe, although little known in English translation. His style is enigmatic, as was his attitude towards Hoxha's dictatorship, with the author himself declining to be labelled a dissident. Chronicle in Stone, about the German occupation of Albania, is one of his best-selling books, and is an excellent introduction to his work.

Hoxha’s dictatorship lasted from 1944 until his death in 1985, and it is estimated that 6000 Albanians were executed under his rule. The communist regime collapsed in 1990, and the coming of democracy sparked a resurgence in contemporary music. Two new organisations have been active in promoting new music, and a new generation of contemporary composers has emerged including Aleksander Peçi (b. 1951), Sokol Shupo (b. 1954), Vasil Tole (b. 1963), and Endri Sina (b. 1968).

Albania is a small country, with only 4m population compared with 11m for neighbouring Greece, and a daunting 71m for Turkey, and also has poor natural resources and transportation. Although the transition from despotism to democracy has been a prolonged process, Albania has played a conciliatory role in managing ethnic tensions in south-eastern Europe, is working toward joining both NATO and the EU, and currently has troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The story of Albania’s emergence, politically and artistically, from one of most repressive political regimes in the world is a fascinating one.

As Europe’s only majority Muslim nation, and one with ambitions to join both the EU and NATO, Albania deserves more than a George Bush photo opportunity. More information from readers on contemporary music and arts in Albania would be very welcome.

Now read about songs of freedom in neighbouring Greece
Photo of mosque in Albabia's capital, Tirana, from Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Bang on cue Adam LeBor has an excellent article on Albania in this week's Economist.

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