Category Archives: Balkans

Calcutta’s Mix of Migrants

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1140-1150:

Calcutta was a collection of the whims of the communities who migrated there and became rich – Bengali and British, as well as Armenian, Jewish, Marwari, Bohra Muslim, Haka Chinese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. In Phoolbagan, within walking distance from my house, there were graveyards of Jews and Greeks, Chinese and Bohras. Their tombstones told of men and women who had been born in Budapest and Constantinople and died of cholera in Calcutta. Sumitro and I had walked the city’s streets, discovering airy Sephardic synagogues, Armenian churches, and temples to the Jain saint Mahavir. In the old Black Town, we had mingled with the deity-sculptors among the lanes of Kumortuli, communed at the annual chariot festival at the Marble Palace and witnessed clandestine human hook-swinging during the Raas festival.

Off Beadon Street, in Satubabu and Latubabu’s Bazar, so named after the two nineteenth-century Bengali business titans who founded it, metal hooks were dug into the backs of penitent believers and then hung from what looked a great balance scale made of bamboo. Then the hooked swung high in the air around the pivot of the scale, like giant gliding birds. The practice had been banned for nearly two hundred years, but it still took place, surreptitiously, in the heart of Calcutta.

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Occupation Policy in the Balkans, WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 672-92:

As soon as the fighting men had moved on, occupation authorities began their work. Bulgaria intended that the territory it gained from Serbia would become completely Bulgarian in character. Accordingly, all schools in the Bulgarian zone were required to teach exclusively in Bulgarian, and thousands of Serbian males were arrested in an attempt to reduce the risk of resistance. Officially, they were interned, but the reality was rather different, as an Austro-Hungarian officer reported:

It is known that most of the Serbian intelligentsia, i.e. administrators, teachers, clergy and others, withdrew with the remnants of the Serbian Army, but some have gradually begun to return for personal or material reasons. Here, in occupied territory, it is virtually impossible to find either them or those who did not flee; they have ‘gone to Sofia’ as the new Bulgarian saying goes. These men are handed over to Bulgarian patrols as suspects without any due legal process, with orders that they should be ‘taken to Sofia’. The patrols actually return the following day without them. Whether they are taken 20 or 200km [12 or 120 miles] it is all the same. The patrols take up shovels, disappear into the mountains, and soon return without the prisoners. Bulgarian officers do not even try to conceal the executions, but boast about them.

Whilst such killings were shocking, even to the Austro-Hungarian officer who reported them, they were not unusual for the region. After Serbia seized territory from the Turks during the First Balkan War, Serbian irregulars had carried out many such killings, not stopping with the intelligentsia. 32 During the invasions of 1914, the k.u.k. Army had also committed many atrocities, and after the 1915 invasion there was widespread internment in the area under Austro-Hungarian control, though fewer killings than in 1914. Nevertheless, there were summary executions at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian authorities with little or no legal process. Many of those interned became ill or died as a result of poor housing and inadequate food, and those who were not actually ill were frequently used as forced labour. As was the case in the Bulgarian zone of occupation, schools used the language of the occupiers.

Such policies, designed to crush Serbian national consciousness, had severe effects on productivity in a land already badly scarred by war. Agricultural production plummeted due to the absence of so many men from the countryside; in an attempt to make the conquered land more productive, both Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian authorities resorted to harsher measures, and inevitably these merely resulted in further resentment and even lower production.

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Who Were the Macedonians?

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 662-70:

Who were the Macedonians? Some have speculated that they were not really Greeks, but more closely related to the Thracians. Or perhaps they descended from some other Balkan people influenced by the arrival of Indo-European Greeks. They had come under heavy Greek influence by the time of Philip and Alexander—but even at that late stage the Macedonians made a strong distinction between themselves and the Greek hangers-on who accompanied Alexander’s eastern adventure. In the fifth century BC, Macedonians were normally, like other non-Greeks, excluded from the Olympic games. But the Persians seem to have referred to them as “Greeks with hats” (they were known for their wide-brimmed hats), and Herodotus too seems to have accepted them as of Greek origin. Like the Medes and Persians in the time of Cyrus, as well as many other militant peoples from mountainous or marginal areas, the Macedonians had a strong sense of their collective superiority—but they also sustained many private feuds among themselves. They were notoriously difficult to manage.

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St. John’s Day, 1908, in High Albania

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 2903-2957:

The evening of the twenty-third of June was quite exciting. The Primæval had spent most of the previous evening filling blank cartridges to greet guests. The Franciscans of Berisha, Shoshi, and Toplana arrived in turn. Each hailed him of Dushmani from a distance, and greeted him with revolver shots. Out we rushed, the Primæval dancing and shrieking like a demon, with a revolver in each hand, both of which he fired at once. We had the liveliest supper – four Franciscans, Marko, and myself. The Padre of Toplana had brought a wonderful attendant with him – an elderly, most wiry creature, brave in a red djemadan, gayer and even more voluble than the Primæval. The two, who were supposed to wait at table, were inimitable – entered into the conversation, corrected their “masters,” smoked, joked, laughed, and had drinks. Old Red Coat talked every one down, and boasted incessantly of his own merits, the chief being his stainless honour. He had shot four men in its defence, had his house burnt down four times, and flourished greatly, and was ready any day to shoot four more. He had rewarded his Martini for its part of the work, with four silver coins driven in between the stock and the barrel. He got on very well with his Padre – was not his servant, but his comrade. Outside, crowds of guests were arriving at various houses near, from Shlaku and Berisha and distant parts of Dushmani, all greeted by volleys of rifle and revolver shots, to which the Primæval replied with a revolverful of blank, and Old Red Coat with ball cartridge out of window, and both with piercing yells. And the little brothers of St. Francis sang songs at the top of their powerful voices. I thought how dull London dinner-parties are, and wondered why people ever think they would like to be civilised. This was as good as being Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea-party. And so passed the Eve of St. John. No bonfire-burning took place, and I was assured that the custom is unknown in the mountains, though practised by some of the Scutarenes, which seems to show that it is not an Albanian custom, but brought in from abroad.

A great crowd came to church next day. There were stacks of rifles outside, and within their owners sang “Et in terra pax hominibus.” The Padre of Berisha preached. I could not understand him, but reflected he could have no better subject than “The Voice of One crying in the Wilderness.”

After mass there was a rush for the shooting-ground – the mark was a white stone, and the range short. The Primæval hit often, and a man with a Mauser every time he tried. Those that missed were very close. But it was not difficult, for I hit it myself, with the Primæval’s beloved Martini, which he pressed upon me, adorned as it was with silver coins, to reward it for the lives it had taken.

Drunk with noise, excitement. and the smell of burnt powder, he drew out the hot empty cartridge-cases and breathed in their odour with ecstasy, gasping, “By God, it is good!” It was like blood to a tiger, and made him wild to kill his cousin’s murderer, who had got safe away a year ago, was now in prison in Scutari on another charge, and to be released soon. I asked why he did not tell the Scutari authorities of the murder and let them punish him, but was told he would only get ten years, “and he deserves shooting, as the poor deserve bread.” At this tense moment a rumour spread suddenly that the enemy had been released, and had been seen coming to the feast.

The Primæval dashed off with Martini and revolver, in spite of the shouts of the Franciscans, but it was a false alarm, and he returned unappeased and disappointed – his enemy was still in prison. “Never mind,” said he, “he must come out some day.” And he sat and nursed his Martini, crooning a song, in which he addressed it as his wife and his child, for he wanted no other – his life and his soul—”Not your soul,” said the Padre sharply. “All the soul I want,” said he, incorrigible. His “well-beloved” had cost twelve napoleons, the price of an ordinary wife, and he spent eighty guldens a year – exactly half his income – “feeding” it.

The company discussed weapons. The accuracy and repeating power of the Mauser were admitted, but its bullets were too small to be of any use. “They just go through you and don’t hurt. You can go on fighting all the same.”

A Mirdite had recently taken part in a general squabble, and walked home a long distance. He drank the usual cup of black coffee, and was about to drink a second, when he uttered a cry, collapsed, and died shortly. It was found that he had been shot clean through the body (through the stomach, I believe, from the account); the wound had closed, and there was scarcely any external bleeding. Presumably he was unaware that he had been hit.

To prove the harmlessness of small bullets, a man clapped his right hand against a tree and begged me to fire through the palm with a Mauser pistol; it would make no sort of difference to him. He was quite disappointed at my refusal.

The afternoon passed in paying visits – sitting on heaps of fern in dark dwellings, drinking healths in rakia, chewing sheep-cheese, and firing rifles and revolvers indoors; a noisy joy that peppers oneself and the refreshments with burnt powder and wads. In one yard two girls were slowly turning a whole sheep that, spitted lengthwise, was roasting over a large wood fire. It was stuffed with herbs and sewn up the belly, and of all ways of cooking mutton, this is the most excellent.

By night-time we were all too sleepy to do much sing-song. The Primæval had emptied all his cartridges, and was again busy refilling them.

We had passed a true Albanian day, said the Padre of Toplana: “Duhan, rakia, Pushke, dashtnia” (Tobacco, brandy, guns, and love). I suggested that dashtnia should come first, because maxima est caritas. But they said, not in Albania. And so ended St. John’s Day.

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The Albanian Vocal Telegraph, 1908

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 1627-1635:

Telegraphing in Albania was far quicker than in any other land. Which is a fact. All news is shouted from hill to hill. “Shouting” gives no idea of it. The voice, pitched in a peculiar artificial note, is hurled across the valley with extraordinary force. Any one that catches the message acts as receiver and hurls it on to its address. And within an hour an answer may be received from a place twelve hours’ tramp distant. The physical effort of the shout is great. The brows are corrugated into an expression of agony, both hands often pressed tight against the ears – perhaps an instinctive counterpressure to the force with which the air is expelled from within – the body is thrust forward and swayed, face and neck turn crimson, the veins of the neck swell up into cords. There are few places where it is harder to keep an event secret than in the mountains of Albania. News spreads like wildfire. The fact that a man has been shot upcountry reaches Scutari next day at latest, often with many details.

“Theft is impossible in Kilmeni,” said the Padre, laughing; “the whole tribe hears the description of an article as soon as it is missed. Every one knows if some one has a few more sheep than yesterday.”

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Cross-cutting Tribes, Languages, Religions in Albania

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 1159-1176:

Early marriages make generations rather shorter in Albania than in West Europe.

“The tribe of Hoti,” said the old man, “has many relations. Thirteen generations ago, one Gheg Lazar came to this land with his four sons, and it is from these that we of Hoti descend. I cannot tell the year in which they came. It was soon after the building of the church of Gruda, and that is now 380 years ago. Gruda came before we did. Gheg was one of four brothers. The other three were Piper, Vaso, and Krasni. From these descend the Piperi and Vasojevichi of Montenegro and the Krasnichi of North Albania. So we are four – all related – the Lazakechi (we of Hoti), the Piperkechi, the Vasokechi, and the Kraskechi. They all came from Bosnia to escape the Turks, but from what part I do not know. Yes, they were all Christians. Krasnichi only turned Moslem much later.”

Of these four large tribes, of common origin, Piperi and Vasojevich are now Serbophone and Orthodox. Piperi threw in its lot with Montenegro in 1790, but whether or not it was then Serbophone I have failed to learn. Half of Vasojevich was given to Montenegro after the Treaty of Berlin, the other portion still remains under Turkish rule. Vasojevich considers itself wholly Serb, and is bitter foe to the Albanophone tribes on its borders. Krasnich is Albanophone and fanatically Moslem; Hoti is Albanophone and Roman Catholic.

What turned two tribes into Serbs and two into Albanians, and which was their original tongue, I cannot say; but probably they were of mixed Serbo-Illyrian blood, and their language was influenced by the Church to which either chose to adhere. It is said that the Albanophone Krasnichi were Catholic before turning Turk.

The date three hundred and eighty years ago gives us 1528. In 1463 the Turks conquered and killed the last king of Bosnia; but the whole land was not finally incorporated in the Turkish Empire till 1590 (about). The traditional date of emigration falls well within the period when the Turkish occupation was spreading, so is probably approximately correct. A large communal family, with flocks, would be some time on the way.

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One-sided Albanian Exogamy

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 400-430:

Descent is traced strictly through the male line, and the tradition handed from father to son through memories undebauched by print.

The head of each fis is its hereditary standard-bearer, the Bariaktar. The office passes from father to son, or in default of son to the next heir male. The standard is now a Turkish one. Only the Mirdites have a distinctive flag with a rayed-sun upon it.

Some large tribes are divided into groups, each with its own Bariaktar. A division thus marching under one standard (bariak) is called a bariak. Such a bariak may be descended from a different stock from the rest of the tribe, or the division may have been made for convenience when the tribe grew large.

The men and women descending from a common male ancestor, though very remote, regard one another as brother and sister, and marriage between them is forbidden as incestuous. Though the relationship be such that the Catholic Church permits marriage, it is regarded with such genuine horror that I have heard of but one instance where it was attempted or desired, when against tribe law. Even a native priest told me that a marriage between cousins separated by twelve generations was to him a horrible idea, though the Church permitted it, “for really they are brothers and sisters.”

The mountain men have professed Christianity for some fifteen centuries, but tribe usage is still stronger than Church law. A man marries and gives his daughter in marriage outside his tribe, except when that tribe contains members of a different stock, or when it has been divided into bariaks considered distant enough for intermarriage. But in spite of this exogamy, it would appear that, through the female line, the race may have been fairly closely in-bred. For a man does not go far for a wife, but usually takes one from the next tribe, unless that tribe be consanguineous. If not so debarred, he takes a wife thence and marries his daughter there. Kastrati, for example, usually marries Hoti, and Hoti Kastrati. The bulk of the married women in one were born in the other. A perpetual interchange of women has gone on for some centuries.

Even educated Scutarenes reckon relations on the mother’s side but vaguely.

A man said to me, “She is a sort of relation of mine. Her mother and mine were sisters.”

“Then she is very near. She is your first cousin.”

He considered and said doubtfully, “Yes. Like a first cousin certainly, but on my mother’s side.”

His third cousins on his father’s side he reckoned as brothers. One very near and dear cousin was so remote I never quite placed him.

The Catholic Church prohibits marriage to the sixth degree, and the law is now enforced. But among the Moslem tribes, I am told, female cousinship is not recognised. Male blood only counts. That male blood only counted under old tribe law seems fairly certain. In Montenegro, where the tribal system is not yet extinct – under the “old law,” which prevailed till the middle of the nineteenth century, though marriage was prohibited so long as any drop of blood of male descent was known of – I am told relationship through the female was but slightly, if at all, recognised.

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