Before going on a trek in Albania’s Accursed Mountains region last month, I read Ismail Kadare’s excellent novel Broken April to get a sense of the place.
The central theme of the novel is how the past affects the present, and it tells the story of Gjorg Berisha, a 26-year-old Albanian man living in this mountainous region.
Under the Kanun, the traditional Albanian laws that superseded religion in this area, Gjorg is forced to murder the man who killed his brother. As a result of this, Gjorg himself will inevitably be killed, as the family of the man he murdered will seek its revenge.
The Kanun was primarily an oral tradition, first codified in the 15th century and set down in writing only in the last century. It governed all areas of life, including laws of marriage, property, work, honor, and crime and punishment.
After the Second World War, under the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, a period in which Albania was isolated from the rest of the world, the Kanun was repressed by the state authorities, and its practices – such as blood feuds – were stamped out.
With the fall of communism at the end of the last century, followed by a period of weak central government, the Kanun began to make a comeback, particularly in the northern region of the country. According to some reports, about 3,000 Albanian families are estimated to be involved in blood feuds, leading to the deaths of 10,000 people since the 1990s.
Kadare’s haunting book describes, in sparse, elegant language, all the rituals involved in a blood feud, including how a person who has just killed a man (according to the Kanun, women cannot be a target in a blood feud, nor own property) has to attend both the funeral of his victim and the post-funeral meal at his victim’s house, despite everybody knowing that he was the person who pulled the trigger.
In fact, for the first 15 days after a killing, the killer cannot be harmed by his victim’s family. During these two weeks, he has to spend his time in a tower of refuge, waiting to see whether the two families can agree to a cease-fire between them or whether the bloodletting will continue.
During Hoxha’s dictatorship, the Communists destroyed these towers of refuge, as part of their clampdown against the Kanun.
One tower, however, in the village of Thethi, has survived.
One afternoon on our trek, we made our way there.
We were a group of Israelis, led by an excellent Israeli tour leader, Jan-Shai Deniz, and we sat cross-legged on the floor at the top of this tower, listening to a local man tell tales of the Kanun.
On the wall of the room were photographs of men who had stayed in the tower for refuge, only later to be killed as the families failed to reach an agreement. As we learned more and more of the Kanun, heard the detailed descriptions governing the traditions of the blood feuds, we Israelis were shocked by the cruelty and futility of this practice and by the fact that some Albanians still see the Kanun as a guide for how they should live their lives.
But later on, while reflecting on Kadare’s novel and how the past affects the present, it struck me that, particularly as Israelis, we had no right to be so shocked by what we saw as the primitiveness of the Kanun. As a nation we live in a blood feud, created, like many Albanian feuds, over an argument about land rights. We, too, live in a cycle of terrorist attacks and reprisals, each with its own set of carefully calibrated reactions.
There is no reason we should accept this as an inevitable part of our life, just as Albanians have no need to let the traditions of the past impact their modern life.
Blood feuds and land disputes can be solved through negotiation and a desire to put the past behind us in order to create a better future.
One step forward, on the Israeli side, would be considering, as we celebrate this week the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, whether we as Zionists have lived up to Balfour’s admonition to do nothing that “may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Changing a mind-set, though, requires first of all a clear self-evaluation, something that as a nation we are unfortunately ill-equipped to do right now, led as we are by a prime minister for whom national victimhood, rather than self-confidence, is the natural state of affairs.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.