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Miranda Vickers's "The Albanians," is one of three novels written by Vickers about the Balkan region, specifically Albania and Kosovo. I first read this book about four years ago for a class on East European history and politics. While the class wasn't that good, I did enjoy reading about Albania. The book fed an interest I've had about Albania since I first heard Radio Tirana on my shortwave radio years ago. Albania is a forgotten land, only newsworthy when a new ethnic conflict flares up in the region or when the country descends into anarchy, as it did in 1997. This edition is an updated version, covering events up into the late 1990's.
"The Albanians" is about as good a survey of the country as you will find. Vickers starts the book with the earliest history of Albania and ends the book around 1999. The goal of the book is to examine how Albanian nationalism worked itself out in the history of the region. Vickers outlines five points she hopes her book will shed light on. She wants to explain why many Albanians converted to Islam; why the Albanian state was the last in the Balkans to develop a national consciousness; how the Albanian state came into existence; why the Albanians of the former Yugoslavia were excluded from that state; and why Albania remained for so long one of the world's most isolated and repressed societies. The following is a partial summary of some of Vickers's claims in answer to her questions:
Many Albanians converted to Islam, explains Vickers, due to the presence of Ottoman domination for some five centuries. While the Ottoman's didn't eradicate other religious faiths from their territories, they did institute programs that favored Muslims and those who converted to Islam. Muslims got appointments to local offices, paid fewer or no taxes, and didn't have to pay the Devshirme, the levy that required Christians to give up one son for the elite Janissary corps of the Ottoman army. Conversion to Islam, therefore, benefited a person and his family.
The Albanian state was the last to develop a national consciousness due to a number of factors. One reason was the Ottoman land system, called the millet. This divided people up according to religious faith, and prevented the formation of a national identity by creating religious divisions that hindered a coalescence of the various Albanian tribes. Another problem was the lack of a systematic, written Albanian alphabet. Three scripts vied for attention: the Latin (eventually adopted at the alphabet congress at Monastir in 1908), the Greek, and the Turkish. A culture that cannot write down its own history, or express itself through a unified language, is not much of a culture.
The Albanian state became a political expression in November 1912. This was a bleak time for Albania, due to the first Balkan war. Greece invaded Southern Albania in an attempt to claim Northern Epirus. The Montenegrins invaded from the north, laying siege to Shkoder, and Serbia marched to Durres on the Adriatic, in order to obtain a port. The independence of Albania was an important event to Austria-Hungary, who hoped to blunt the spread of pan-Slavism. Independence caused problems with Western powers, who tended to ignore Albania in favor of its neighbors. The ultimate outcome of Albanian independence was a political and geographical entity, although many Albanians now resided outside the borders of the Albanian state. The region of Kosova became a major problem for Albania after independence. Kosova flipped-flopped between Albanian and Yugoslavian control until after WWII, when it became a permanent (?) part of Yugoslavia. Serbian claims to Kosova revolved around the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. The Serbs claimed this was an important part of their cultural heritage, a claim that fell on sympathetic Western ears. Further problems for reunification occurred when Albania's communist regime collapsed in the early 1990's. Many Kosovars had no interest in giving up a standard of living that was light years ahead of Albania.
Albania's isolation consists of many factors. Its geographical features are a major problem. A Muslim majority in Christian Europe is another factor. Probably the most important factor is its almost fifty year communist regime, a regime headed up by a pro-Stalinist xenophobe named Enver Hoxha. Hoxha, a mass murder if there ever was one, spent his entire career bouncing Albania between the Yugoslavs, the USSR, and China before instituting a strict isolationist stance. Albania definitely had some concerns with foreign influence, but Hoxha's positions were absurd. By the time Albania came out of its long isolation, the country seemed like a relic out of time.
There are a few problems with the book. Since "The Albanians" is a survey, I constantly found myself asking questions that went beyond the scope of the book. In that respect, maybe the book does do its job; it makes you hungry for more information about this fascinating country. I do think Vickers could have spent more time discussing the likes of Skenderbeg, Albania's national hero. A good portion of this information is stuffed into a small introduction. Another problem is the maps, which are sorely lacking. The three maps included in the book are completely lacking in place names, rivers, etc. For a survey book, detailed maps are a MUST, and this book falls down on the job.
I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, and even more the second time through. Vickers knows her stuff. I can't wait to read her sequel.