Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Theth, Albania

I’ve been holding off on posting about Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” for a few months now, because of the risk of reasserting or reaffirming some of the stereotypes about Albania. This is, to say it early and just one time, a beautiful country – one not without its problems, but home to some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Anderson’s article about Albanian blood feuds, published about thirteen years ago, gives a glimpse of northern Albania, and of traditional blood feuds, that makes for compelling reading. It is also a picture of Albania that is far different from the Albania of today. While the country has its problems – with building infrastructure, with education, with corruption – I doubt anyone would now describe Albania as “an economic ruin, its government is largely theoretical,” as Anderson does in his article.

Anderson considers not only the question of blood feuds in Albania, but the question of what causes violence in the Balkans.

What is it about the Balkans that so defeats all efforts to calm them? In searching for an answer, observers have naturally focused their greatest attention on the succession of conflicts that have torn apart the former Yugoslavia. And in so doing, they have tended to conclude that the Balkans are singularly riven by centuries-old ethnic and religious hatreds — that these are people, or better, groups of people, who simply can’t live together.

Rather than labeling Balkan violence the inevitable result of religious schisms, Anderson considers the issue from the city-village divide. He relies heavily on the idea of the kanun as the guiding force behind the blood feuds; as he writes:

…many Albanians […] once again openly embrace the traditional laws and loyalties of the village. These are spelled out in the kanun (pronounced ka-NOON), a book of rules and oaths. By the dictates of the kanun — there are actually several versions, most of which came into being centuries ago — one’s primary allegiance is to clan and community, not to the state. In accordance with this allegiance, taking revenge in order to defend the honor of one’s family is not only permissible but also a sacred duty. Of course, unlike medieval times, now that duty can be carried out with modern weaponry like assault rifles.

A lock-in tower, as used to be used in blood feuds

Anderson may rely too much on the idea of the kanun – as James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers write in The Albanian Question: Reshaping the Balkans (I know, I know, I am dangerously far into “things none of my readers care about” territory) the kanun has essentially become an oversimplified lens Westerners can use when viewing Albania. The kanun may not be as wholly responsible for guidance of village life as Anderson writes, because during Enver Hoxha’s Communist rule strong local power structures developed and were able to reemerge following the collapse of Albania’s post-Communist government.

Anyway, back to the article! Anderson considers these questions of Balkan violence and what governs these northern Albanian towns and villages by writing about a blood feud in which a man was gunned down in one of northern Albania’s larger towns, Shkodër. Anderson speaks with the families on both sides of the blood feud, and in doing so highlights some of the difficulties with these feuds – that they can go back and forth for years, as neither family is willing to abandon a “blood” after a member of their family has been killed. Anderson’s visit to an Albanian man who negotiates ends to blood feuds is a telling moment, too, as the man describes having to bring the entirety of both feuding families together for a ceremony, to avoid the possibility that one absent family member will claim he is not tied to the peace settlement.

Anderson does an admirable job of reviewing Albanian history, from Hoxha’s rule to the fall of Communism to the pyramid schemes that collapsed in 1997. This is an engrossing read whether or not you’re familiar with Albanian history, and raises necessary questions both about the “Balkan mentality” and about the ties Albanians – that all of us, really – hold to family and community.

Read Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance”


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[…] #Longreads: Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” […]

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[…] The Kanun is a code of law that Albanians in the northern mountains used to govern themselves – I wrote about it a while back in relation to an article about blood feuds. The Kanun of Lek Dukagjini is just one example of these law codes, and the best known. Carver seems […]

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