VARDAR MACEDONIA III : What to eat?
III : What to eat?
‘These European Muslims are unlikely to make any great contribution to the general life of Islam in the visible future, but influences from other parts of the Islamic world might some day lead to revival and renewal among them.’
[Montgomery Watt, What is Islam, (1968)]
Since leaving Berat, the city of One Thousand Windows which had functioned briefly as the capital of liberated Albania close to the end of WWII, we had not had any proper meal. It was not because we were cheap, but more so due to the scarcity of a halal eating place; a surprising fact not withstanding with post-Communist Albania open assertion of its Muslim identity.
We had stopped briefly in Elbasan, to connect with the train, whose timetable I had secured through some crude ways prior to leaving the UK, and to break for the daylight prayers. Included in the itinerary was also a planned lunch, but as we made our way to the small, modern mosque in the middle of the town, a man told us that apart from a bakery, there was no other halal place. The restaurants here in Elbasan, as also in the capital and in Berat, were mostly owned by the country’s Christian community, or by lax Muslims who, after more than a century under Communism, no longer give distinction between what is halal and haram.
Along the way to the train station, we passed several groceries, where we were able to buy some Turkish biscuits, potato crackers and bananas. We ate all the bananas and crackers on the slow train journey, which severely affected our time of arrival in Pogradeci, and with that any hope to find place of respite for our grumbling stomach.
The last row of Turkish cream biscuits was all we had that night in Pogradeci, before we retired to bed. Thankfully, tiredness overwhelmingly overtaken us and the demanding stomach had little chance in stopping us from getting some sleep.
The Turkish cream biscuit, however, is a common sight in Albania, and as we were later to discover, in all Balkans groceries, street stalls and town markets we were to visit. Although the Ottoman had all vanished, the influence from Istanbuli was still strong here in the Balkans. In Budapest, when I visited the city a year ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a halal Turkish restaurant selling Adana and Urfa kebab, right in the main thoroughfare of the city. The tomb of Gul Baba, the primary objective of my visit to the Hungarian capital was well-maintained, owing largely to handsome annual contribution from the current Turkish government. Similar endowments, from the government, private foundation and the public of Turkey, contribute to the preservation of countless other Islamic and Turkish monuments all over Balkans. Islam here, like the local biscuit industry, dependent still, in many ways, on the supply coming from Turkey.
Despite whatever the press and historians wanted us to believe, the relationship between the Balkans and the Ottoman, though indeed was mostly of the love-hate type, was not much due to religious hatred or racial discrimination, than political enmity and jostling for power which used religion and race to substantiate their claim. At least as far as the Ottoman was concerned, this was true and one need not look far from the Vizierate of the three sultans reigning during the most important period of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
Length of rule
Murad III (1574-1595)
20 years, 1 month
(Grand Vezier changed 11 times)
Bosnian-Croat (11 years),
Albanian (7 years),
Cicassian (1 ½ years), Unknown (6 months)
Muhammad III (1595-1603)
8 years, 11 months
(Grand Vizier changed 12 times)
Bosnian (4 years),
Albanian (3 years, 10 months),
Turk (1 month),
Sicilian (2 months),
Unknown (9 months)
Ahmed I (1603-1617)
11 years, 11 months
(Grand Vizier changed 6 times)
Bosnian-Croatian (6 years, 10 months),
Albanian (3 years, 2 months),
Turk (2 years, 1 month),
Armenian (1 year, 1 month)
The Ottoman was true the pure administrative value of the faith that it founder, Osman Ghazi, had vowed to represent. The Caliphate showed nor affiliation or preference to any races, despite its heads continually from the Turkish House of Osman, interracial marriage was a common feature in the royal family, the administrative bodies were fully of people from various cultural background and religious identity. The Sultan Muhammad III, for example, had a Jew by the name of Solomon Askenazi appointed as the court physician, a post that endowed him a great influence within the royal circle. Another lady, Esther Kira, was an influential Jewess in the Harem, and was known to have influence over the Sultan Valide (Sultan’s Mother) if not upon the Sultans (Murad III and Muhammad III) themselves.
It was under the Ottoman system that many great leaders were groomed, and even as the Caliphate fallen apart in 1920, it was its administrative legacy that had ensured and formed the new administration emerging in Syria, Algeria and elsewhere. The rise of Pan-Arabism aimed to cut off its ties totally from the Caliphate, but in the Balkans, despite suppression under the Communists, the vigour and idealism of the Ottoman Caliphate survived and lent its ideology to Izetbegovic’s Pan-Islamism, which he bravely and astutely proclaimed in his ‘The Islamic Declaration’:
“Pan-Islamism has always come from the very heart of the Moslem peoples, nationalism has always been imported. Consequently, the Moslem peoples have never had ‘aptitude’ for nationalism. Should one be distressed by that?”
I was never distress by that fact; what faced us the next day when we woke up was more appropriately distressful. First, we had woken up a bit late, barely able to do our morning prayer within the time. We unpacked and reordered our stuffs in the backpack and went downstairs to the restaurant hoping for breakfast.
We had no worry about its opening time; people in Albania and Balkans as a whole, wakes up very early in the morning. Buses and minibuses departed from cities as early as 5 am. However, the late afternoon services dissipated very quickly. By 5 pm, it was hard to find transportation to cities or town more than an hour distance away. Apparently, years of banditry that plagued the rural areas of Balkans had produced this system, and despite the government successful effort in combating banditry, nothing has changed the transport system, and with it other aspect of Balkan life that revolves around it.
We enquired about breakfast, and failed spectacularly to make ourselves understood. The restaurant owner invited me into the kitchen area, and the ladies helpfully scooped up things hidden at the bottom of large pots of gravies. In one I saw pieces of meat, but was unable to tell what the origin was. In another, I was shown hoofs of cows. In the other, to my shock and horror, was what appeared to be like a snout of the snorting animal.
Appalled by what I saw in the last pot, I walked back to my companion, who was sitting at the table guarding our bags.
‘They have rice,’ I said, and trying hard to put a positive tone, ‘And meat.’
‘Halal?’ he asked.
I spurned around and saw a large portrait of St Mary adorning the wall. An equally large cross adorned the opposite site.
My companion had an unemotional look. ‘Aku tak kisah. Aku lapar sungguh ni!’
‘Aku tak tahulah daging yang dia tunjuk tu daging apa. Kalau kau nak makan juga, cumanya aku tak sure mereka ni Kristian jenis apa. Kalau practising dan kalau Orthodox, mungkin boleh, tapi aku tak tahu macam mana nak tanya,’ I said.
We had to decide. The stomachs were empty, but the journey was still long and we will have to cross a border. None of us knew what awaited us there; it could be smooth sailing, it could be worse than the short, casual interrogation we had when we tried to enter Albania via the port of Durres. My faithful companion, who had yet to make noises over any of my, sometimes could accurately be termed, selfish decisions, had also been complaining of a throbbing headache, made worse by the sudden storming of snow and dropping temperature outside.
We looked to each other, groping for an answer. The warning of the Balkan Sufi-poet of old, Mustafa Huluki in his diwan, meanwhile, hanged in the air,
‘How many a worshipper and servant of God, who displays
His integrity and his piety, yet who, in the closet, is in direct contact with sins,
If he beholds the Dinar, bows adoringly, and says, O
Lord of ours, O fulfiller of our needs, our heart’s desires.’