"Chapter V." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
PULATI is divided into Upper and Lower Pulati. It is not one tribe, but a large group of tribes under one Bishop. Lower Pulati consists of four tribes, Ghoanni, Plani, Kiri, and Mgula, each of one bariak. Upper Pulati consists of the large tribes, Shala, Shoshi, Merturi, Toplana, and Nikaj. These form also part of the group called Dukaghini, the district that was ruled by Lek, and they cling tenaciously to his law.
Pulati seems to be mainly an ecclesiastical division–the Polat major and minor described by the French priest in the fourteenth century.
The tale that the name derives from a man who possessed nothing but one hen (pulé ) is scarcely worth repeating.
The Pulati people differ considerably from those of Maltsia e madhe, partly because they are even less in touch with the outer world; partly, undoubtedly, because of some difference in blood.
As a whole, the physical type is not so fine in Pulati. The big, fair, grey-eyed man is less common–the small, dark, round-headed type very frequent. Costume, especially that of the women, differs much. Custom differs also. But it is always possible that Maltsia e madhe has grown out of customs still existing in Pulati.
The priest of Rioli sent a woman with us as guide, no man being handy. In times of blood between two tribes, a woman guide is far safer. In this case it was peace.
The mountain ridge that here forms the frontier of Pulati rose like a wall. Even the pass–Chafa Biskasit–looked unpassable from below. The track is very rough, loose stones and large rocks, nearly all unrideable. The heat was intense, the air heavy and thunderous. But for the shade of the woods that clothe the heights I could not have got up. The two men sweated freely; the young woman, used to crossing such tracks with 40 or 50 lbs. of maize on her back, never "turned a hair."
Some people find mountain air exhilarating. I am only conscious of the lack of oxygen, and climb with the sad certainty that the higher I go the less there will be. What is a pleasant exercise at sea-level is a painful toil on the heights when gasping like a landed fish.
The way to Paradise is hard, says Marko.
The top of Chafa Biskasit is about 4500 feet. Then came the joy of the descent. Below lay the valley of the Kiri, in which live the four tribes of Lower Pulati. The farther side of the valley, the great range of mountains that is the watershed of the Kiri and the Lumi Shalit, forms the frontier of the tribes of Shala-Shoshi.
Tribe frontiers have never yet been mapped. They are very well known to the people, who point out some tree or stone as one crosses the line. I am not able to do more than roughly indicate their position.
We came late to Ghoanni, though the distance was little. The track was broken away; the horses had to slide down what looked like an impossible slope, with a man hanging on to the head and tail of each to break the speed, and we made a long circuit. When we came finally to the Palace of the Bishop of Pulati–a ramshackle little place in native style, with a crazy wooden balcony–his Grace was having an afternoon siesta. To my horror he was waked up to receive me, but such was his Christian spirit that he took me in and fed me.
WOMEN OF SHALA (COSTUME COMMON TO PULATI).
The Palace is snugly stowed among trees, and running water in plenty flows hard by. It is characteristic of the land that no decent path leads to it. I lay and lounged in the meadow at the side. The air was leaden-heavy, there were lordly chestnut trees near, and a drowsy humming of bees. All the world seemed dozing. The peace was broken suddenly by two gunshots that thudded dully down in the valley–then two more–and silence.
"What is that?" I asked, mildly interested.
"A wedding, probably," said Marko. "It is Monday–the marrying day with us."
We strolled from the field, and scrambled along the hillside towards a group of cottages. The first woman we met asked us in to hers at once–a most miserable hovel, windowless, pitch-dark in the corners; a sheep was penned in one and a pig wandered loose. She began to blow up the ashes and make coffee. Life was hard, she said–maize dreadfully dear. You had to drive ten kids all the way to Scutari and sell them to get as much maize as you could carry back. Shouts rang up the valley; a lad dashed in with the news. The shots we heard had carried death. At a spot just over an hour away an unhappy little boy, unarmed and but eight years old, had been shot for blood, while watching his father's sheep on the hillside, by a Shoshi man.
The Shoshi man had quarrelled some time ago with a Ghoanni man, who in the end had snatched a burning brand from the hearth and thrown it at him. A blow is an unpardonable insult. The Shoshi man demanded blood and refused to swear besa.
He had now washed his honour in the blood of a helpless victim, whose only crime was that he belonged to the same tribe as the offender.
The child was the elder of two. The father, very poor and a cripple, had gone to Scutari to seek work. Ghoanni was filled with rage. That Shoshi had the right to take blood of any man of the tribe they freely admitted, but to kill a child was dishonourable. They would not do it.
I discussed this case in many places afterwards. Feeling on the whole was against it. Many who thought the law actually justified it considered it a dirty trick. Others held that male blood of the tribe (this is the old usage) is what is required, and in whose veins it runs is a matter of no moment–it is the tribe that must be punished. Even an infant in the cradle has been sacrificed in obedience to the primitive law.
By recent legislation some tribes now restrict blood-guiltiness to the actual offender (as in Mirdita) or his house (as Shala). A Shala man said the Ghoanni case was a bad one. He would not like to have to kill a child, but "if it is the law to kill one of the same house, and the murderer has fled and left no male but a child, then you must. It is a pity, but it is the law."
Could he not wait the return of the offender, or till the child was of age to bear arms? "No; you could not wait because of your honour. Only blood can clean it." I suggested it was the honour of the wolf to the lamb, which surprised him, but he stuck to his point. "Till you had taken blood every one would talk about you. You could not live like that." Mrs. Grundy is all powerful even in Albania!
A man may be shot for blood though ignorant that his tribe owes it. When working elsewhere he will often alter his costume that the district he hails from may not be recognised at sight, lest he have to pay for a crime of which he has not yet heard. Blood seekers, suspecting the origin of such a man, will challenge him, "Whence art thou?" It is not etiquette to lie. Moreover, to proclaim a false origin, if ignorant of the latest blood feuds, might equally make him liable for blood. He may reply:
"From wherever you like."
"What is your name?"
"I was baptized once," and so forth. Answers of this type are given by men on their way home after a long absence, if unaware of the local political situation.
One must not trespass on any one's hospitality, much less on that of a Bishop. At 6 A.M. next day my horses were ready. The Bishop assured me that the track was excellent to Plani, and jocularly promised to call on me "next time he came to London."
As we started, the mountains rang with the shouts that summoned the tribe to the funeral of the slaughtered child. This, our guide remarked, would complete the ruin of the family. Honour compelled it to supply meat and drink to all comers. Some districts, Thethi, for example, have made a law to restrict the number of such guests to near relatives, and so limit expenses.
The Bishop's idea of an excellent track must have been the strait and narrow way. It was execrable. With great difficulty were the horses dragged along. We scrambled and sidled on foot along narrow ledges or crumbly shale that breaks and goes rattling down into the valley below. Shade there was none, nor any breath of air. I have no idea what the scenery was, as I saw nothing but the next possible foothold in a dizzy reel of almost intolerable heat, keeping well ahead of the horses, as they always break off lumps of the track with their last hind-leg.
Not long ago these hills were well wooded, but here, as in many districts, every one cuts and no one plants, and the loose soil is disintegrating with alarming speed. Each rainy season the water tears down the earth in tons, whirling all away to silt up the Bojana and build a bar across its mouth. Blocking its own exit to the sea, the water spreads and festers, fever-stricken, over the plain, leaving desolation behind it in the mountains. The land melts rapidly before the eyes of the poor people, who lament and say that the Government ought to build walls, but cannot understand that they must cut carefully and replant.
In the few foreign schools that exist in Scutari, "book larning" and nothing practical is taught. The pupils are filled with the wish to obtain a clerkship abroad rather than the knowledge of how to develop their own land.
We reached Plani at midday; it lies at the head of the valley of the Kiri. The church stands in a most charming spot. A small catacract leaps down from high above, through a wooded gorge–a bower of coolness and greenery after the roasting track.
Plani, a tribe of one bariak, traces origin from three stocks which are intermarriageable. One hales from Kilmeni. Fifty years ago, people say, they dressed like Mirdites; but I heard no tale of relationship with them.
Plani owed very little blood within the tribe, but was in blood with several neighbour tribes.
When a feud is reconciled in Plani (and some other districts I believe), a woman brings an infant in a cradle and turns it upside down between the foes, turning the child out on the ground. As it is always tied down tightly by the cradle cover; it can be gently released–the ceremony is not so violent as it sounds.
There are a good many ceremonies about the laying of blood to be learnt.
The deputy Bariaktar welcomed me to his home–a house of thirty members. He spoke strongly against blood feuds, having lost father, brother, and son, all in the same one. Threatened with ruin if it continued, he had paid blood gelt, 300 guldens in all, and now was doing well.
Plani, like Hoti, has a celebrated surgeon. Unluckily he was absent. Diseases of the eye were his specialty. For inflamed eyes I was told the following is infallible: the juice of Wall Pellitory mixed with a little salt. Three drops in the eye twice a day is the dose.
A proverb says: "Each disease has its herb."
A popular dressing for cuts and wounds is the common St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum ) well pounded and put into a bottle of olive oil. This must be placed in the sun for several days, and is then fit for use. It has such a reputation for healing that I think it must have some antiseptic property.
A remedy for jaundice, a common complaint in the mountains, is: catch a little fish, put it in a basin of water and stare at it steadily as it swims round. After a few days the yellow goes out of your eyes and into the fish, and you are cured.
A wondrous plant is that which breaks stone and iron. Should a hobbled horse, out grazing, touch it with the hobble the iron flies asunder. Valuable horses have often thus been lost. None knows where the plant grows but the tortoise.
When you find, as is not infrequent, some tortoise's eggs, you must build a little wall round them of stones. Then hide and await the mother tortoise. She will be very angry and strive to butt down the wall with her head, lest her children should hatch inside it and be starved. Failing to butt it down she will go and fetch a leaf of the plant, touch the wall with it, and at once down goes the wall!
You can then take the leaf from her, and use it for burglary and other household purposes. Where she finds it none knows, and she will not fetch it if followed.
Tortoises swarm in Albania–oddly fascinating beasts that bask in the sun and peer at you with little beady eyes, or walk along serenely, craning their wrinkled necks and browsing with deliberate bites off the leaves they fancy; sad things are they in a sprouting maize or bean field. It is not surprising that their grotesque form has inspired a folk-tale: How the Tortoise got its Shell.
When Christ was crucified all the beasts hastened to condole with the Virgin Mary. The poor little tortoise was deeply grieved, and did not know how to show his grief; so, on the way, he bit off a large leaf and covered himself up. When the Virgin saw him coming along with only his little head sticking out, he looked so funny that she could not help laughing aloud in spite of the painful circumstances. And the tortoise has been covered up ever since.
Plani knows many strange things. There is a group of houses not far from the church, which has had a curse upon it for many years, so that the families never increase in number. I visited one small house; it contained eighteen people, so perhaps the failure to increase is rather a blessing than a curse.
Talk ran on the chytet (fortress), very ancient–who knows, perhaps, a thousand years. Was it far? I asked, for I was tired. "Oh, no," said the Franciscan, "we can go and come back easily in an hour."
We started; the track degenerated into a narrow ledge crawling along the side of the mountain, betwixt heaven above and the river below; and at the finish, the spur of the hill, there was a rocky pinnacle to climb.
An extraordinarily wild spot. The sharp peak rose high, with a deep valley on three sides of it. In the gap between it and the range of which it was the final point are traces of the chytet; the remains of three wells, now choked with stones. Part of the rock face is roughly hewn, and a few small ledges are cut in it. A rudely-built bastion overhangs the precipice.
"No, we must go to the top," said the wiry little Franciscan, who skipped from rock to rock like a chamois. I was not shod for climbing; having been promised an hour's stroll, and wore a long skirt. "The way," said the Franciscan, after a vain attempt at the near side, "is best on the precipice side." Marko did not like the idea at all; however, we crawled round and started. The upright blocks of rock were all too big for my stride, but there were bushes between, by which to pull up, and there was something like a thousand feet below, straight down, to fall. Luckily I am never giddy, or I should have gone overboard years ago. In the Balkan peninsula giddiness is unknown, and people start you along any ledge at height cheerily and recklessly.
Half-way up, the heat being appalling, it occurred to me to ask if there was much of the chytet to be seen when we did get up. Hearing that there was none, and that we were going up merely for the sake of going up, I cried off, to the disappointment of the wild-goat Franciscan. It was a game not worth the candle. Marko thanked God fervently when I was no longer overhanging space. He had sworn to bring me home alive, and had been greatly uneasy.
The fortress was most probably a Venetian outpost to guard Drishti from the attacks of up-country tribesmen. A bronze cannon was found a good many years ago buried in the mountain-side below, but was taken away by an officer and some soldiers.
Plani has little corn land, and has to buy. Some men and very many women were toiling in long weary strings over Shala to Gusinje, climbing two high passes–a frightfully severe two days' march–maize being cheaper there than at Scutari. The return journey of wretched beings, staggering under loads of 60 or 70 lbs., is horrible to see. The cords that bind on the burden often cut right into the shoulder. The maize lasts little more than a week, and the weary journey begins again. Small wonder that the toil-broken people begged that the Powers would enforce the making of a railway to Scutari.
Time was flying. I wanted to see all High Albania. It was time to move on. The kirijee then said he had a bad foot and was tired of the journey, so the Padre kindly lent me his own man to take me to Thethi. We had a second as escort. The way, said the Padre, was good, but after sitting my reeling, struggling beast for some ten minutes over large rocks, to shrieks of "Jesus, Maria, Joseph!" which were supposed to encourage it, I dismounted, and was in for another roasting tramp.
The ever-rising track swung round the head of the valley, above the source of the Kiri, and over the Chafa Bashit (some 4000 feet), into Shala. Once up and over, all Shala lay before us and below us, a long, lorn wall of huge, jagged mountains, still snow-capped, with the Lumi Shalit flowing in the valley at their feet.
I daresay you have never heard of Shala. I have looked towards Shala and the beyond for years–the wild heart of a wild land.
Do you know the charm of such a land? It has the charm of childhood. It has infinite possibilities–if it would but grow up the right way. It has crimes and vices; I know them all (that is to say, I trust there are not any more). But it has primitive virtues, without many of the meannesses of what is called civilisation. It is uncorrupted by luxury. It is cruel–but so is Nature. It is generous as a child that gives you its sweets. It can be trusting and faithful. And it plays its own mysterious games, that no grown-ups can hope to understand.
I hurried forward. There was grass underfoot, and–always a joy–we were to go down-hill for hours and hours. Our two men were not so inspired. They said they wished to call on a friend, and left us under a tree with a Martini, saying that any one who passed would recognise the weapon (decked with silver filagree), and consider us properly introduced.
And sure enough the first-comers recognised it at once, and were most friendly. The glee with which they learnt how many brothers I possess–married or single, how old–&c., their pressing invitations that we would at least come and have a cup of coffee or rakia, or stay the night at any of their respective houses and accept "bread, salt and my heart," whiled away the time pleasantly till our two men returned.
We descended to the river's bank by Gimaj, a village of Shala, and followed up the valley. The river became a torrent, leaping from rock to rock–the pine-clad mountains towered on either hand, and the houses were all kulas –tall stone towers, loopholed for rifles.
A final ascent brought us to the plain of Thethi, a grandly wild spot where the valley opens out. The ground is cultivated, and well watered by cunning little canals. Great isolated boulders are scattered over it, on which stand kulas.
The eyes, some one has said, are the windows of the soul. In extreme wrath, at fighting-point, when a man goes white and strikes, the pupils of his eyes contract to black specks. So do the blank, windowless walls of the kulas, with their tiny loopholes, stand ever threatening.
I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world. It is a spot where the centuries shrivel; the river might be the world's well-spring, its banks the fit home of elemental instincts–passions that are red and rapid.
A great square-topped cliff on the left was covered with broken fir trunks, torn down by a heavy snow-slide in the winter. Bleached and white in the sun, they lay scattered like the bones of the dead. Others stood erect and gaunt. "It is the altar of God, with candles upon it!" cried one of the men who was with me.
At the very end of the valley rises the range of mountains called the Prokletija (the Accursed Mountains), so named, I was told in Shala and Lower Pulati, because it was over them that the Turk came into High Albania. Other routes seem more possible; but for my own part I believe in local tradition. And the bitter truth remains that over all the land is still the curse of Turkish influence.
Thethi is a bariak of Shala. The church and church-house of Thethi stand in the midst of the plain–a solid, shingle-roofed building, with a bell tower. It is largely due to the personal influence of the young Franciscan in charge that Thethi is almost free from blood. In rather more than four years but two cases have occurred.
We arrived at a moment of wild excitement; crowds of mountain men hurrying up, shouting, yelling, talking at the full pitch of their throats–a regular hurry-scurry, with the little Franciscan buzzing about, commanding, entreating, gesticulating, at once. All the heads of Shala were met me ban medjliss (to hold a parliament), nearly a hundred of them. They crowded into a large empty room on the ground floor. The President of Council here is elected by the people (the hereditary Bariaktar in Thethi has no rights as head except in battle; this system is spreading)–a big dark man, not at all prepossessing, who looked an ugly customer to tackle. The window was iron-barred; a woman outside, her face pressed close to the grating, listened eagerly. It was a most important meeting on home and foreign affairs. The noise was terrific, and deafened us even in the room above. The Padre came panting upstairs with his arms full of pistols, flintlocks heavily mounted in silver. "Thank God, I got these from them!" he said, as he stowed them in the cupboard with the cups and plates; "they are dreadfully excited to-day!" The room was already stacked with Martinis, deposited in sign of good faith. The question under debate was peace or war.
Shala and the other Christian tribes that border on Moslem ones are always making and repelling raids. Recently the position had become acute. In the previous autumn the Moslems near Djakova captured and imprisoned a Franciscan for many weeks. At the same time the whole of the Moslem tribes were mysteriously supplied with Mausers and quantities of ammunition, it was said by the Turkish Government. Exultant and boasting, the Moslems had just sent in an ultimatum to the Christians that all who had not turned Moslem by Ramazan would be massacred. Krasnich, the next-door Moslem tribe, boasted 350 Mausers, Gasi 300, and Vuthaj 80: Christian Shala but some six or eight, and these only smuggled in with difficulty.
Nevertheless, filled with rage, Shala swore besa of peace with its Christian neighbours, Shoshi and Merturi, and passed a resolution to warn the Vuthaj and Gusinje Moslems that in seven days from receiving notice, Shala-Shoshi and Merturi would be on a war footing with them. The decision was arrived at in a wild clamour, and the Franciscan fetched to record it; which he did, when he had vainly talked himself tired in favour of peace. The local priest, being the only man who can write, always has to act as Chief Secretary for State at a medjliss, and must write its decision whether he approve or not, and preserve the document for future reference.
The exhausted and excited medjliss then started again on local grazing rights, and finally broke up shouting, having decided nothing further. The wary Franciscan retained the pistols of the five most influential men till the morrow, when all was to be concluded.
The medjliss met early next morning, and this time in a great circle out of doors. I meant to photograph it, but was dragged away by Marko and the Franciscan and sent indoors, as they feared firing at any minute. Four of the five chief "heads" had agreed the day before to the decision of the majority. The fifth stood out furious and vowed neither he nor his mehala would accept it. As he was head of fourteen houses and ruled sixty-four individuals, his agreement was necessary to any grazing right changes. After a most stormy hour or two on the perilous brink of blood, he was talked round. The motion was carried, and the heads came upstairs for their pistols, but the affair had been touch-and-go.
"I am afraid they find it dreadfully boring," said the Franciscan. "They say no one has been shot for two whole years! We nearly had a row at a medjliss a little while ago–(that was why I got the five chief pistols this time)–I heard a fearful noise, and as I ran out a lot of them all got up into a bunch like bees, and raised their rifles. They were just going to fire. They would not listen to me. I rushed into the church and rang the bell as hard as I could. It had a splendid effect. As soon as they heard the bell, from habit they all shoved their pistols in their belts and took their guns in their left hands, and began to cross themselves. No one knew what had happened. They poured into the church to see. By the time we came out again and had had a talk they were quieted."
Such was my coming to Theta. I stayed some time, and came back to it, and hope to go again.
Shala, Shoshi, and Mirdita, says tradition, descend from three brothers, who came from Rashia to escape Turkish oppression, shortly after that district was occupied by the Turks.
One of the brethren possessed a saddle (shala ); the second a winnowing sieve (shosh ); the third had nothing, so he said "good-day" (mir dit ) and withdrew. The tale as it stands is doubtless fabulous, but the fact that to this day Mirdita does not intermarry with either Shala or Shoshi is, to my mind, conclusive proof of original close consanguinity.
When Shala and Shoshi settled, they found inhabitants already in the land, who, they tell, were small and dark. In Shala, eight families are still recognised as of this other blood. The rest, a very large number, migrated "a long time ago" (probably when the Serbs evacuated the district), to Dechani and its neighbourhood, and are now all Moslem.
I remember in 1903, when at Dechani, being much struck with the small, dark-eyed Albanians there, for then I was familiar only with the fair, grey-eyed type.
As the Turks overcame Rashia earlier than they did Bosnia, it is likely that the emigration of Shala-Shoshi's forefathers from Rashia was earlier than the Bosnian migrations into Maltsia e madhe, already noted.
It may even have been at the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century. Local tradition in Shala tells that three hundred and seventy-six years ago (i.e. in 1532) the bariak of Shala had sufficiently increased in numbers to be divided into three main "houses"–Petsaj, Lothaj, and Lekaj–which, as separate bariaks, still exist. This is evidence that at that date they must have been settled for some time. Lothaj and Lekaj have recently decided that they are sufficiently far removed to be intermarriageable. But Petsaj still refuses on the ground of consanguinity.
The bariak of Thethi consists of 180 houses, of which 80 form the village of Okolo at the extreme end of the valley.
Thethi can, and does, grow enough corn for its own support, and has passed a law strictly forbidding the export of any, as has all Shala. The only near corn-supply is the Moslem Gusinje, and in case of that being cut off by "blood" or war, there is no nearer supply than Scutari, a dear and distant market.
Life at Thethi was of absorbing interest. I forgot all about the rest of the world, and having paid off and dismissed the kirijee and horses, there seemed no reason why I should ever return.
It was the time of ploughing and harrowing. The harrow is a large bundle of brushwood, on which some one squats to weight it down.
All day long folk came and holloaed under the window, "Oy Padre," and received spiritual consolation, or doses of Epsom salts. Often they came merely to see me, in which case their curiosity was satisfied.
The relations of a parish to its priest are amusing. They refuse to call him by his name, if they do not like it; hold a medjliss, and solemnly decide on a better one, by which he is henceforth known. I came across no less than four of the mountain priests thus renamed.
Numbers of sick came for help. In spite of the magnificent air, the death-rate is appallingly high. Thethi had been devastated four years ago by smallpox, which rages every few years through the unvaccinated Turkish Empire, while vaccinated Montenegro next door goes scot-free. No medical assistance came to the wretched people, who died in great numbers. Only the plucky Franciscan trudged from one deathbed to another, and kept up the courage of the survivors. And this they have never forgotten.
Under the awful conditions of life all epidemics–cholera, typhus, smallpox, even influenza–assume terrible proportions whenever they occur in the mountains. Neither isolation (in a house with one dwelling-room, where perhaps thirty people sleep together), diet, or nursing are possible. The children die off like flies in autumn. Helpless and powerless, the people wait for the storm to pass over. Eghel –"It is written."
But apart from epidemics the death-rate in the mountains is high. The blood-feud system accounts for the death of many men, some in feud within the tribe, more in feuds with neighbour tribes.
Baron Nopesa, a most careful observer, after collecting the list of killed in a large number of tribes, estimates the average in the Christian tribes as 19 per cent. of the total male deaths. This list includes the wildest of the Christian tribes, and does not include some of the quieter ones, so that the average for the whole is probably rather lower. Shala-Shoshi and Mirdita stand high on the list–Toplana, highest of all. Of the Moslem tribes no statistics have been taken. Matija has the worst reputation. The Moslem average probably does not differ from the Christian one; religion does not affect national custom.
As for the statement recently published by a self-styled "Observer," that many people are daily shot in Scutari, I can only say that some one had been "pulling the poor gentleman's leg" very badly, and not on that subject only.
In spite of the shooting, there are more men than women. People say it is because God in His infinite wisdom sends an extra supply to Albania, where He knows they are needed.
It is more probably because there is a very high death-rate of women. The very young age at which girls are married–often at thirteen–and ignorant treatment causes great mortality at childbirth; also much evil arises from working too soon afterwards.
Shala is one of the tribes that suffers much from a form of syphilis said to have been recently introduced, as do all the tribes with which it intermarries. In some places I was told that there are scarcely any healthy married women. Mirdita, on the other hand, which is consanguineous, is said to be quite free.
When a blood feud is compounded in Thethi with a family not consanguineous, it is usual to cement the friendship by a marriage–not always successfully. A man some years ago, when laying a feud, sold his daughter to a Gusinje Moslem in spite of her protests. She managed, when fetching water, to induce her companions to go into a house. She then fled and hid, and by night got over into a Christian tribe, where the Padre helped her to get to Scutari. A blood feud was the result.
The border Moslems will pay high prices for Christian girls, ten napoleons even above the Christian rate. Moslems rarely sell girls to Christians, but both Moslems and Christians abduct one another's girls freely. Hence much blood.
The lot of a woman who wishes to escape from a Christian husband is even harder. Recently a Christian woman–married into a Christian tribe–who lived most unhappily with her husband, ran away from him, meaning to go to a Moslem at Ipek and turn Turk.
Passing through Thethi, she was recognised and stopped. The tribe she had fled from was informed. Six men of her own tribe and five from her husband's came and took her back to her husband. It was far better for her, said Thethi, to be unhappy with a Christian than happy with a Moslem.
Should a woman be very badly used by her husband and fly for protection to her family, they may, if they think her flight justified, refuse to give her up. In this case they may summon a medjliss which, in extreme cases, permits her to remain at home. Should the family keep her without permission from the medjliss, a blood feud with her husband arises.
This custom prevailed also in Montenegro till fairly recent times. I was told of a case in which thirty men were shot in a fight that ensued when a family refused to give up a refugee daughter to the husband who had ill-treated her.
Trouble, as the Franciscans were never tired of impressing on me, was brought into the world by woman. Thethi had lately been much upset by a fair widow. Married very young in Thethi, her husband was killed within the year. As she was childless, she was the property of her own family. The xoti i shpis (lord of the house), her nephew, sold her again at once at an enhanced price. The second husband also came to an untimely end almost at once. She had now a great reputation for beauty, and was in much demand. Her nephew had an immediate bid of five purses (22 napoleons) for her and accepted it. Followed a second bid of rather more. He threw over the first and accepted this; but there came a third, of no less than eight purses. His aunt was indeed a gold mine. He jumped at the eight-purse man. A terrible quarrel ensued. The five-purse man took his money back and was appeased, and the second also was talked around. Then a fourth man appeared and said the widow had promised herself to him, and she confirmed his statement.
Eight-purses insisted she was his. The nephew, too, was highly in his favour. The matter was laid before the priest. He, finding the woman was quite decided for number four, supported her choice, for, as he philosophically remarked, "It is really no use marrying them to the ones they don't want; they only run away." The nephew said he would be satisfied with a fair price, so the couple hooked their little fingers together, exchanged rings before the priest, and were pronounced properly betrothed.
Eight-purses arrived in a fury, and forbade the banns on the grounds of consanguinity. A relative of the bridegroom had been kumar i floksh (head-shaving godfather) to a relative of the bride. They were head-shaving second cousins, and not intermarriageable. The Padre briefly said "Rubbish," and married them. Eight-purses and all his house flew in wrath to the Bishop and accused the Padre of celebrating an incestuous wedding, demanding his immediate expulsion. His Grace told them to "be off!" Vowing vengeance, they went to Scutari for Government help against both Bishop and priest, but, obtaining none, they finally dropped the matter.
The Upper Pulati tribes are greatly given to the custom of taking a deceased relative's widow as concubine. Against this the Padre was waging active war. One man gave as his reason for taking his sister-in-law that he was a poor man and could thus get a wife for nothing. Nine weeks, Sunday after Sunday, was the pair excommunicated. Then the man said he would leave her if the Padre would find him a cheap wife. An Albanian Franciscan will undertake any job to assist his flock. In a neighbour tribe he saw a likely-looking widow, found she was going cheap, and sent for his strayed sheep to have a look at her. The man was delighted. Her owner "swopped" her for an old Martini, the triumphant Padre married them and received him back to the bosom of Mother Church.
In the wilderness I never want books. They are all dull compared to the life stories that are daily enacted among the bare grey rocks.
A father and mother came sorely anxious to the Padre. Some time ago they had sold their daughter and received the purchase-money. Now, when it was time to send her, they found he had taken his uncle's widow and also his cousin's as "wives," and wished to add their daughter as a legal one to the family circle.
They did not wish her to be one of three, and said he must first dismiss the other two. He refused, said he had bought the girl, and she was his and must live as he chose. They said the deal was "off," and offered to return the purchase-money. He swore vengeance. They were terrified lest the girl should be forcibly abducted, and begged help. The Padre put the girl in charge of his mother, and hurried off to find a respectable man who would marry her and take her to a distance. This he quickly succeeded in doing, and she was safely smuggled away.
Very slowly does tribe usage yield to Church law. Some customs one cannot wish to preserve. Others, that are denounced as Pagan, one regrets. Some years ago it was the common custom to burn a Yule log at Christmas, and with it corn, maize, beans–samples of all the land yields–and to pour wine and rakia on the flames as offerings, doubtless to a half-forgotten God. The ashes were scattered on the fields to make them fertile. But an energetic Franciscan argued, "Why waste good food and imperil your souls by Pagan rites, when you might save both by behaving as Christians?" And the picturesque and harmless custom is fast dying out. (It is still practised in Montenegro.)
The belief in what is eghel wars with Christianity and sometimes conquers. An old, old man lay mortally ill. The Padre hastened to him, but he refused to confess and did not want absolution. "I cannot die," he said, "it is not eghel. Never before have I had such a flock of goats, nor such store of corn and dried meat. I cannot die with all that food to eat." But he had misread the Book of Fate, and died sine sacramento.
Thethi is one of the few places in North Albania that has not lost the old art of chip-carving. The graveyard is stately with big wooden crosses, well carved, the arms ending in circles adorned with a rayed sun. A little child died in the night, and hither next morning came the funeral party, bearing the little corpse in its wooden cradle.
It was beautifully dressed, and had been washed quite clean, probably for the first time, poor little thing. On its breast lay three green apples. The women sat round and sang death-wails while two men dug the very shallow grave. This was because the child's head had not yet been shaved. After that ceremony it would rank as an adult, and the grave must be dug breast-deep. No coffin was used, but the grave roughly lined with planks.
The wild wailing of the women and long-drawn sobs of the father, while one woman sang a death-chant, were painful in the extreme. But just as I was feeling broken-hearted the song ended, and the party began to chatter and laugh as though nothing were the matter. Some people, on the way to Gusinje to buy maize, stopped to look at the corpse, and all were talking cheerfully when, suddenly, a woman began another death-chant, and at once the sobbing began again.
They then cut a lock of the child's hair, and laid the body in the grave with the three apples on its breast. The Padre arrived, and they asked him if the apples were necessary. He said not, and they were removed and tied in a handkerchief with the hair.
The funeral service was quite drowned by an old man who stood at the head of the grave with his rosary in his hand and shouted a hotchpotch of every scrap of Latin he could remember from any service, at the top of his voice. A plank was laid on as lid, the earth hoed over. No one displayed the least emotion, and the party trailed away carrying the empty cradle. Both in Montenegro and Albania the cradle is often broken and left on the grave, a most pathetic monument. Of the apples I could only learn it was an old custom to put them in the grave. It prevailed till lately in Montenegro also.
The days passed. I visited dark kulas perched on rocks, and met everywhere the same frank hospitality and courtesy, though it weighed on my soul that I was receiving it under false pretences; for, in spite of my frequent and emphatic denials, all Thethi persisted in believing me to be the sister of the King of England come to free them, and addressing me always as Kralitse (Queen).
But though happy at Thethi my soul hankered ever after Gusinje. Gusinje, said every one, was impossible. I had tried for it in 1903 from Andrijevica, in Montenegro, but no one would take the risk of piloting me. The Turkish Government gave no permission–the natives would admit no stranger. In former days a consul or two had visited it with an escort. Lately it had become the Lhassa of Europe, closed to all; though several had tried.
The longer I stayed at Thethi, the more I thought of Gusinje. Marko would not hear of it. I gave it up at last, and ordered mules to take us to Lower Shala, and went for a walk with the Padre up the valley to Okolo. It is a wonderful valley–wide grass meadows with a crystal-clear river through them, fed by countless bubbling springs.
Okolo is well-to-do. Many of its eighty kulas are large and fine, and some quite new. Were it not for the curse of blood, Okolo should flourish. In land, wood, and water it has all that a village needs. But though it has been at peace within, for four years, a field full of graves, but a few years older, shows that it is not for nothing that Shala is reputed a fighting tribe.
On a summer evening a party of men strolled down the valley, sat upon the ground lazily, and watched the stars come out.
Then, pointing to a certain star, one said: "That is the biggest," and another said: "No, that one there is bigger." A fierce dispute took place; some took one side, some the other; rifles cracked, bullets sang. When the smoke cleared and the first excitement was over, there lay seventeen dead men–slain for a star–and eleven wounded. Their comrades buried the dead where they fell–for they died in sin–sine sacramento.
At the very end of the valley towered Mal Radoina, said to be the highest of the Prokletija range, and Mal Harapit thrust up a sharp pinnacle to the sky with a deep square-cut pass on its shoulder–Chafa Pes–the pass that leads to Gusinje. Beyond that mountain wall lay the Promised Land, and I had ordered the mules for Lower Shala to-morrow.
A headman of Okolo invited us to his kula. We followed him, and then wonders began to happen. At his door was tethered a beautiful little grey saddle-horse. It was the horse of one of the headmen of Vuthaj, a large Moslem village but an hour from Gusinje, and he was guest at the house. My spirits rose; there by the hearth sat a long, lean Moslem, smartly dressed, armed with a new Mauser–a man of means evidently. He greeted the Padre heartily–for the Padre had once visited Vuthaj, and prescribed successfully for some sick–was much interested in my travels, and told of the beauties of Vuthaj. Vuthaj, if not the rose, was next it. Anxiously I asked if it could be visited; the Moslem promptly invited us. He belonged to one of the two chief houses, and said he could guarantee our safety.
But as he was bound for Scutari he could not escort us. I was ready "to see Gusinje and die"–the Padre had friends and would be safe–but Marko said it was impossible, and he had a wife and children to consider. I was torn betwixt a desire to go and a fear of getting any of my men into trouble. But a few days before, Thethi had sworn to declare war against this very district–the land of Mausers. After much talk, sheep-cheese and rakia, we said adieu with the matter undecided.
As we turned the bend of the valley, and the square-cut pass was lost to sight, I felt I had lost all I cared about. So near, and yet so far. The sporting Padre returned to the charge: "What about to-morrow?" He enlarged upon the ease and safety of the expedition; he suggested that he and I should go and Marko wait for us. Marko refused this absolutely; he had sworn to bring me back safely, his honour was concerned in it; if I died, he meant to die too. God would protect his wife and orphans.
"Nothing will happen," said the Padre firmly. "I will go," said I. No sooner said than arranged. Our host at Okolo volunteered to be escort and provide two mules. He had to go, or send some one, at any rate, as he had promised to send the Moslem's grey horse back. The Padre's servant was to come with a rifle; we were to take no luggage of any sort, and only food enough for the outward track. It took six hours, if you went fast, said the Padre. We were off before six next morning, I fondly believing we should arrive by one o'clock, and return next morning–which, after nine years' experience of the Near East, was extremely foolish of me.
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