I’m posting a link here to my post on the anthropology blog Savage Minds. I was invited to participate in a workshop about writing. The link to my piece is below.
I’m posting a link here to my post on the anthropology blog Savage Minds. I was invited to participate in a workshop about writing. The link to my piece is below.
I know it has been quite some time since I have blogged but things got pretty hectic during the last months of fieldwork, and I have been working on many projects since returning to the States. I’m back now and currently working on a paper for an upcoming conference. The paper focuses on questions of Egyptian identity in the Balkans. While gathering notes I felt compelled to write this blog post to dispel certain myths about Roma and Egyptian communities in Albania. One of the facets of my research is an examination of narratives and stories. I look at the ways people talk about race, talk about difference, and discuss belonging. As a result I hear a lot of thoughts and sayings, and I am very interested in how those things circulate. I decided that I would collect some examples of things that I regularly heard during research and list some of the ways that scholars, all all people, can problematize these simplistic, and often inaccurate constructions of Roma and Egyptian identity. Please note that my research is based upon extensive ethnographic data. I welcome engaging and constructive feedback in the comments section but offensive and hateful comments will not be accepted. I also know that I am not the first person to talk about these topics and issues, and I am not trying to speak for any group of people. Instead I envision this as a space for dialogue and conversation, as a way to bring thoughts together and engage these subject matters.
Myth #01: Roma and Egyptian groups are not different — they are the same.
I decided to address this myth first because most people hear the term “Roma” or “Egyptian” or more commonly “gypsy” and lump everyone into the same category (or anyone who they think fits this mold, an example being someone wearing loud colors or anyone begging in the street). This type of grouping is wrong. From a sociocultural standpoint, researchers, scholars, and activists must be careful to make distinctions. While many scholars such as Vesselin Poppov might argue that Roma and Egyptian groups have the same origin, others such as Rubin Zemon argue otherwise. One of Zemon’s main points is that the Egyptian community (sometimes referred to as Balkano-Egyptian or by the pejorative ‘jevg’) traces its ancestry to Egypt, while Roma trace theirs to India. Egyptian groups, found mainly in Albania, Kosova, and Macedonia, do not speak the Romani language but rather, Albanian. I am not trying to use this blog post to begin a debate about origins here but I am arguing that researchers need to be mindful of how groups organize and perceive themselves. My ethnographic data in Albania points to two very distinct groups: Roma and Egyptian communities (and not to be confused with “gypsy” as Egyptians do not identify at all as “Roma” or “gypsy”). Many of my interlocutors identified themselves as either “gabel” or “jevg”; others simply called themselves “dorë zezë” (“black hand or black side). Many people in these communities have clear boundaries of belonging to these groups (of course even these boundaries are sometimes fuzzy). People articulate what it means to be Roma versus what it means to be Egyptian. Sure there is always push-back or resistance to terminology but what I am trying to say is that these forms of categorization are important for people and carry significance. And it is important that those who do work in these communities or who produce scholarship acknowledge these differences. What is most important is simply asking individuals how they identify and what those sets of identity mean to them. As such it is critical that we do NOT assume singularity.
Myth #02: The term “gypsy” means the same thing everywhere.
Along the lines of #01, it is also critical that people understand that the term “gypsy” takes on many meanings throughout the world, especially across Europe. Particularly in parts of Western Europe, the term “gypsy” might apply to groups of folk who travel, who have a nomadic lifestyle. In Southeastern Europe, and particularly in the Balkans, terms like “Roma” or “gypsy” extend beyond lifestyle practices and signify certain ethnic and racial subjectivities. This also happens in places like France, Italy, and Hungary. As such it is important to critically consider these local categories and the meaning they carry in particular contexts. To provide some more information on the subject of the Roma community of Europe, I would encourage folks to read texts such as Ian Hancock’s book We Are the Romani People or Alaina Lemon’s Between Two Fires.
Myth #03: All the Roma in Albania do not want to work and do not need money. They are lazy.
This is a sentiment that I regularly encounter while conducting fieldwork. Many people in Tirana assume that if I am working with Roma or Egyptian groups then I must be in the non-profit or human rights sector, since many of those groups do this kind of work. As I have expressed in previous posts it is difficult to communicate exactly what I do, but this does not stop many folks from yelling at me or engineering debates about why I SHOULD NOT do work with Roma and Egyptian groups. And one of the main reasons that people often cite is their belief that “those people” are lazy, they simply do not want to work, and they will take all of your money and drink it while their kids beg in the street.” Alright, let’s keep it real. Yes there are people who are lazy, and there are many people who do not want to work. And yes, there are people who do make their children work while they drink raki or beer. And yes folks have the right to be frustrated about things in society. But this not a “Roma thing” or something that only Roma/Egyptian folks do. And one of my research aims is to break this stereotype. Now as I write this, I can already hear folks who claim to know more than me, that they know a lot of Roma or Egyptian families who are cheaters, liars, and thieves. People who are just trying to get over on the system. For those folks who would argue this, I ask: What type of research have you done into the construction of these stereotypes and labels? How have you analyzed systemic racial disparities in Tirana? How have Roma and Egyptian individuals faced discrimination when applying for jobs? When trying to obtain housing? What type of health disparities have you studied in the region? What do you know about the day-to-day experience of stigmas? Of begging? Of racism? What work have you done with human rights? I ask these questions not to come across as arrogant nor high and mighty but rather to stir the conversation and think more critically about some of the comments that have become part of the everyday social fabric. I want us to be able to grasp the weight of statements such as these, to question how they are produced. The photo that I shared above was taken in the spring of 2014 at one of the Roma and Egyptian neighborhoods outside of Tirana. As you can see, this neighborhood is filled with tents and shacks, people using whatever materials they have to put together barracks. The neighborhood is covered with trash and the surrounding city dwellers dump their trash nearby. And what is that towering above them? Empty apartment buildings, buildings that have been sitting there for four years now. No one lives in them. No one ever has lived in them. Many members of this community have protested tirelessly for better housing, have pleaded with the municipality and with local business owners about housing yet the common response is, “Sorry we have no place for you to go.” Yet these buildings are empty. While we cannot easily snap a finger and the community can immediately get housing, we can ask, what socioeconomic and political dynamics shape a space that has new, empty buildings towering over impoverished and malnourished folks in their barracks, crying out for a better place to live? Which brings me to my next and last point…
Myth #04: The Roma do not want houses, they only want to move around. This is a part of their culture.
Okay this one can get a little contentious. Please understand, I AM NOT saying that Roma groups are not nomadic, for in fact, history and research very well points to these patterns. BUT I am arguing that we should question moving practices in Tirana and throughout Albania because many Roma and Egyptian groups do not desire to move around. They do want homes. Yes there are those who migrate often but it is not because they are culturally (nor biologically) designed to do so — many want jobs and security just like everyone else. One of my research interlocutors has been on the move ever since the ’97 socioeconomic crisis in Albania. His family lost their home and then he was forced out of his town by gangs. So they fled to Tirana. Then Greece. Got deported. And now has lived in three different neighborhoods in Tirana because of unlawful and illegal convictions. He cannot obtain steady employment. And he does not own any land or property anywhere. Yet many folks assume that his family is culturally unable to stay in one place even though that’s all they want: a stable home. I conducted a survey with over fifty Roma and Egyptian families that said the same thing. My research is still ongoing but once again I think scholars especially need to reconsider a framing of Roma communities, particularly outside of the lens of the nomadic lifestyle. Not everyone desires to constantly be on the move. Some are looking for work, for stability, for safety. And we need to ask broader questions about these dynamics when we work in these communities.
Here’s a recent story out of Italy about one mayor’s quest to put Roma on separate buses in one Italian town. Check it out here.
People often ask me what I do everyday, how I spend my time here in Tirana. Many times I am making observations and taking fieldnotes, but those unfamiliar with cultural anthropology or ethnography may not know exactly what that looks like. This type of practice is extremely important for producing ethnographic literature, essentially for answering whatever theoretical questions about social and cultural formations. So for this post today I am providing some excerpts from my fieldnotes about a community I work with here. Note, I use single letter abbreviations for names rather than the actual names of interlocutors.
I told O and D that I would visit their neighborhood at some point in the afternoon. When I left my house for the bus station the clouds were graying and I only hoped that the sky would not burst with the spastic Tirana rain for which this city is known. I hopped the bus near the intersection of the Lana River and Elbasan Road. I had seen a white bus go by earlier with “Uzina e Traktoreve” written on it but I actually forgot to check and see if this was written on the bus that I had just grabbed. I was too busy trying to get a seat in the back, which proved to be a bad idea because this area was even more crowded than the middle. Usually the back is a good place to sneak a seat, but instead I was squished in between three or four folks, staring in disbelief as somehow at least seven or eight people got on after me. One man even slid bags of fruit and vegetables under seats as he somehow snaked in between stubborn passengers. We headed towards the area known as Ali Demi which comforted my thoughts, as I knew this was the right way; but just be sure, I asked the man near me if in fact this was the Uzina bus and he shook his head no, meaning yes. That tricky head nodding has gotten the best of many foreigners here, who often get confused as to what folks are saying. I tried to relax a bit knowing that I was on the correct bus, but I struggled to do so because my head was uncomfortably bent low so as to not hit the top of the bus. I soon became worried that due to the number of people aboard I would not be able to see clearly out of the window to know which stop was mine. Thankfully, a few folks soon began to disembark and I was able to snag a seat near the window.
When we got to my stop I fought my way off the bus and walked along the side of the road where a sidewalk maybe once was but no longer existed. I trekked over the gravel in the schoolyard and made my way to the dirt path nestled in between patches of grass. I followed the path until it led to a concrete road near the houses with vines peaking through the cracks. I remembered this as the turnoff point for the neighborhood. As I passed the back of the schoolyard I heard kids playing, football perhaps. I saw a couple of small children walking from a store, and a small car passed me on the road. “It’s O’s sister!” a group of kids began to exclaim as they ran towards me. Ever since my first visit to the neighborhood everyone referred to me as O’s sister because they thought we had similar skin complexions. My husband and I are not convinced that O and I look anything alike but everyone in the neighborhood seems to think so. Even the bus drivers, who often remark how much we resemble when we ride the bus together, say the same thing. O does not identify as Roma, she is Egyptian, a different socioracial and ethnic group in Albania that traces their lineage through Egypt rather than India. She is married though to a Roma man, and lives in a predominately Roma community. “Wow my sister,” I heard, as I turned to see O coming to meet me, her small daughter following barefoot behind her. She kissed me four times, an action I usually associate with people who have not seen each other for a very long time, as kissing twice is the norm. O always kisses me four times though, even if I just saw her four days prior. “D is waiting at her house, let’s go there and have a coffee,” she told me. She pulled out one cigarette from her pocket, a cigarette that she had just bought from the shop around the corner for 10 lekë (about 10 US cents). She never buys a pack, just one or two at a time.
We walked to the other end of the community in the direction of D’s barrack. We walked past the six, tall, colorful, empty apartment buildings, all connected around a grassy plaza area. As I have been told the apartments were designed for a community living space. I stopped for a minute to hear the kids screaming as they ran up and down the stairs and around the buildings. The apartments were built in 2010 and since then have been empty — not one single apartment is occupied nor have any of them ever been. They tower over this group of people that live inside of badly built barracks along the river shore. Over fifty families reside in squalor, in poorly constructed shacks with blankets and flags that serve as doors, and these new apartments sit right beside them. The apartments were designed for community living just not for this community.
We arrived at D’s house and she came over to greet me. She ordered her daughter-in-law to make me a coffee as I sat near two other women. One of the women, A, had just put a pan of water on top of the small gas pipe. The water slowly began to heat. D’s daughter had just married A’s son last week and everyone was still talking about the wedding. A’s younger daughter ran into the house and A barked at her, “Did Esa arrive yet?” “No,” said the young girl, chasing her cousin around. “Well go back out there and wait for her,” A said, “Ishalla she will have a diaper.” The water on top of the pipe was getting hotter, as small bubbles began rising to the top. Neither D nor A had a stove in their house so they all shared this gas pipe that they used for cooking and warming water. D’s daughter-in-law, referred to as the nuse (meaning bride), brought me a Turkish coffee and a gummy piece of candy that was sure to give me heartburn. Before the water reached a boil, A walked over to turn it off. She pulled her cranky baby from the makeshift hammock (a blanked strung to the ceiling by two large pieces of rope) and began to undress him. He cried and yelled as she softly began to wipe off his body, and then slowly his face and hair with the warm water. She cleaned him with such precision and care, both gentle and thorough. She sighed as she wiped his body.
D said that she was exhausted from the day’s work. She had traveled all the way to the center of town to collect cans and scraps. She also looked for used clothes. She said that she made close to $8, all of which went directly to food, for the eight people in her house. Today’s collection yielded a higher return than the previous day. As we talked D’s nuse was already using the recently purchased oil to fry eggs. D’s oldest granddaughter ate her egg on top of a piece of bread with a green onion that she consumed straight. They had jugs of water from a spout that the municipality installed two years ago. Another child said she was hungry and a woman fixed her a piece of bread with olive oil and sugar. Meanwhile A was still holding her young baby, swaddled in a towel. She stared in the direction of the television though her eyes seemed to be looking past it, fixated, but not necessarily on one thing particularly. Her demeanor was wistful and melancholic.
An hour or passed. A’s daughter ran back into the house with a single diaper and A immediately muttered, “Shyqyr (thank God)”. She took the towel off her baby and began to fasten his diaper. I was not sure whom Esa was but she had come through today. As I watched A with the diaper I was reminded of the first time I noticed packs of yogurt in stores that were missing a carton or two. In the beginning it took me a while to realize that oftentimes things can be sold individually, in a way that does not usually occur in the US (things like yogurt, cigarettes, pens/pencils, sponges, etc). This observation may come across as mundane or very ordinary, but it is connected to larger questions of socioeconomic disparities and “getting by” in everyday life. On this day Esa was able to buy that one diaper but I did not know how A’s family would get a diaper the next day. However they would manage to do so, it would more than likely be a single diaper, and not multiple ones or even a pack of them. They did not have money for them. They would somehow find a way to just keep going, to get by one day at a time. People often ask folks in the neighborhood about future plans, about long-term solutions, but as A reiterated many times that day, the only thing that consumed her thoughts was whether she would be able to find that diaper.
I often write about my experiences as a Black woman researcher in Albania, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. When I use the term “intersectionality”, I am referring to the ways that my identity as both Black and a woman intersect, so that when discussing my positionality, it is critical to note how the two interplay. For this post however, I want to focus particularly on gendered aspects of fieldwork in Albania. Tonight after finishing coffee with my neighbors I felt very pressed to take note of the ways in which I feel my research as a woman is impacted differently than a male researcher, particularly in Albania, and so below I have gathered thoughts to share with you (please note that many scholars have discussed these subjects at length, for more information on sources, see my comments at the end of the post).
1. Very often my research is not seen as valid.
Tonight while having coffee one of my neighbors asked me about my research, and while I discussed it, his mind seemed to drift towards another subject. Now I know that I can be very verbose and oftentimes folks stop listening to me when I go on and on. What he said next though confirmed his thoughts of my project: “Don’t worry, next time I will bring my wife and when you meet her, she can teach you about having a baby. You should have a girl. Don’t be afraid of children!” As I have noted in several posts, I am asked every single day why I am in Albania doing research rather than at home with my husband birthing babies. Generally speaking, folks here are usually perplexed that foreigners would come to Albania at all, especially from the US (everyone’s dream is to be in the US!), so both foreign men and women are questioned for even being here. Women, however, are more critically scrutinized and furthermore, are often instructed NOT to do their research, as they are better served as wives and mothers. Even before I was married, when I conducted research here people told me that I was losing time and getting older, and that it was important to head back to the States and find a husband.
2. I have to fight for my voice to be heard.
While having our coffee tonight I was discussing a subject with my neighbor that he thought he knew all about (a typical response). On this particular thing though, I happened to be more well-versed and as I was relaying my thoughts he was very disturbed by my apparent awareness. So he just started saying louder and louder, “Yeah I know, I know” though it was clear that he did not know much at all. I was reminded of a recent ride in a taxi in which the driver began to castigate my research in Roma communities, because as he said, “There is nothing special about them, they are all liars.” I told him that he could share his thoughts but asked how he knew what he knew, what type of research had he done, how often had he visited Roma communities, how many Roma people he knew, etc. There were two other people in the car, both men, and the driver began getting upset as I spat off statistics and talked about my research. So he then just started yelling at me, shouting that he knew everything because he just did, and that there was no way that I could know, besides he was Albanian which meant he must know more (again, gender is not the only thing at play in this example).
3. My body is constantly surveilled and critiqued.
My colleague and I once wrote a conference paper on this subject, and the way that we are physically perceived in the field, as few people talk about this aspect of research. The female body, especially in Albania, in not treated the same way as the male body. Sure people discuss and critique all bodies publicly in a way that we do not do in the States, but the female body is dissected and oftentimes publicly shamed for what folks perceive to be “abnormalities”. Women globally have made this case and have discussed it thoroughly (i.e. the various Dove campaigns, the Body Project), and this too has a big impact on female researchers, especially for a woman such as myself that packs a big more junk in the trunk. During interviews I sometimes have to describe and even defend my body for long periods of time before we can get to interview questions. When I say defend, people will ask many personal questions about weight and size, that in the case of a male researcher, he would probably be the big fun guy who drinks lot of beers instead of the the thicker woman who is subjected to harsh criticism for her body. This led me to begin a focus group with young Albanian women about body perception as this is a larger subject to be studied here.
4. Many times I am now allowed to set my own agenda.
Folks here are very friendly and very hospitable, so they often want to host guests and accompany friends places. As a woman however, many people feel that I should not be able to go anywhere or to do anything on my own. This includes going to cafes, traveling to nearby small towns for interviews, or even simply going home in the evening. Now I am not unaware of cultural norms, and I am also conscious of existing dangers. As some of you may have seen in my previous posts about a temporary stalker, I know there are issues that I should keep in mind, places to avoid, things like that. At the same time however, male researchers get to occupy a different space that women cannot, regardless of how much we may demand to do so. Which brings me to my final point…
5. Women are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault.
After tonight’s coffee I once again received unwanted and somewhat aggressive sexual advances. I have shared with you all some of the problems I have had with men and verbal harassment, but problems extend well beyond this point. This point speaks to women broadly, not just researchers (in particular sexual and domestic violence are big problems in Albania, a subject that I will attempt to write about later in a different post as it is very sensitive and dense). Female researchers are more likely than men to experience these types of problems, and like what happened with my situation with Kuqi the stalker, I was blamed for even being here alone, for not being with my husband, for even walking around alone. This type of response is all too familiar for females, in that many people tend to chastise women for their behaviors rather than blame and correct men for theirs.
Of course there are other examples, all of which I believe provide a window into the ways gender is constructed both in Albania. Many scholars have written quite a bit on this subject, and for those interested I encourage you to check out such works as Black Feminist Anthropology edited by Irma McClaurin, Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork edited by Diane Wolf, or Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. All are wonderful volumes and feature writings from excellent scholars. Also I would also highly suggest reading texts by bell hooks, Lila Abu-Lughood, Kamala Visweswaran, and also Zora Neale Hurston.
This picture is not exactly what I wanted but it’s close enough. My husband is on his way next week and I cannot wait–seriously I’m jumping up and down like a little kid who can’t sleep on Christmas Eve! Well turns out that my friends, neighbors, and even strangers cannot wait as well for him to get here; some of them may even be more excited than me.
To put things into perspective a bit, as I explained before in a few posts, many folks here in Albania have a difficult time comprehending the fact that I live alone. But living alone is just a part of it. That I would come to Albania, for “research” (remember, many people think this is just a front), and be away from my husband, and do all of this as a woman? This is just absurd. Here are some of the things that I have witnessed or heard over the past two months:
My friend Besa’s great-aunt nearly had a breakdown when she learned that I was here in Albania without my husband. She began to physically put me out of the house, telling me to hurry up and leave for the US, and finally Besa and her cousins calmed her down and convinced her that I was okay to stay for a visit.
While buying bread, a random stranger says to me, “Oh so you’re married huh? To an Albanian? Oh, an American. Well where is he? Not here?!? Well you better hurry up and get back to him, he’s probably already with somebody else.”
Security guard at the grocery store where I shop often: “Good evening, still alone? Are you still here by yourself?” I told him that I was but that my husband is coming soon for a visit. “Well thank God, this situation is not normal, you have to change it.”
Alright, so folks have their comments and opinions, and yes, most couples don’t do what we are doing and I understand completely when people are taken aback by this. This is not particular to Albanians. However, I will say that as a female researcher I am often criticized for doing research alone here, whether married or not. Now that I am married it has been interesting to compare the reactions that I receive to those I got before. The politics of gender and research are such that it is still more normative for men to do this type of thing. For those who may want to listen, I once gave a talk about this subject that you can find here: http://miresevini.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/are-you-here-to-find-an-albanian-husband/.
So like I said, the comments on the distance and marriage are somewhat expected. BUT, what I did not expect is the number of times that people, neighbors and strangers, would approach me and touch my belly saying, “Inshallah (if God wills it) you will be blessed with a baby boy when your husband comes.” Yes, that’s right, people touching my lower abdomen and wishing that I get pregnant while my husband is here, and in particular that I have a boy! I was surprised/confused/disturbed the first time this happened, when a street vendor, whom I’ve known for a few years, did it. But then it happened a few more times, sometimes people will just say to me on the bus for example, “Hey are you married? Any kids yet? Well may God give you a boy.” Then today, a woman from my neighborhood did it, placing her hand right on my stomach like it was no big deal–then she insisted that my husband and I have a coffee with her when he gets here. Seriously, I have seen this woman all of four times in my life.
To top it off, last week while having coffee at a friend’s place, one of my friends offered to read my fortune in the remains of my Turkish coffee. Depending on where you are in the country and what generation of folks you’re with, this is a very common practice in Albania (for more read here). Well my friend Orkida claimed to have many years reading coffee grounds, and as soon as she got my cup she said, “Hurry home now, your husband is very sad without you!” I then told her that actually he should be here soon for a visit. “Oh, good,” she said. “And now I see that soon you will be pregnant. Inshallah with a boy.”
Racism? In a small southeastern European, homogenous country? A country with so much religious harmony? Surely this cannot be. Racism? In a country that once shielded and protected Jewish populations during World War II? Absolutely not. Perhaps in surrounding Balkan countries that have struggled with ethnic conflict in the post-Yugoslavic period, but not racism in Albania.
These are some of the reactions and comments that I receive when I discuss my research in Albania. While my goal is not to definitively determine whether Albanians are racist, this is what many people hear, regardless of what I may actually say. Race, and more so racism, is a term that can elicit anxiety and tension. The topic makes people nervous. And Europe has a particular history with racism, which is particularly marked by Nazi race science and genocide. Furthermore, many people think of the Balkan region as saturated with ethnic conflict, a region steeped in ancient ethnic hatreds, barely contained below their boiling point. Albania, however, is often viewed as a more stable nation of the region, as the country that was not as directly involved in the conflicts of the 1990s (I say directly because Albania did play a huge role in the Kosova/Serbia conflict of 1998-99. You can read more about that here.) People tell me that Albania is racially homogenous, that there is not much difference here. That Albanians warmly welcome all guests, and foreigners especially. So why am I bringing my racial lens of analysis here?
As much as my friends, neighbors, and interlocutors try to correct my “misinterpretations” about race and racism, processes of racialization do exist in Albania. Individuals speak openly and freely about racism—conversations and observations with individuals reveal this. People discuss racism against Roma and Egyptian communities, the ways in which northerners, mountaineers, and villagers feel racialized, as well as racism that Albanians experience in Greece and Italy. People discuss color, differentiate between those with white hands (white people) and black hands (darker skinned people like the Roma and Egyptian communities). Even still, many people become uncomfortable, defensive, and even angry when I discuss my project. Never mind such racist occurrences as: overt racist slurs used towards African football players at games (including fans hurling bananas and yelling “monkey” at Black players), the use of blackface and derogatory language to portray Black people on national comedy shows, segregated neighborhoods and camps with few if any resources, offensive language and actions against dark-skinned people (primarily Roma and Egyptians), the everyday usage of racial slurs like bythë zi (dark ass) or gabelë (derogatory word for Roma, though people say it to me at times as well), thoughts about classification of people and rankings based on skin color, the thoughts that people hold about marriage between races–these are just some examples among many.
But it can be difficult to talk about these things in terms of race. For one thing, people must first understand that while many things have changed since the end of communist rule, Albania is still a poor country, with many people living in extreme poverty. So for some folks, they do not see a connection between racism and poverty (against Roma groups for example), but rather view the situation as a group of people that does not work and therefore does not have many resources; and since many people are struggling here, whether Roma or not, what makes this group different than others? Or, folks will talk about slurs and offensive language as annoying, bothersome even, but not rooted in racism, even if based on such physical and biological factors like skin color. Still if you can get folks to begin talking about differences and socioeconomic gaps, then they are usually okay staying in the realm of stereotypes, discrimination, marginalization, and even prejudice to some extent. Things change at the mention of race and racism. Europe does have a particular history with the word, a different history than does the United States, for example. Yet, one look at some of the recent European reports, texts, and analyses highlights attempts to discursively erase racism. It has become something people want to get rid of, if only verbally so. Perhaps if it is not mentioned, it is not there; so we will keep words like “discrimination” or “ethnic conflict” because people feel safer there for some reason.
This reminds me quite a bit of the United States. Many folks have created this neat little box for what racism is (or was to some): the days of slavery and Jim Crow, these are examples of racism. Separate water fountains, separate restaurants, also racism. And all of that was changed, eradicated. For many folks if so-called racism does not fit this mold, then it is not so. Which is why it can be so difficult to discuss institutional racism, structural racism, to discuss forms that manifest differently than those aforementioned. A similar phenomenon occurs here in Albania, and this is one reason I think people have a hard time engaging the subject. Or they would rather just use a different word because that is easier. I am reminded of anthropologist’s Alaina Lemon’s article “Without a ‘concept’: Race as discursive practice,” in which she argues that while people in post-Soviet spaces may not have used the same language as the United States to discuss or index race, this does not mean that people did and do not have ways of making racial inference based on biological and/or physical features (2002). So in other words, just because racial practices in Albania do not look like other forms in Europe, presently or historically, or the US, does not mean that they do not exist.
I once attended a university talk about migrants, religion, and transnational racism, and during the Q&A a woman shared her experiences in France. As a white French national, she said that in her country, people no longer use the term “race” to talk about differences among people, and that they preferred ethnicity. At some point she began crying as she talked, saying that the idea of racism really bothered her, and that ethnicity was much better. And therein lies the exact problem–people need to be bothered! One of the biggest differences between race and ethnicity lies in the fact that while a person can choose her ethnicity, and even identify ethnically or nationally in multiple ways, race is an ascribed identity. Yes race is a social concept (as opposed to biological) but individuals and groups are racialized, and these processes oftentimes shape socioeconomic inequality and disparities. In the case of Albania, there are serious structural problems, serious issues with race and human classification. Racial logics structure even the most mundane facets of everyday life, and these logics are at the root of policymaking, social interaction, segregation and injustice. Racism has created social, political, and economic exclusion, and can take on many forms; recognizing this is one of the first steps to addressing it.
Lemon, Alaina. 2002. “Without a ‘Concept’? Race as discursive practice. Slavic Review. 61 (1), 54-61.
Here’s a recap from the party last weekend:
1. As instructed I showed up to Mrs. B.’s house and we ate our “small” lunch before going to the 80th birthday party. We ate soup, salad, veggies, and byrek with leeks which was really good. She did a great job making it, and as usual talked about how wonderful it all came out as we ate. After lunch we had Turkish coffee and then headed to the event.
2. On the way to the party Mrs. B. informed me that it was not necessary to really talk about exactly what I do here in Albania, as folks didn’t need to know all of that (sometimes she acts like I work for the CIA or something, which surprisingly folks do ask from time to time; why the CIA would send a Black woman here “undercover” I’m not sure). Anyhow, she informed me that she had already told most of the women that I was here studying the Albanian language. She considered this to be a suitable response but of course throughout the party folks kept asking what I was doing here, as they thought it odd that I would seemingly come here for many years just to learn Albanian.
3. The first plate of food that came (key word, first) included: various types of salami, cheeses, olives, eggs, yogurt sauce, beef cuts, bread, salad, tomatoes, sliced carrots, grilled peppers, and cabbage. I ate a few things here and there but of course I was already stuffed. People started whispering and then asking Mrs. B. if her American friend was hungry or not. She then said, “Oh we already ate, Chelsi loves byrek so much and wanted me to make one before we came.” I almost choked on an olive. She smiled as she said this and patted my back. “So you like byrek, huh,” my neighbor asked, and I simply smiled and nodded my head. I later heard Mrs. B. yelling across the table to someone explaining that because I loved byrek so much, she just had to make one earlier for me. “She even takes some home with her!” All the ladies marveled at my apparent love of byrek.
4. Later the second plate of beef steak and potatoes arrived, and I ate what I could but again, I was very full. Mrs. B. did not even touch hers but no one paid attention to her plate — instead they were fixated on mine. And of course there was fruit and dessert afterwards. Thankfully I did not have much time to think about these as folks were dancing more and Mrs. B. kept making me get up to dance with her. Sidenote: Albanians really like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. I swear I hear it at every party and wedding with a DJ. And it’s usually mixed in with Albanian music and that Americana song that folks love so much. So we did the twist. We did traditional Albanian “Valle”, we danced in and out of circles, making lines all over the place.
5. Later I went back to my seat to catch my breath for a second and give my feet a rest. The lady next to me heard the next song and got ready to get up a dance. She grabbed my hand and motioned towards the dance floor. At first I said, “No, no, I’ll wait until the next one,” but she grabbed me anyway and said, “Come on, you’ll lose a little weight,” and smiled. Right, I thought to myself. Time to dance off that byrek that I love so much.
While my blog primarily focuses on questions of belonging, race, and identity, I am also exploring ways to capture stories from my fieldwork experiences and connecting them to larger questions about ethnography. That being said, I share here some interactions with one of my closest friends.
I mentioned Mrs. B. in my previous post about the hunger games, the one in which I I first termed the phrase “Albanian Hunger Games.” Well I’m back now with what I’m calling Part Two, and almost named “Catching Qofte” (qofte is an Albanian meatball).
So Mrs. B. loves to cook — really she lives for it. I’m not sure if there is anything in this world that makes her happier than cooking, and she’s wonderful at it. Here’s a typical recap of lunch at her house:
Mrs. B.: Mireserdhe! (Good that you’ve come, or welcome). The table is ready and I’m just heating the soup, it’s such a good soup. Full of vegetables, a very light soup.
We do the usual questions and updates: family check, health, how work is going, what we have done the past couple of days, comments on the weather. I ask her if I can help her prepare and she shoots me down as always, and acts so surprised that I would even ask, as her guest. We have been friends for almost six years.
Mrs. B: We’re ready now. Only a small lunch today: soup, salad, byrek (like a pie) with beans, fish, cabbage, and peppers. Ju bëftë të mirë (bon appetite).
Me: Bless your hands for preparing.
And then we start eating.
Mrs. B: (After eating a few bites) Look at how wonderful this soup is, such a good soup. And the vegetables came out beautiful. Chelsi, make sure you eat all that salad, it’s so fresh. I walked far to get it, from a village woman who you can trust. You can’t trust everybody when it comes to buying salad.
I take more salad.
Mrs. B: And finish those peppers too, because I won’t eat them later. You are hardly eating anything. Don’t forget I made a lot of byrek so you can take some home with you. And I made it by hand, none of that store-bought stuff. And this fish, isn’t this fish good? I prepared it well. I got it special, and at such a good rate.
She continues eating, smiling, and singing to herself. She loves to feed people and gets so much joy out of food. The only time she stops to speak about something else is to point and yell at the political commentators on TV, for being so corrupt and betraying the people of Albania. There’s one woman in particular that she always calls a witch. I don’t even know her name but whenever I see her now on TV, I too think ‘witch’.
Alright, so that’s what a lot of our lunches look like. We eat, catch up, she tells me stories about her childhood and her late husband. And we conclude with Turkish coffee or mountain tea. Now Mrs. B. is involved with a retired woman’s group, which consists mostly of women age 65 years and older. They meet at a center near her house, for casual conversations and activities. Sometimes they have coffee together, other times they take walks, and every now and then they take organized trips. Well one day one of the women suggested that they have a group outing to a restaurant here in Tirana. Her son is the manager there, and she claimed they had some of the best food in Tirana. All of the women had to agree to pay a fixed price and they would organize the meal with the cooks. When I saw Mrs. B. a couple of days before the outing she was excited about it, though I know that at times she, like many Albanians and especially older ones, are skeptical of eating out. What I mean is, Americans in comparison eat out often (and not necessarily just those with more money), whereas relatively speaking, Albanians do not do so as much, though many more are doing it now than were twenty years ago. My mom and I once took Mrs. B to a restaurant here in Tirana and she put on a front there, raving about how good everything was, but then a few weeks later asked me if I went to get my money back because the food was so awful.
So, when I went back to her house the week following her group outing, and asked her how it turned out, she said, “Terrible!” The food was just unacceptable, completely subpar. She said that the woman tricked her, and that she could have made everything better at her house. Apparently it was so bad that in the end, Mrs. B. only ate pilaf (rice) because she couldn’t stand the food. After this occurred she told the story to everybody, and I mean everybody. I have heard it at least five times. Now, perhaps she was being a bit overdramatic, but I must say that I admire her passion for food. And in many ways it’s funny, especially this story she keeps retelling. The food gets worse every time the story is retold.
This weekend though? I share all of this because Mrs. B. has set me up to play the hunger games and I don’t think I am ready to compete. For you see, Mrs. B. has invited me to her friend’s 80th birthday party, and I am delighted to be her guest. For this party, the family has rented out a place in Tirana, complete with a large dance floor and live musicians. Mrs. B. is really excited because she loves to dance. There’s just one problem though — she doesn’t trust their food to be any good. Word on the street is that it is not. So what’s her solution? I’m going to arrive at her house two hours before the party and we’ll have lunch together, a “light” lunch that she’s preparing, so as to not take any chances. BUT, this is not good for me, because I have been to parties and weddings before, and like usual, people are going to watch to see what I eat, and how much I eat of it. I have heard people whisper things like, “The American, does she like our food?” or “Let’s hope to God she is pleased with the food we serve.” When I do not eat, whether at an event or someone’s house, especially at someone’s house, then the host tries to find something that I would prefer to eat instead, since I must eat something (i.e. see the first post on the hunger games). And as many of you already know, even when you’ve even a lot, people think you haven’t eaten anything. Not to mention how people will make you eat and eat, but then tell you how much weight you have gained (I’ll save that for another post). Mrs. B. has already set the plans for Saturday though, and called me today to ensure that I will be over early. Let’s see what happens.
I am sharing this post knowing that my mother will probably yell at me later but I am going to take a risk. For a few years now a rather strange man has followed me around Tirana when I have stayed here for research periods. I’m not sure why but this gentleman would approach me often and ramble incoherent sentences about only God knows what, and while at first I thought he was a drunk with a few loose screws, several incidents from last fall forced me to contact the police as he had begun to stalk me, at times aggressively. Now I know it may sound crazy that the first time this man ever came up to me was in 2009, and that the first time I ever contacted the police was in 2013, but seriously it was only until last fall that it turned into stalking and verbal harassment.
So I am sharing this post now for a few reasons. First off, this situation with Kuqi, that’s his nickname, has become one of anthropological inquiry, as many of my friends, neighbors, and the police here did not (and maybe still do not) quite comprehend the situation as I did, or if they did, they never saw it as dangerous. Annoying, maybe. Bothersome, sure. But never dangerous. Even though my friends helped, just yesterday one of them was saying that I blew the entire thing out of proportion. As such, part of the reason I am blogging is to dig deeper into categories, phenomena, and how people make sense of their worlds. This especially comes out in the video as various people in the story try to help me understand what’s really going on, as if I don’t know. This brings me to the video. I am now experimenting with what I’m terming for the moment “performance ethnography”, and I’m doing so through the use of video. I envision this as part storytelling, part ethnography, and a way to get anthropology off of paper. I’m not exactly sure where this is headed but some friends encouraged me to try this out, so I am. I will say that the story is pretty long, so just know that beforehand. Also, it has taken some time for me to be able to blog about this, and yes now many parts of the story are very comical but they weren’t always so.
I think this story though sheds light on many aspects that need further examination, including the fact that many of my friends were more concerned about how this matter would cloud my view of Albania and Albanians; still when some friends hear about it they immediately get worried that I might think badly of the entire country, or worse, tell others that this is what Albania is like. Also this story opens the question of how people handle notions of verbal harassment and stalking. This especially comes out with multiple people telling me that there was nothing they could actually “do” about the situation. I also think that maybe cases such as this one really problematize the concept of “the ordinary” or “the everyday life”. It’s really made me question things that I might think of as extraordinary that others do not.
Here it is the story of Kuqi: