Thursday, November 27, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
100 Years of the Albanian Alphabet
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun
On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Albanian Alphabet
(For Parts I and II scroll down.)
After Gjerasim’s death, his family and friends carried on his spiritual, educational and patriotic program. The movement that he was a part of came to be known as the National Rebirth (“rilindja”, sometimes translated “renaissance”, which is just the French word for “rebirth”). It is striking that Gjerasim and other key leaders who had experienced a personal, spiritual rebirth helped to make possible a national, cultural rebirth. Gjerasim’s influence on the Rebirth was such that his hometown of Manastir (Bitola) and his later base of operations, Korça, became twin epicenters of the movement.
The crowning achievement of the Rebirth was the Congress of Manastir, a gathering of Albanians in November of 1908 to establish the alphabet. Gjerasim had been dead 14 years by this time, but the conference was hosted in the Qiriazi family home by Gjerasim’s younger brother Gjergj. Their two sisters Sevastia and Parashqevia also participated as well as Grigor Cilka, the pastor of the church that Gjerasim had founded in Korça, and several other evangelical believers. In fact the only non-Albanian present was missionary Violet Kennedy. (She was an observer without voting rights.)
In a recent interview in the Albanian Tribune, scholar Reshat Nexhipi said that Manastir is for Albanians what Mecca is for Muslims. Here is how Dr. Nexhipi replied when asked why the Congress was held in Manastir: “Because, in addition to others, the patriotic Qiriazi family operated here, five members, three men and two women, each more patriotic and civilized than the other. Especially Gjerasim, without which Manastir probably wouldn’t have turned into a center for the National Albanian movement and the birthplace of the alphabet. The two sisters – Sevastia dhe Parashqevia – were the most emancipated women in the Balkans and beyond. They spoke 8 languages, Parashqevia was the only female at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.”
So what about the alphabet? How can it be that the alphabet wasn’t established until 1907 when Gjerasim was already distributing Scripture portions in Albanian in the 1880s – not to mention the baptism formula in 1462 and the Meshari in 1555? Of course Albanian had been reduced to writing long before the Congress of Manastir, but there was no agreed-upon standard alphabet. The language was sometimes rendered with Greek characters, sometimes with Cyrillic, sometimes with Arabic, and sometimes with Latin. Naturally there were competing interests advocating each of these options. And even among those who favored Latin letters, there was no consensus as to precisely which letters and what each one should represent.
The Congress ended up agreeing on a Latin-based alphabet with 36 characters, each representing a single sound. The choice of Latin characters was not without controversy. In the aftermath of the Congress, Muslim clerics in the city of Elbasan led demonstrations insisting that use of anything other than Arabic letters would make them infidels. (Ironically Turkey itself switched to a Latin-based alphabet in 1928 as part of Ataturk’s reforms.)
Although the Albanians are still divided by religion and by national borders, their unified alphabet has helped them maintain ethnic identity in the face of overwhelming pressure from fierce enemies. And the choice of a Latin-based alphabet was a gesture which revealed the delegates’ desire to place their nation in a European/Western cultural framework.
I want to be tentative here, because I’m expressing a conclusion that as far as I know is original to me – always a dangerous undertaking – and one that I have reached only recently. There’s a good chance that I’m overreaching here. If so, I’m willing to be corrected.
Christian missionary work has often been accused of being an arm of empire. This is a legitimate charge – one that we must not only repent of but continually guard against. But the story of Protestant missions work among the Albanians seems to stand in sharp contrast to this all too familiar narrative. Rather than being a steam roller that crushed indigenous culture, the Gospel seems to have functioned as a subversive force that undermined empire and fostered freedom for an oppressed people. If this is true, it's not because those early missionaries to the Albanians had a healthier missiology than anybody else; in fact, it has much more to do with the historical circumstances in which they worked. The Gospel always seems to work better from a position of weakness than one of strength.
I can think of a host of caveats with which to quality this thesis. Of course there were a thousand other forces battering the Ottoman Empire by that time. (Even if the Gospel played a significant role in the Albanian Rebirth as I am arguing here, that movement was only one of a multitude of nationalist movements.) Of course there is always a dark side to any nationalist movement. Of course the Protestant missionaries -- and Gjerasim himself -- had their flaws. But despite all of this, it’s a really wonderful story.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet
(Scroll down for Part I.)
Buzuku notwithstanding, during those 500 years of Turkish rule, most Albanians adopted Islam. Conversions at the point of the sword were the exception rather than the rule, but there was always pressure. Christians in Turkish territory paid much higher taxes and were treated as second class citizens. The empire was organized along religious lines, so that when an Albanian, a Greek, or a Serb converted to Islam, he was said to have become a Turk. By the same token, an Albanian who belonged to the Orthodox faith was automatically considered Greek.
In the 19th Century as the Turkish Empire began to unravel, Albanians (along with the other Balkan peoples) began feeling intense ethnic pride and a hunger for freedom. In the case of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks, for example, religion was a unifying factor in their struggle to break free. However, Albanians were divided among three faiths: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. All three of these had been used at various times in history as a force for domination by foreign powers: Catholicism by Rome, Orthodoxy by Greece, and Islam by Turkey. None of the three allowed worship in the mother tongue at that time. For Catholics of course Vatican II was still 100 years away. The Greek Orthodox Church of that time alternated between denying that the Albanian language even existed and calling it "an accursed language." And Muslims must worship in Arabic to this day. In light of all this it's no surprise that many Albanian patriots came to see religion as a divisive and damaging force. A poet by the name of Vaso Pasha summed up the feelings of many of his fellow Albanians with the famous line, "The religion of Albanians is Albaianism." (Communist dictator Enver Hoxha would quote this to justify his decision in 1967 to make Albania the world's first constitutionally atheistic state.)
This was the historical context in which a young Albanian man in the city of Manastir (present day Bitola in Macedonia) was introduced to a living, transforming connection to God by Protestant missionaries in his city. His name was Gjerasim Qiriazi, and he discovered in his new faith a relationship with the God who spoke his language. He went on to study at a Bible school in Bulgaria after which he was sent to Skopje (where I now live and work) to pastor a Slavic congregation. From here he went to work for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which three hundred years after the Meshari, had begun working to translate the Scriptures into Albanian. Gjerasim traveled throughout the Albanian lands to distribute the Word of God in his mother tongue.
In the course of his travels Gjerasim rejoiced with his fellow Albanians as, for the first time in their lives, they held in their hands the printed word in their own language. But he also lamented the fact that so few of them knew how to read it. These experiences awakened in him a new passion, which led to a new pursuit. In 1892 in the city of Korça, he and his sisters opened the first ever school for girls in the Albanian language. (The first Albanian school for boys had opened just five years earlier in the same city.) Gjerasim also planted a church in Korça and established the Albanian Evangelical Brotherhood.
Gjerasim’s life motto was, “Friends for God; light for the people; blessings for the motherland.” His faithfulness to this course proved costly. In 1884 he was captured by brigands and held for ransom for six months. Their brutality left him with health consequences for the rest of his life. Just as Pharisees and Sadducees found common cause to oppose Jesus in his day, Greeks and Turks managed to unite in opposition to this seditious book salesman despite their hatred of one another. He had to fight fierce opposition at every step. In 1893 he survived an assassination attempt, apparently sponsored by elements in the Greek Orthodox Church. As it turned out, his enemies could have saved themselves the trouble; he died less than a year later at only 35 years of age.
To be continued...
Thursday, November 20, 2008
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet
Disclaimer: I recently helped to organize an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet. As I was writing a letter to my friends and supporters about this event, I felt compelled to help them understand its significance, but the letter I was writing was getting much too long and complicated. So I decided that I would write a blog post that would fill in some detail for those who were interested. Then when I set out to write this entry, once again it started getting away from me. I recognize a fundamental problem with what I've written here. If you're Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you probably won't see anything here you don't know already know. If you're not an Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you'll probably just find all this tedious. I guess I'm writing it for my own benefit as much as anything. I want to put into words what I've been learning. I'm no historian and no Albanolog, just a friend of the Albanians. If you disagree with my interpretation of events, or if I've gotten something flat out wrong, feel free to let me know.
I have a map of the Balkan Peninsula from the year 1850 -- an original, not a reproduction or photocopy. It was a gift from a friend in Taos, New Mexico, and I treasure it highly. The word "Balkan" or "Balkans" doesn't appear anywhere on my map; instead the title is "Turkey in Europe". That's what they called this part of the world back then.
One of the interesting things about my map is that it captures a snapshot of a very turbulent time when the Turkish Empire in Europe was on the verge of breaking up. On my map the southern part of Greece is not colored in because it was no longer part of Turkey in Europe; it had gained its independence in 1829. In the years that followed the rest of the Balkans would also tear away from Turkey.
By that time Turkey had ruled this part of the world for almost 500 years. At the very same time that the sunlight of the Reformation had been breaking through in Western Europe, the dark cloud of the Turkish empire was descending on the part of the world we now know as the Balkans.* The infamous battle of Kosovo Field, which is usually considered to mark the beginning of Turkish rule in the Balkans took place in 1389 -- just five years after Wycliffe's English translation of the New Testament.
But there were rays of light that reached the Balkans around this time. The earliest existing fragment written in the Albanian language dates back to 1462 and consists of the following words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" -- 5 centuries to the year before the Catholic Church officially decided to allow the liturgy to be recited in local langugages. And the earliest book in Albanian was the Meshari of Gjon Buzuki(the Missal) a prayer book completed in 1555. The Meshari contained excerpts from the Bible, Catholic liturgy and catechism translated into Albanian.
The Meshari was completed in 1555, just 38 years after Luther had nailed his theses to the Wittenberg Door. By this time the Counter-Reformation was in full swing, and the Catholic Church was busy banning books which dared to translate the Word of God into the vernacular. Nevertheless Gjon Buzuku, the Catholic priest who compiled it, had the foresight to recognize that if Albanian Christians were going to resist the Islamic tide sweeping their lands, they needed God's Word in their own language.
Here is his own explanation of his purpose found the in postscript of the Meshari: "I, Don John, son of Benedict Buzuku, having often considered that our language had in it nothing intelligible from the Holy Scriptures, wished for the sake of our people to attempt, as far as I was able, to enlighten the minds of those who understand, so that they may comprehend how great and powerful and forgiving our Lord is to those who love him with all their hearts. I beg of you from today on to go to church more often to hear the word of God."
To be continued...
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Sunday, November 02, 2008
They tell me that this drive of mine to be accepted and respected is the result of a deficiency in my experience of God's grace. Once I am profoundly aware and convinced that God loves me and accepts me unconditionally, this pathological desire to impress and please people will whither away, they say.
But I'm not so sure. What if, having secured God's favor, I am left longing for a challenge? What if this acceptance through no merit of my own leaves me all the more desperate to claim some kind of achievement? What if the very fact that God's grace is given so freely carries with it the temptation to treat it as cheap?