Last summer, in a small coffee shop in Bamberg, Germany, an Albanian man in his 40s told me about how that day he had seen another Albanian who he did not know that well. Then he said: “I didn’t talk to him because he was with his wife. I assumed he wouldn’t be too happy with me touching his wife’s hand.”
Surprised, I asked: “Why do you say that?”
He replied: “You wouldn’t understand. We, the diaspora, are more conservative.”
I’ve often noticed such displays of traditional conservatism among Albanians of the diaspora. They are more notable during the summer season in Kosovo, when the overwhelming majority of visitors are not tourists, but rather members of the diaspora that come to visit their relatives in their homeland.
The Kosovar diaspora is comprised of 700,000 people, so their presence is notable during the summer. The roads are full of expensive cars with foreign registration plates. In the city squares you can see many people and hear many Albanians from abroad speaking different languages.
During the summer you can clearly notice the distinctions between the diaspora and the local populace. These distinctions are notable because residing in another country for a long period of time shapes and changes an individual. However, bearing in mind these distinctions, it can seem odd or counter-intuitive to many that Kosovars who live in the liberal countries of Western Europe are in general more conservative and traditional than people who live in small, isolated Kosovo.
To explain this phenomenon, a lot of research has been conducted by social scientists. For Kosovo’s case, it is worth analysing a study conducted by Janet Reineck, an American anthropologist who studied “Gender, migration and ideology among Albanians in Kosovo,” in 1987-88.
Reineck concentrated her research on the Opoja region of Kosovo, which has many villages and a culture of migration, using it to explain the predominant social conservatism in villages and the ways in which it has been preserved, through forms such as arranged marriages, limitation of women’s movement outside of the household and the prohibition of high school education for girls.
Although today the Kosovar diaspora is more liberal than it was in the ’80s, Reineck’s study can give us an interesting insight into how conservatism is still more dominant among Kosovar migrants.
Lessons from the past
When I speak about conservatism in the context of this piece, I imply a cultural conservatism that is manifested through forms that preserve the heritage of a people through traditions. In Kosovo’s case this includes preserving traditions and customs as strict rules, patriarchal structures in families, preserving family honor, and strictly respecting age and gender hierarchy in families — namely considering the man as “the master of the house” (“i zoti i shpisë”), the head of the family, and the one who makes decisions for the family.
When we speak about the diaspora we understand that it is a heterogenous group that lives in different countries and has diverse experiences. We are referring to the overwhelming majority of the Kosovar diaspora that is predominantly originally from rural areas in Kosovo, because most of Kosovo’s population was, and still is, largely rural. And in general, unavoidable economic migration occurs in places in which economic survival is more difficult and employment levels are lower — namely, in villages.
The first distinction that Reineck made was between migration outside of the country and migration from villages to cities. She noticed a distinction between men that went to work in the diaspora and men that found jobs in cities near Opoja.
Those that worked in cities near Opoja visited home more often and adapted to new values more quickly in comparison to those that worked abroad. In her study Reineck wrote that “a man that is exposed to non-Opojan ideas, but is simultaneously near his family and can thus monitor his family’s behavior, is more elastic when it comes to cultural interpretations. He can send his daughters to high school because he is close enough to observe their behavior. His wife can visit her relatives in Prizren because he is close and the community knows this.”
However, according to Reineck, those that lived further away adhered to norms more strictly, so as to “protect” their family, especially in relation to women.
So on the one hand we have the “master of the house” in Kosovo who allows change to happen because he is close enough to monitor this change, and on the other we have the “master of the house” who is overseas and becomes more strict as a result of his absence at home.
A man that travels from a village to a city is still within his group, so among Albanians in this case, and thus he sees liberal values as something that are not foreign, but a natural process of social change. Whereas a man that lives in another country perceives ‘modernity’ as something foreign that is not a part of his culture, and he thereby creates a defensive conservatism that is a characteristic of marginalized social groups throughout the world.
In the context of migration in the late ’80s, Reineck explains how Opojans belong to this socially marginalized group. As Yugoslavs, they were citizens of a developing country that bordered the West, a political and cultural hegemony; as an ethnic minority in Yugoslavia, they were economically, politically and culturally subordinate in relation to the dominance of larger ethnic groups that surrounded them, especially because of the fact that they spoke a non-Slavic language and had different customs and a different religion.
Meanwhile, as Albanian villagers they were further marginalized economically and culturally by urban Albanians. And as Albanian migrants they were stigmatized as foreigners in the countries in which they lived and worked.
In this position, migrants create a defensive conservatism. Migrants cope with social and economic marginalism in the countries in which they work by identifying with the culture of their country of origin, a culture that gives them dignity and honor.
Edward Said calls this phenomenon “positional superiority”: when an individual exaggerates the cons of the culture and lifestyle of the country in which they live by labelling them immoral, rampant and decadent. At the same time they exalt the traditions of their country because they give them identity, honor, respect and a social status in their country.
Often when I’ve spoken with elderly Albanians who have migrated to western Europe, I’ve been told that they’ve achieved economic success, but despite the fact that they’ve lived abroad, they continue to feel a sense of respect, honor, community and social status only in their respective villages or social circles (rreth) in Kosovo.
Another reason for this conservatism is the “myth of return,” which states that when a migrant returns to their homeland, things will not have changed. So they see migration as something temporary and expect to return in the future and find their community just as it was when they left it in the past.
This also happens to migrants of other countries. For example. many generations of migrants in Turkey did not want their children to study law, since they wouldn’t be able to work in Turkey ‘upon returning.’
According to Russell King, a professor who has extensively studied migration, the “myth of return” serves to justify a migrant’s disinclination or inability to adjust to the culture of the country in which they live, by labelling adaptation as assimilation through foreign values.
On one hand, they could be impressed by the many positive aspects of living in these countries, such as functional systems of public and private services, work ethic, respect for employers and employees etc. However, as a marginalized foreigner, they reinforce their self-dignity by listing the negative aspects of these cultures, such as the disintegration of families and the lack of control that parents have over their children or that husbands have over their wives.
So migrants glorify the positive aspects of their culture — for example, in the case of Albanian culture it would be family discipline, closer family ties, more attention and care given by children to the elderly — and these positive aspects are exaggerated and seen by migrants as superior characteristics of their identity.
One way in which migrants preserve ties with their families is by sending remittances in order to help raise standards back home. However, this contribution is not necessarily productive for families in Kosovo and for the Kosovar economy. In general, money that is sent by migrants is put toward consumption, big weddings, houses, cars, gold for women and household appliances. These are visible objects, but they are not necessarily useful in the long term.
If one goes out for a stroll in one of the Kosovar villages that has many migrants, they’ll notice a distinction in size between the bigger houses of people that live in the West or have relatives abroad, and people who live and work in Kosovo. Houses and big weddings are elements that build their social status.
On the other hand, remittance receivers develop a rent-seeking behavior and mentality. They remain passive, they do not create, they are not economically productive, they just consume. This creates a difficult situation for migrants or makes them uninterested in focusing their remittances and investments in enterprises that would create jobs in their homeland.
So migrants in Kosovo and other countries in eastern Europe bring back to their respective homelands money, cars, different technological gear, but not liberal ideas. On the contrary, their conservatism deepens, as does their families’ (relatives that live in their country of origin) dependence on them.
Culture and tradition are things that do not change overnight, but in order to achieve economic welfare, people must adapt to contemporary economic realities. When Reineck interviewed villagers in Opoja, she challenged many of their ideas about excess spending on houses, material objects and weddings. They would admit that it was unreasonable spending, but would go on to say “we’re just used to it” (“na ka met, na ka met”).
The society that accepts and legitimizes these traditions must challenge and discourage them. The diaspora must consider their own strong economic position and power not only as a privilege, but also as a responsibility. They must redefine some outdated conservative values so as to be more integrated in their respective host countries and they must simultaneously redefine the way they help their relatives and their country of origin.
Remittances are not a stable form of economic aid. Thus the diaspora must invest not only in the form of remittances, which translate to consumption and passivize the Kosovar youth, but also in education and training for their relatives, which would make the latter economically independent and would in turn strengthen the labor market.
Additionally, they could find partners and collaborators in Kosovo, with whom they could create different startup businesses in the country, because helping their relatives in Kosovo become economically independent would be a much bigger honor than enabling them to pay for houses and weddings.
Illustration: Driton Selmani.