Blogbox | Human Rights

Between two fires

By - 10.07.2023

Too Albanian in Macedonia, too Macedonian in Albania.

My mother is an Albanian from Albania. Half of my family is there — grandparents, uncles, cousins. My father is an Albanian from North Macedonia, where I was born and I spent most of my life. As I was growing up, I often heard other children calling me “Macedonian.” That’s what my peers called me in Albania, where I often went for family visits and sometimes tried to hang out with the neighborhood kids who played in the nearby park.

At the same time, I grew up in a city with a Macedonian majority. Even now I live in a city where most people are Macedonian. They certainly never called me “Macedonian,” which is understandable, since for them I am not part of the Macedonian nation. Often, Macedonians called me “shiptar” — which in Macedonian is an ethnic slur.

Like many Albanians from North Macedonia, I find myself between two fires — I’m rejected in North Macedonia and in Albania.

‘Shiptari’ in North Macedonia

A few years ago, I was late for my lectures at Skopje’s St. Cyril and Methodius University. I hopped in a taxi and started chatting in Macedonian with the taxi driver about the weather and then about politics. When speaking about the difficulties of living in our country, the taxi driver told me, “Oh boy, the Shiptars took the country from us!”

I felt humiliated. “Imagine,” I thought, “they think we are stealing their country simply because we live here and demand our rights.”

This was neither the first nor the last time that I would encounter such situations. It has also happened to many of my friends. Once when leaving a bookstore, a friend of mine heard two guys commenting on something, saying “shiptari, shiptari.” When he challenged them about their use of this term, they replied “no, you are ‘Albanec'” — the standard way to refer to Albanians in Macedonian.

I often hear Macedonians use “Albanec” in reference to Albanians from Albania and “shiptar” for those from Kosovo and especially North Macedonia. In other words, they distinguish the supposedly civilized Albanians from the uncivilized ones.

Anyone with half a brain understands that this prejudice is completely unacceptable in the modern world. Nevertheless, it exists. I see it in the way Macedonians scapegoat the Albanians of North Macedonia for the state’s economic and political problems, problems which Albanians are also affected by.

Something similar happened in 2022 when right-wing groups protested against the French proposal for a solution of the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The proposal called for the addition of minorities, including Bulgarians, into the Macedonian Constitution. During protests against the proposal there were chants such as “death to shiptars” and “a good shiptari is a dead shiptari”.

Though it’s not everyone, many in Macedonian society treat the Albanian minority as second-class citizens. They are seen as a problem that requires a solution and not as an ethnic group who have the right to be recognized, respected and have equal rights.

Normal people like me suffer the consequences of these exclusionary and nationalist ideologies that are being promoted by major Macedonian political parties. We suffer because we are not considered people but “shiptars.” Of course, not every Macedonian feels this way about Albanians, but it is a strong social current and you see it in everyone from taxi drivers to university professors.

You feel like a stranger in your own country. Perhaps this explains the fact that many Macedonian Albanians I have asked do not feel love for this country — we see it more as a cobbled-together monster. The state we grew up in feels like an unnatural union of nationalities, cultures and traditions, which seem to be unable to co-exist, a state that feels like just a temporary solution until a better alternative is found.

“Maqedonas” in Albania

Whenever I think about the future of Albanians in North Macedonia and even when I get a certain romantic nostalgia for Albania, the word “Maqedonas” that I used to hear as a child comes to mind. I also heard this word recently in Tirana, they asked me “so you are a Maqedonas?” and they told me “you Maqedonasit are a little different.” Yes, my citizenship is Macedonian and I grew up in Macedonia, but it is offensive when the term “Maqedonas” is used to distinguish us from other Albanians, as it is always used to suggest that we are old-fashioned and less civilized.

As a child I found it hard to understand this. I spent every summer and winter vacation in Albania and somehow I felt it was an inseparable part of me. I was an Albanian among Albanians, but now I understand that for many of them, I was not Albanian enough.

I remember how, when I was a child and I wanted to play with the children in my family’s neighborhood in Albania, someone mockingly said to me “Maqedonas, leave, we don’t want to play with you.” Or another time when a cousin’s friend told me “how extremist you are, you Maqedonasit.” Or when another cousin’s friend said to me “what are these scary wedding traditions that you keep to this day?”

The Albanians of North Macedonia find ourselves in the shadows. We are the “unknown,” with “dialects that are not cool like those from Kosovo” and with “primitive” or “very traditional” customs, as a cousin from Albania once told me.

What am I?

All these experiences make me wonder what I am and who we are. The answer, apparently, is that we are not full citizens of North Macedonia and not Albanian enough for other Albanians.

We say among ourselves that “we are localists” but maybe we have become that because we are treated like second class citizens, not only by Macedonians, but also by other Albanians.

This exclusion has become so present that we risk internalizing it. This is why when we talk among ourselves about Albanians from different countries or about Macedonians, we sometimes see ourselves as inferior. We believe that we are not cultured enough, we believe that we are less intellectual, we believe that everything that comes from Albania or Macedonians is better. We believe that we cannot do what they do, that we cannot have what they have.

But of course this isn’t the case. We are multifaceted like every nation. There is no reason to see ourselves as less, on the contrary, there is reason to marvel at the great and beautiful diversity we represent

It is time that we stop being treated as second class citizens and as “less Albanian.” At the very least we must reject this treatment, because otherwise we risk being shaped by the negativity directed towards us.

We must learn to be more accepting and more open. We must get to know each other and ourselves better, we must get to know what unites us and not what divides us.

I am a citizen of North Macedonia, a full citizen of that country, and I demand to be treated as such. I am an Albanian from North Macedonia, an Albanian like other Albanians, and I demand to be treated as such.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla via MidJourney