One-on-one | History

Nathalie Clayer: I’m looking at the formation of a state like in a cinema tracking shot

By - 27.12.2022

K2.0 talks about the early years of the Albanian state with French historian.

Before beginning her journey into historical research and writing, Nathalie Clayer, the well-known French historian of religion and nationalism in Ottoman and post-Ottoman spaces, was an engineer. Her first historical study was on Sufism in Albania. It was the 1980s, when Albania was a communist country and religious practices were prohibited. “Back then, I couldn’t go there to do any research,” Clayer recalled. Later on, during the 1990s, she would begin to work more on nationalism and the formation of Albanian national identity. 

In 2007, her studies on Albanian nationalism took the shape of the book, “Aux origines du nationalisme albanais. La naissance d’une nation majoritairement musulmane en Europe,” (The Origins of Albanian Nationalism: Birth of a predominantly Muslim Nation in Europe) published in Paris. In 2009, the book was translated into Albanian and published by Përpjekja.

Currently, Clayer is a professor at ​​the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris and research director at the Centre for Turkish, Ottoman, Balkan and Central Asian Studies (CETOBaC).

In her latest book, “Une histoire en travelling de l’Albanie (1920-1939). Avec, au-delà et en deçà de l’État” (A Tracking History of Albania (1920-1939): With, Beyond and Below the State), Clayer’s academic curiosity shifts from the origins of Albanian nationalism to the state-building processes in the Albania of the 1920s and 1930s. The book was published in 2022 in French and is expected to be translated into Albanian by Përpjekja around spring 2023. “I’m proposing another kind of narrative, not a top-down one, [not one that] would explain how the state was built from the perspective of institutions and ministries,” she said about the book, which mainly looks at sovereignty, modernization, nationalization and religion. 

In mid-November, Clayer was in Prishtina for a lecture as part of the Academy for Public and Social Policy, organized by the Musine Kokalari Institute and a public discussion with her Albanian publisher Fatos Lubonja at the Department of Sociology, University of Prishtina. 

K2.0 sat down with Clayer to talk about her latest book, her cinematic approach to history writing and how individual life trajectories speak of broader historical contexts.    

K2.0: Your most recent book, “Une histoire en travelling de l’Albanie (1920-1939). Avec, au-delà et en deçà de l’État,” was published this year in French. The book looks at almost 40 years of statebuilding in Albania in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. What was the process of writing the book like for you?  

I think the book has a kind of special form. I was working for years on the period of the 1920s and 1930s, on different topics related to each other, that mainly came out of the archives, but also books and other materials that I researched. First, I had the idea to make a collection of different studies that I had done. But I realized that the set of studies I had written plus other ones that I had presented during my seminars kind of formed an entity or a narrative that could be read as a history of the formation of the Albanian state during these very years, the 1920s and 1930s, and sometimes going back to earlier periods. One of my theses in the book is that the post-Ottoman dimension is very important, at least at the beginning of this period. 

The book is a proposition for a new kind of narrative. I had the idea of looking at an object, in this case, the formation of a state, like in a cinema tracking shot. Tracking shot in French is “travelling” which literally translates in English as traveling, so people think that it has to do with tourism in the country or something like that. However, it’s about following an object and its movement while going closer or farther from it, in order to see aspects that we normally do not notice. 

So, I collected my former studies about this period, assembled and transformed them a bit, and added other ones. It took me around 10 years to finish the book. But of course, I was also doing other things along the way. Some of the studies that are now chapters of the book were conceptualized and written maybe 15 years ago. Two thirds of the chapters were existing papers that I reworked. Then I wrote the rest, plus an introduction and the conclusion. It was around four years ago that I decided to put the book together.

I organized the material in three sequences: one about the political scene and public policies; another one about different aspects of space — how space is controlled, delimited or marked; and the third one about individual or familial trajectories. In doing this, I’m proposing another kind of narrative, which is not a narrative from top down, which would explain how the state is built from the perspective of institutions and ministries, the way of governing, or only from the bottom up, which looks only at individuals. It’s kind of doing something different.

Nathalie Clayer began her academic career looking at religion in Albania and the Balkans. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

One of the aspects that comes up from this approach, is the fact that besides the importance of the Italian policy towards Albania during these years, there is this post-Ottoman dimension which is not only something diachronic but also something more synchronic with circulations with Turkey. We can also see better how the central power had to deal with local powers. Also, during the empire, like in every empire, there is a layered sovereignty and we see how in that period there was still a bit of this. For example, the religious communities still had power. So what does it mean to try to impose a new sovereignty and how is it possible or not? And then finally, it allows us to understand alternative ways of seeing the modernization of the country.   

Your cinematic approach to historical research invokes the life narratives of different characters to make sense of the broader political, economic and socio-cultural context of the 1920-1939 period. How did you decide which characters to include in the book? What drew you to them?

Of course, the characters are not representative. When writing history, keeping things truly representative is quite impossible. This means that you have to analyze each case as a specific one and try to see what it tells us about the relations between the individuals and the structures. If the choices can not be representative, at least, they should be sufficiently different from each other. For each case that I’ve included in the book, I found a source that was very interesting, either souvenirs, memories or other kinds of sources.

I have a chapter on an imam who is teaching Albanian to young girls, but who does not want to be part of the new religious institutions. He is in some way in competition with the Albanian authorities. It’s interesting because he also challenges the law on the civil code. 

The second chapter is about this girl, Nexhmije Zaimi, who wrote down her memories. It’s very interesting because we see through the text that there were social reforms concerning the civil code, marriage, etc. But in fact, even in a family which belonged to the group that was building and supporting the formation of the new state and was part of the new bureaucracy, we can see that [certain reforms were not acceptable]. She was sent to a modern school led by Americans, but when she was 13 or 15 years old, she was not allowed to go to a high school. Then it was very difficult for her to find a job, as her father did not agree to it. So this means that it was quite difficult to change family values. She could not actually challenge the situation in Albania, so she went to America and stayed there.

The third chapter is about Ahmet Zogu, but as an individual, who played a role. I deal with the interplay between the private and public interests, specifically with the issue of forests, as a resource that was sold to Italy. I study the case of an Italian entrepreneur and Ahmet Zogu, because foreigners are also an important part of the wider picture.  

The fourth one is about a subprefect, Tafil Boletini, who was born in Kosovo. As a subprefect, he had to implement some reforms and deal with problems at the local level, that were mainly related to the issue of land. His story allows us to see the relation of this subprefect and local powers with the central government. 

The fifth chapter is a trajectory of a family of cattle breeders in the village of Tirana. Cattle breeding was very important in the economy of Albania. That’s why it was important to have this case in the book. Also, one of the descendants of this family wrote a book about their family friends. It’s about this system of friendship, which is not limited to friendship as we mean it in Europe, but also includes a system of mutual help. The text shows how the network of family evolves with the formation of the state, how, in a way, through different mechanisms, the network of family is a bit nationalized. Not completely, but a bit. Also how the network of family contributes or not to the formation of the state.

You mentioned that you did a lot of archival research while working on the book. What’s the way you engage with archives as a historian? Which archives did you use most to research the book?

I’ve worked mainly in the National Archives in Tirana, but also in Rome researching specifically the 1920s and 1930s. It’s been a long time since 1993, when I began working in these archives and I was more focused on religion. 

It’s good to have questions when you begin to work in archives, but then it becomes more important to raise questions because of the archives. You need to ask what kind of topics were important to the administrators or other people during a certain period. You should not take a document of a ministry, for example, and say: “Okay, the document is saying this, so it was like that.” No, it’s important to try to understand who wrote the document, why, when and from what position. Then to analyze what its content means in that context.

I think there is a tendency to overlook the Ottoman and post-Ottoman dimensions when writing and talking about the history of the Balkans. What do you think looking at the Ottoman and post-Ottoman dimensions unfolds about the histories in the region?

How could we imagine that people who were living in the Ottoman Empire till 1912 or 1913, could suddenly begin a totally new life? They had already acquired habitus, in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu [the French sociologist]. They were used to working and behaving in certain ways. There was important political change, but that was not done in one day. People not only had a habitus but also a capital that was related to their lives within the Ottoman Empire.

Clayer’s most recent book looks at state formation in the early years of independent Albania. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

I’ll take an example concerning political culture, which had evolved in a tremendous way at the beginning of the 1920s. There had been new mobilizations using secret organizations, committees, notably around the Macedonian question. Then clubs were opened after the Young Turk Revolution. Societies were founded everywhere, also in the United States, among migrant communities. Around 1912 and 1913, but more in 1920, when the Albanian state was recreated, many people began to try to be involved in the political scene using this kind of mobilization and political culture. This was also influenced by more synchronic influences of the post-war period, for instance, the beginning of the fascist mobilization, or the communist way of doing things. 

Many of them were trained using these new tools of modern political culture that were coming from the end of the Ottoman period. In the chapter of the book on secret mobilizations, I show that, in fact, Zogu succeeded in placing himself at the heart of the political scene at the beginning of the 1920s because he was co-opted by such a group that had a secret organization, Krahu Kombëtar. So, it was this very form of secret organizations like in Turkey, where there was another very important secret organization. In Serbia, it was the same with the White Hand and Black Hand. In Greece, there were also similar organizations. In order to explain the first fights for power in Albania, it’s necessary to make a genealogy of this kind of political culture.

Your more recent studies share a distinctive focus on space. What role does space play in your research and why do you think it is important for historians to look at space?  

When I began to work on space, I read things written by geographers who are working on social spaces. In fact, space is not just physical. It’s more a social space, as defined by people’s interactions, be those economic, social or political interactions. So I found that by working on spaces, I could grasp more than before.

The second part of the book that focuses on space is very important. One of the chapters is on how space could be marked. When there is a process of state formation, marking territories is very important. I did a study on the building of mosques during this period. Albania was the only country in the region where mosques were due to be built during this period. Even in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal transformed the Hagia Sophia into a museum. Only at the beginning of the 1940s, a big and important mosque was built in Zagreb. 

In Albania, there were around 20 mosques that were built. I look at some of them, how and why they were built. It’s very interesting because you see that it was a way of marking territory. For example, the mosque in Durrës or another one in Tirana, or even in Shkodër, were built with a modern architecture, because it was necessary to mark the territory and to say to the foreigners or other people who were entering the country that Albania was a country with a muslim majority, but that Albanian Islam was modern.

In that period, Islamic authorities wanted also, in a way, to counter the Christian authorities that had already built big churches. Both in Saranda and in Durrës, the mosques were named after Zog. So it means that the country had no official religion, but in certain circumstances, Zog associated his name and the name of the new dynasty with the mosques. In Saranda, it was also a way to say this is an Albanian territory and not a Greek one, because in the south, orthodoxy was a symbol of Greekness.

You look at the school system as a way to think about the relationship between attempts at nationalization and the existing religious realities during the statebuilding process in 1920s Albania. Can you elaborate more on this?

For a new state, it’s very important to control space at the local level. I looked at the issue of school and school networks, because school is a very important tool for the building of a nation state. When looking at the endeavors to build and to extend a state school network, we understand that the problem was how to integrate schools that were already existing, but even the buildings. So the issue of buildings is also very revealing.

During the Ottoman period, there were schools for each religious community and confessional group, plus there were other schools set up especially at the end of the Ottoman period. Already during the foreign occupation, the Greek Orthodox schools were closed or transformed into national schools. During this previous period, the period of foreign occupation, there was already a kind of nationalization. 

The new Albanian state in the 1920s continued this, but it was not so easy. In some cases, the local communities wanted to keep those buildings. In some other cases, the Muslim schools were functioning with money provided by the waqf [vakif], the pious foundations controlled by the Islamic community. It means that you had some state schools that in fact were financed by the Islamic institutions. On the Orthodox side, you had the local community that wanted to keep the buildings in order to provide religious lessons.

But the situation was more complicated in the Catholic cases, because the Catholic political leaders were often also religious leaders. The Franciscans, priests and all the Jesuits still wanted to play a political role. Some of them even wanted a federative form of the state to keep political power, as during the Ottoman period. In the pedagogical field, they even proposed courses to be adopted by the ministry. They considered they were the best placed people to design the school policy. So, in a way, they wanted the continuation of this layered sovereignty, in some fields at least.

Currently, you are working on a monograph on the prominent figure of the National Renaissance movement of Albania, Sami Frashëri. Can you talk more about this project?  

The work on Sami Frashëri will not be a biography because I consider, like some others, that it’s impossible to write a biography. So I decided to look at themes that I hope will allow me to understand better how a man like him, an intellectual, an Ottoman intellectual originating from the Albanian provinces, was living, seeing and conceiving the world around him and contributing to the political or scientific scene. I analyze themes like sociability, space, typography, which is something very material, and translation.

Your most recent book is expected to be translated into Albanian around the spring of 2023. What kind of conversations do you think it will open up in Albania about the 1920s and 1930s?

I think that the discussions about the period of the 1920s and 1930s have mainly been about Zogu’s role. So I hope the book will bring something else, something more nuanced.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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