I was only seven years old when I was first faced with rejection by other Albanians for the way I expressed my culture — a tender age for someone navigating their identity in a diasporic refugee family. Seeking acceptance and inclusion, I was met then — and have confronted many times since — people who perpetuate narrow and exclusive ideas about what it means to be Albanian.
I was born in London to Kosovar parents born and raised in Prishtina, Kosovo. My father is an Albanian man whose family comes from Dobërdol, a small village in the Llap region of northeastern Kosovo. My mother comes from a family of “qytetar,” as they are known in Albanian, families with deep urban roots who historically spoke Turkish and had multifaceted identities.
Being born in London added another layer to my identities, but at the core, my siblings and I were raised with a deep connection to Kosovo and our Albanian identity. I always tried to be vocal about my heritage and bring attention to a country and culture that felt completely disregarded in London.
Though I’m grateful to my parents for the difficult decision to leave Kosovo when they did in favor of a safer and more stable life in the U.K., having a Kosovar Albanian identity was not always the easiest. As recent xenophobic statements from British politicians and commentators has made clear, Albanians aren’t always welcome in the U.K. So it has always been particularly distressing to have my identity challenged by other Albanians.
I was in year 2 the first time something like this happened. My teacher gave the class a project: everyone was to draw the flag of their country of origin and present some interesting facts about the country.
The next day I stood proudly with a red banner that depicted the double-headed Albanian eagle with “Kosova” written underneath (it was the early 2000s and Kosovo was a United Nations protectorate).
“The capital of Kosovo is Prishtina, we make a delicious food known as flija,” I began, before my teacher stopped me. With a stern voice she said, “Arbër, that’s Albania’s flag, not Kosovo’s.” My heart sank and the class proceeded to laugh at me. Two of my classmates were from Albania and took the opportunity to chime in, “Yes that’s NOT Kosovo’s flag, it’s Albania’s,” they jeered.
I know that this was just children being children, but this type of denigrating behavior from others in the Albanian community has not been an isolated experience and has continued through adulthood. I’ve seen it in the way Albanians sometimes undermine others’ cultural expression, whether it is in the food they make, the dialect they speak, the region they come from, the names they give their children or the religion they believe in.
It seems some people want to standardize Albanian culture and erase the diverse way people have expressed their identities across different contexts. Albanians are native to Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece. These communities all have regional specificities in the ways they express their identities, often connected to the ways they’ve adapted to local political or cultural pressure.
I remember disclosing to other Albanians at times that my mother comes from a Turkish-speaking family and receiving looks of disgust. The very idea offended them. People then demanded I stay quiet about my family’s history, that I bury my grandparents’ experiences.
Why? Because I was far too vocal for their liking about my maternal history, an experience that deviated from their ideas about cultural purity. I’ve been told that this means my blood is “tainted,” that I was not a “real” Albanian and that my ancestors had been “weak” for speaking the language of the “colonizer.”
These were just some of the narratives I’ve heard from people who did not care to understand the context in Kosovo and how different aspects of my family’s culture came to be. For example, my mother’s family were muhaxheri, Albanian refugees from what is today southern Serbia who settled in Prishtina in the late 19th century after being expelled by an expanding Serbian state. With no access to Albanian-language education during the late Ottoman or interwar periods, my family opted for Turkish language schooling, through which they joined an urban culture of Turkish speakers.
But try as I might to share my family’s history with fellow Albanians in the U.K. — most of whom come from Albania — my Kosovar background was used as an excuse to dismiss me and discredit my Albanian-ness.
I’ve experienced similar attitudes in response to my religious background.
Islam for me was always an important aspect of my relationship to Kosovo and my culture. I still feel deep nostalgia whenever I remember the sight of my grandmother reading the Qur’an, the annual Bajram celebrations and the sound of the beautiful ezan emanating out from Prishtina’s minarets.
Terms like “Mashallah” and “Ishallah/Inshallah” are a normal part of my lexicon, as they are for many Kosovars. But when I’ve used the words around certain Albanian communities, I was met with disdain. I’ve been told things like: “You aren’t an Arab or a Turk, we are Albanians, we are Europeans, we aren’t like them.”
Albanians are diverse in religious practice. Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox, Albanians can be of different faiths — or of no faith at all. All of this is fine. Religious pluralism and diversity of thought is something to be proud of in our culture. But there is a growing trend of Islamophobia in our communities, and some are trying to define anything related to Islam as unconnected to “authentic” Albanian-ness. But you can’t disconnect Islam from my broader Albanian cultural expression, as I’m sure is the case for Catholic and Orthodox Albanians. Regardless of religious identity, we are all still Albanians, which is a beautiful thing about our culture.
But increasingly Islamophobia feels normalized, and I’ve found that some Albanians think it is their job to police the religious identity and colloquial terms my family has had for generations. This is all in the effort to distinguish Albanians from Muslims across the globe, who the “police” often portray as backwards or inferior, not sufficiently European or Western. This is Islamophobia dressed up shoddily as “de-colonialism.” Engaging critically with Albanian history and how our identities came to exist is necessary, but requiring individuals abide by a strict criterion of Albanian-ness to be deemed authentic or pure is not just unfeasible, it’s wrong.
These internal culture wars create unnecessary boundaries. I was raised with the awareness of the diversity of our community, loving this diversity, and wanting to know it better. Rather than strengthening Albanian solidarity and cultural richness, exclusionary narratives about authenticity and identity only weaken us. We must develop an internal conversation based in understanding, empathy, respect and mutual recognition.
We can all exist as Albanians cultivating our similarities, while celebrating our diversity and being mindful of our various contexts. No more of this “I am more Albanian than you because of xyz.” The notion of solidarity present in the often-heard phrase “jemi një” (we are one) is meant to unite our community. And it’s true, we are one ethno-linguistic branch, but we have many different twists and turns.
Albanian unity does not mean we need to establish a monolith of lived experiences and cultural expression. Trying to bleach or standardize Albanian culture could have the unintended consequence of pushing people further away from their culture. To become stronger as a community we don’t need to create strict and exclusive rules, but rather an inclusive environment for all.
I no longer allow these internal cultural debates to affect my relationship to my ethnicity. My relationship to my culture is my own, and no one and nothing can take that away from me. Some Albanians may not see themselves reflected in aspects of my cultural expression, others will. And that’s fine, but let’s discuss it rather than undermine each other.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.