Blogbox | Diaspora

Would an Albanian girl be the right choice?

By - 24.12.2021

Reflections on relationships in the diaspora.

A little over two years ago I wrote a personal essay for K2.0 called “An Albanian Girl Would Be the Right Choice.” The article was a reflection on relationships in the diaspora in which I tried to come to terms with the pressure we receive from family and society to marry Albanian partners. 

I had noticed over the months that people were leaving long heartfelt remarks in the comments section about their own stories of heartbreak, love across cultural boundaries and struggles with Albanian identity. These topics, along with others I’ve covered for this magazine, are ones that I’ve been carrying around since I was a kid. Reading these personal experiences that people continue to leave in the comments made me feel less alien. We share common struggles.

So imagine how I felt when the editors at K2.0 told me that my essay often appears in their top 10 most read articles at the publication each week, more than two years after it was published.

Sometimes I think I’ve spent my entire life wondering why certain things go a certain way in our culture, and why we struggle to change. I would try to talk to my parents and relatives about it, but the conversations went nowhere. Despite being told that I was right, that certain cultural practices should change, by the next day everything would go back to the way things were.

When I was little I dreamed of having superpowers and being able to make change in the world, but as I grew up I realized this was just a kid’s dream. But after seeing the positive feedback to my personal experiences, I finally feel like I’m in a broader conversation, and that things can change for the better. At the very least, I’ve felt less alone in these questions. 

But after learning about the popularity of my essay, I was faced with new questions. What was it that made my musings about cross-cultural relationships and struggles with identity so consistently attention-grabbing? And after two years do I still feel the same way?

“I would not be an Albanian”

I’ll start with the success of the article, because I think the reason is pretty straightforward and trite. The search for a partner is the screw around which our lives revolve. Society places having a partner and creating a family as a sort of precondition to being accepted as among the category of people who are doing things properly. As much as different countries and cultures are leaving behind certain customs and beliefs, a person in their forties with a spouse and children is considered more the norm than someone of the same age who is single.

And in Kosovar society — a society that in many ways is still anchored in the past — this fact remains the conditio sine qua non. We’re led to understand that the sole purpose of our lives is to create a family. Period. And the partner, needless to say, should be Albanian. Easy for those who live in Kosovo, more complicated for all the children of the diaspora who were born or raised abroad. 

Having a foreign partner and creating a family by mixing cultures is tantamount to being permanently labeled as different.

Having a foreign partner and creating a family by mixing cultures is tantamount to being permanently labeled as different. You are now the person married to a foreigner, almost as if you disappear as an individual and became just this label, the person who did something that is best avoided. I think the article was successful because there are people who have had the courage to take this step, to go against family expectations, for love.

More than that, I think there are a lot of people who have tried to do this, or would like to, but they know what it would mean. They could relate to my own struggles and realized they weren’t alone in all of this. The nationality of our partner is so crucial because in our society, ideas of honor and dignity still have extreme importance. 

Though acidic, this passage from Pajtim Statovci’s second novel “Crossing” sums up how I’ve felt sometimes:

I believe that people in my country grow old beyond their years and die so young precisely because of their lies. They hide their faces the way a mother shields her newly born child and avoid being seen in an unflattering light with almost military precision: there is no falsehood, no story they won’t tell about themselves to maintain their facade and ensure that their dignity and honor remain intact and untarnished until they are in their graves. 

Throughout my childhood I hated this about my parents, despised it like the sting of an atopic rash or the feeling of being consumed with anxiety, and I swore I would never become like them, I would never care what other people think of me, never invite the neighbors for dinner simply to feed them with food I could never afford for myself. I would not be an Albanian, not in any way, but someone else, anyone else.

Identity, marriage, survival

But do I still feel the same way? What have I seen in these two years and why are mixed marriages still a taboo for so many?

One thing I’ve become more aware of is that the search for a partner of the same nationality isn’t something entirely unique to Kosovars or Albanians. Many use this fact to excuse the way we view this topic, saying that if others do it too, then it’s not so wrong. I see this way of thinking as yet another proof of our fear of dealing with our own problems. Just because someone else is doing the same thing does not mean that it is right. 

Leaving their homes and starting a new life in a foreign country was not about enjoyment or self-fulfillment for our parents, but rather about survival.

I want to understand why for our parents’ generation marrying across cultures is something so unthinkable. Perhaps for those who have raised their children abroad it could mean defeat, because their children choose the other side and not their own. Raising children abroad is an indescribable challenge and in the end what happens? The daughter or son marries a foreigner and automatically moves further away from the motherland. 

What I realized is that it is normal for our parents to consider a mixed marriage as something unthinkable, because for them it is. Born and raised in Kosovo and having lived for much of their life there, it would be hard for them to be able to mix a foreign person into their private lives. Leaving their homes and starting a new life in a foreign country was not about enjoyment or self-fulfillment for our parents, but rather about survival.

I can’t highlight this fact enough. For our parents, leaving Kosovo was about survival. Few wanted to leave, rather, they were forced to. So it is normal that they might not necessarily be in love with the culture of the country where they ended up raising their children. Therefore, it’s understandable that they do not wish to see their kids disappear into this new culture.

However, we, the diaspora children, had the possibility to really live in the country where we grew up, despite the difficulties. We mastered the new country’s language, we are intimate with the customs and culture and therefore we can imagine the possibility of marrying into what is for our parents, still after many years of residence, a foreign culture.

For us, a hypothetical mixed marriage is more than possible because there are two worlds inside us. If in the body of our parents there is only Kosovo, in ours there is both Kosovo and the country in which we grew up. I try to stay mindful of the impossibility of our parents ever being able to understand us 100%. Our lives have been so different from theirs, not only because of the historical context, but because of this experience of living two lives in one body. It was and still is tough for both our parents and for us.

Another factor that I think plays a role is religion. Although Kosovo is not exactly the most religious country, and for many people Islam — the overwhelmingly dominant religion — plays only a nominal role in daily life, religion remains an important factor for the majority of Kosovars. Mixing religions is not always something that is so easy to do.

The last factor that I think is decisive is the history of Albanians in Kosovo. Kosovo became independent only in 2008 and you could say that until that date we have always been under someone else’s control. Our people have struggled for decades to have our rights recognized and something makes me think that this plays a key role in our parents’ generation. 

”With all we’ve had to go through to avoid disappearing off the face of the earth, now what do you do? You’re going to marry a foreigner?”

This is what I think is going through their heads. 

But I think there might be some important differences between us and the Albanians of Albania. We consider ourselves the same, we are all Albanians, so theoretically there should be no difference. Yet, a substantial difference is how mixed marriages are viewed. I know many Albanians who are married or engaged to people of other nationalities, particularly Italians, since I grew up in Italy and have several Albanian friends who live there. 

But as a rule, these friends of mine have family roots in Albania, not in Kosovo. I see much more freedom in their diaspora community in this aspect. In fact, in some cases for them a mixed marriage almost seems like it is considered as a success, a step forward, something to be proud of.

Thinking about this issue I decided to ask on a Facebook group for Albanians living in Italy to explain to me how mixed marriage is experienced and if there was anyone married to an Italian. There were so many comments from people who are in mixed marriages. Most of these were Albanian women married to Italian men.

I've seen friends disappear from social media as soon as they found an Albanian guy. I've seen friends living abroad meet a girl in Kosovo and get married in the blink of an eye.

There are of course cases, though not many, where things didn’t work out because the Albanian family didn’t accept the other. But basically, mixed marriage is much more accepted by Albanians from Albania. For them, too, a historic factor comes into play. Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Albanians of Albania haven’t had to fight to maintain the basics of their identity, unlike us.

Even though the communist period was incredibly tough for them, what was sure in their daily life was the fact that they were Albanians and no one could argue about that. For us it is still a struggle to defend and preserve national identity, something Albanians in Albania don’t need to fight for. And not because they don’t want it or because they are against their country, but because they are aware that nothing can ever take away their feeling of being Albanian.

An Albanian girl for me

I returned to Kosovo for the first time in eight years this last summer and I was bombarded with questions that were exclusively about how the search for a partner was going. And if needed, my relatives informed me, they would look for an Albanian girl for me. 

Over the past two years I’ve been told that I was lucky to be a guy and be allowed to have a girlfriend who wasn’t Albanian. I’ve seen friends disappear from social media as soon as they found an Albanian guy. I’ve seen friends living abroad meet a girl in Kosovo and take her to live abroad and get married in the blink of an eye. I’ve seen cousins and acquaintances get married in a hurry in Kosovo, create a family and then have to go abroad due to the difficult economic conditions. They work a hard job, stay on their own until the opportunity for family reunification opens up and then start yet another cycle of the same life our parents’ generations did. The only difference is that they were forced, but we have, in theory, the chance to choose.

I continue to see how this profoundly affects the lives of all of us. And seeing these hasty choices, this need to uphold ideas of honor, it hurts me. Because each one of us should be free to make our own experiences, to be with the person we really like and love, without being constrained by nationality.

It’s one thing to choose to have an Albanian partner after having made a personal journey, after having had some concrete experiences, after having discovered new sides of oneself and get to say, “okay, I want an Albanian partner for these reasons and because I am convinced that it’s the right thing for me.”

It’s another thing to choose to have an Albanian partner because you don’t want to hurt your family’s honor or because of an obligation. There is all the difference in the world between these two options — the difference between being happy or being miserable all your life.

Most of the people I’ve talked to about this told me that in the end it doesn’t matter even if you make the choice you’re not supposed to, because love wins, love is stronger than everything. Unfortunately, not for us, not always. For us love doesn’t win, honor wins. And choices based on honor can ruin lives. 
And even if it doesn’t ruin your life, just hearing your parents say, “I accept your choice, but I’m not happy with it,” is painful enough.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.

  • 12 Jul 2024 - 02:29 | Ari:

    This article brought me to tears. Thank you for articulating the experience of Albanians living in a foreign place so well. I never could wrap my head around their thought process as to leaving their home country and expecting their kids, born and raised in a foreign country to marry an Albanian when Albanians might not even surround them to begin with. Who you love is not something you choose, hence why so many Albanian couples including many of our parents were not happy in their marriages. Love is something that naturally happens and cannot be forced. I wish for all Albanians to be free and choose who they want to spend their life with, without outside influences and pressure being a factor.

  • 12 May 2022 - 16:41 | B:

    This is beautifully written, helped me understand a lot. I was with a someone for 3 years, friends for 4 years, whose parent immigrated here in 1990, the stories I would listen to were heartbreaking, and I couldn’t imagine and respected the strength of what they endured. After reading about your experiences explains why he hurt me like he did, and 5 months after being broken up he is engaged to an Albanian girl, even after he expressed he never wanted not only marriage but to be with an Albanian girl. Beautifully written.

  • 03 Jan 2022 - 00:06 | Venera:

    I love your posts. They are speaking from my soul. I send your posts to relatives and friends. Thank you so much for doing this. I wonder if the honor wouldn't be so important, would they see that we are miserable when we do not follow our hearts?

  • 25 Dec 2021 - 05:06 | Emine:

    This was beautifully written. It perfectly captures the internal struggle of being both Albanian Kosovare AND for me American and that struggle for honor and respect as well as the decisions it pushes many to make. Thank you for this.