“I loved Albania from the first time I visited it. Having spent the biggest part of my life living in two crossroads of civilizations, Thessaloniki and Istanbul, I recognized in this small country a part of myself. I loved Albania’s duality, the fact that it balances between old and new, conservative and modern, simple and abundant. Dual and ambiguous; just like me.“ -Mary Drosopulos, PhD in Cross-Cultural Studies
In 2016, Pope Francis had praised Albania, saying that this small country was a bright example of religious tolerance and harmonious co-existence for the whole world.
Located in the Balkans, a geographical place which has suffered from wars, conflict and division due to religious and ethnic differences, Albania is a unique case where Christianity and Islam co-exist in harmony. Interfaith marriages are common practice, resulting in families celebrating both Christian and Muslim traditions.
I visited Tirana for the first time in 2011, in a period when I was still living in Turkey. I remember I was so impressed by the hospitality and warmth of its people that as soon as I returned home, I decided to study the language and learn more about the people.
In the next years, I would master the Albanian language and dedicate a large part of my time conducting youthwork at a grass-roots level with young people from rural and disadvantaged areas, who fought with a number of problems that are so common in the Western Balkans, such as unemployment, poverty and lack of perspective.
This year, by a strange twist of fate, I found myself celebrating Christmas in Korça, surrounded by friends who opened their homes for me as soon as I called them from the bus station. A day which started in frustration for me due to canceled itineraries ended in the sweetest way: at a traditional Albanian home, located in a small picturesque village outside Korca, celebrating Christmas with my muslim friends. We cooked burek in a wood burning stove, chatting vividly in three languages: Albanian, Greek and Turkish.
Hearing about my family’s origins, spreading all the way from Pontus down to Izmir, one of the hosts, Renato, aged 29, told me how his own mother is an Albanian originally from Anatolia:
“My mom is a Muslim and my father a Christian. I grew up with both religions. God is One. I enter both the church and the mosque. The place is not important when you pray; what matters is what you carry inside your mind and heart.“
The last plate of this beautiful sofra was baklava, the traditional dessert symbolizing Albanians’ hospitality. History says that ‘baklava’ was brought to the Balkans by the Goranis (Goranlılar), an ethnic minority living in the Sharr mountains of Kosovo, who had mastered the art during the Ottoman times, when cooking for the Sultans. Cherished by both Christians and Muslims, baklava is always present in celebrations all around the Balkans.
In Turkish we have an expression: ‘tatlı yiyelim, tatlı konuşalım’, meaning ‘let us eat something sweet, so as to talk sweetly to each other’. Everything starts and ends with words. Sometimes all we need to do is simply share a kind word with each other. This is enough to make a change in our families, in our communities, in our region. İn this sense, peace can start with something as simple as sitting at the same table to eat baklava.