In the evenings we like to start things off at a little Albanian cafe in south St. Louis called “The Arber.” As usual we are the only non-Albanian customers, and my girlfriend the lone female on the premises besides the three gals who own and work the cafe. We are greeted enthusiastically and shown to one of the corner tables where we study the list of wines from Greece, Italy, and, yes, Albania. Albanian wines are a gamble, some being excellent, others more akin to a Missouri wine. We roll the dice and go with the red Kallmet from Shkodra and are not disappointed.
You do not hear a great deal about Albanian cuisine, which might seem odd considering the republic is rooted between Greece and Italy, and influenced by the culture of both neighbors, to say nothing of five centuries of Ottoman rule. Then again, Albania was scarcely even on the Westâ€™s radar throughout the 20th century, which began with independence from the Ottomans in 1912, followed by the dictatorship of King Zog (a Muslim ally of Mussolini), who took to carrying–and using–a firearm to defend himself against his countless would-be assassins, and finally decades of inscrutable communist rule. Indeed some Albanians will insist that what is known as Greek cuisine is largely of Albanian origin and would be credited as such if only the Albanian had the Greek’s genius for marketing and PR.
No doubt the best public relations for Albanian cuisine is the menu at the Arber. On Saturday mornings a lamb is slow roasted on a spit, and by evening it is juicy, flavorful and served with a yoghurt sauce, and doubtless a violation of some health ordinance or other. Otherwise the victuals are familiar to any connoisseur of Mediterranean food: Turkish-inspired meat-filled-pastries (borek), calamari, linguine, dolma (rice and stuffed in grape leaves) and everything served with generous portions of feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, Kalamata olives, capers, and barrels of olive oil. The bread is baked in the little bakery next door and is warm and weighs little more than a feather.
Things tend to pick up around dusk when some two dozen men begin arriving and take their usual seats at the tables near the front windows where they set to work sipping Turkish coffee and smoking hundreds of cigarettes. Albanians consider lunch the main meal of the day, so by the time we are strapping on our feedbags, their gastronomical engines are winding down. These nightly coffee klatches have a charming Old World feel to them. Perhaps the men speak of family and friends back home in Tirana, or of the troubling political situation in Kosovo. Or of matters more mundane: European football or St. Louis County’s attempts to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Such a ban would be devastating to what remains of imported Albanian society, not that the legislators and bureaucrats in Jefferson City care. Perhaps a nonsmoking ordinance would help the immigrants assimilate by forcing them to stay home in the evenings and watch television like real Americans.
Albania is Europeâ€™s only predominately Muslim country, with a population that is about 50 percent Sunni Muslim and 20 percent Bektashi (a tolerant, alcohol-guzzling Sufi sect). During the long communist rule of Enver Hoxha, Albania had the distinction of being the worldâ€™s only official atheist state, though pagan religions, considered culturally and traditionally Albanian, were allowed to flourish. Whether the men who visit the Arber are pagans or Bektashi or whatnot, I do not know, though a print of Mother Teresa (born to an Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia) hangs somewhat obscured near the dessert case, the one stocked full of yummy Mediterranean delicacies, including the homemade baklava. Albania also has large minority Catholic and Greek Orthodox populations and they all get along remarkably well, which cannot be said of very many peoples.
VOLTAIRE BELIEVED nations were better off if they had lots of religions, the more the better. Two religions inevitably will lead to conflict and a struggle for dominance, as history has shown repeatedly. Despite his many religions, sects, cults and varieties of religious experience, the Albanian is a remarkably tolerant folk due chiefly to inter-religious marriages and a strong current of nationalism — the result of a not unreasonable fear of being carved up by Greek, Italian and Slavic neighbors. There is a line from a poem by Pashko Vasa (1825-1892) that has become something of a modern proverb: “Churches and mosques you shall not heed / The religion of Albanians is Albanism,” or as one Albanian-American put it to me, “Religion and Albania do not belong in the same sentence.” Unlike peoples elsewhere Albanians see themselves as Albanians first and Muslim or Christian a distant second.
Hopefully this will not change, but as one young Albanian wrote me, the formerly sleepy villages and towns of Albania are today crowded with Christian revivalists and Wahhabi recruiters flush with cash and a sincere hope of reviving their brand of jihad. So far radical Islam has met with little success. Apparently some religious leaders will not be satisfied until Albania is a rat’s nest of sectarian discord. Here at the Arber no one is throwing his money around, and perhaps because of this every one gets along fine. Besides its fine cuisine, Albania has a great deal to offer the rest of the world.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.