A Question of Honour – An Albanian Blood Feud
Albania is a fascinating land, governed by a complex series of ancient laws known as the Kanun. Its also governed by Car Rental company rules which generally prevent cars from any other country being driven there. Many top of the range cars stolen in Western Europe find their way to Albania and the rental companies fear your visit could become an involuntary one way rental!
The Kanun cover all aspects of life and are largely based around a code of honour . The most infamous Kanun sanctions the avengance of murder , which often leads to generation spanning blood feuds and sometimes the annihilation of whole clans. The Kanun which covers injury to ones personal honour states: “Whom you want, forgive him; or if you like, wash the clouded forehead”. Washing the clouded forehead being an obvious reference to exacting terrible revenge, this was at the forefront of my mind as I approached the Montenegran border to visit the Albanian city of Schkodra. I was determined to keep my nose clean and my forehead unclouded.
It had already been made clear that the car I’d rented in Croatia was under no account to be taken across the border into Albania. Bosnia and Montenegro were Ok though,which was ironic as I returned to the car in Sarajevo to find a broken window and a missing stereo! However when I’d mentioned Albania, the car rental clerk shook her head, grimaced and spat the word –“Bandits!”
I therefore decided to park my car right by the Montenegran border post, walk across into Albania and pick up a taxi there.The border was a low key affair in scrubby countryside. A disinterested customs official waved us through and a small group of taxi drivers dozed in the sun. None seemed particularly eager to transport us the 10 miles into town in their rusting ladas.
One vehicle stood out amongst the rest. A gleaming red Toyota, with leopardskin seat covers and sporting an array of Bayern Munich merchandise. Its driver snored in the front seat, his head resting on a luxurious mullet hair-do, his walrus moustache twitching in time with each exhalation.
I tapped on the window, and he lazily opened one eye, before leaping to attention as he registered the fact that a westerner was seeking a ride. In a flash he was on his feet, grinning and ushering us into the backseat whilst, I was sure, calling out to his fellow drivers ‘Ho Ho, a week’s wages in one day for me from these suckers!’
His name was Ervin and his eagerness to become our driver, fixer, tour guide and general Albanian tourism one-stop shop was only mildly tempered by the fact that he spoke not a word of English. This was only viewed as a slight impediment by Ervin however, and he happily jabbered away in a strange mix of Albanian, German footballing terms and hand signals. The latter were particularly unnerving as we tore along the country lanes at break neck speed. Ervin seemed to know the road so well that he generally found it unnecessary to look through the windscreen meaning he was able to keep his eyes fixed on me in the rear view mirror as he attempted to negotiate a price for his services for the day.
If any slow moving peasants or live stock happened to stray into our path, Ervin flicked a switch beside the steering wheel which employed a state of the art horn system that blasted out a sudden and terrifying, ear splitting burst of March of the Valkyries. We cringed as we looked back at elderly men on cycles sent spinning into hedges, dogs narrowly avoiding being deprived of tails and toddlers bursting into tears as a favourite toy disappeared beneath Ervin’s wheels.
Eventually we arrived in Schkodra and hand signal negotiations to become our guide reached a blurred fever pitch. Anticipating an awkward day being shown the limited sights of the city by a non English speaking Bill Werbeniuk-alike, I attempted to call a halt to the proceedings by paying. Seeing his ‘weeks wage in a day’ opportunity vanishing, Ervin reluctantly accepted my payment, but thrust his business card into my hand. The message was clear-I may not be your guide, but I alone am your driver. You WILL use me to return to the border. I nodded and put the card in my breast pocket, patting it and nodding solemnly to reassure Ervin, who looked close to tears.
I remember little of what we saw in Schkodra. There was a litter strewn castle and long hot dusty roads. My abiding memory is of a spectacularly tattooed child of around 9 years old, smoking a cigar. I also remember it was very hot, and by late afternoon we decided to make our way back to the border. We plodded along a dusty main road, sweating, thirsty and lost. A car horn sounded behind me and I turned to see a taxi slowing down behind us. Not Ervin’s gleaming Munchen-wagen , but a taxi nonetheless. I guiltily touched the business card in my pocket as we climbed into the back seat. “We’d never be able to explain where to pick us up anyway”, I reassured my partner, and myself, as we pulled away from the kerb.
We soon left the City Centre and headed out into the open country leading to the Montenegran border. I began to relax as the soviet style apartment blocks retreated in the rear view mirror. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a river and turned left at a cafe on the far bank. As we passed I glanced to my right and made fleeting eye contact with a customer sat at a pavement table. I tried to convince myself that mullets were very much de-rigeur in Albania that summer, and the walrus moustache was far more common than it had been in England since the early 70’s. However,I couldn’t help turning and scanning the road behind me. Empty. I breathed again and stared ahead.
It was the reaction of our driver which told me something was wrong. A furrowed brow and a muttered curse as he glanced at the rear view mirror. I sunk in my seat, fearing the worst, but hoping I was wrong. That vain hope disappeared altogether with the first blast of March of the Valkyries. We turned in our seats to see the red bonnet of Ervin’s Toyota around 3 inches from the rear of our vehicle. Ervin was snarling, his face contorted with rage and he was drawing a finger across his throat in a slicing motion. I felt the cloud settle on my forehead and knew that the be-mulleted madman would definitely want to wash it clean. I was the reluctant owner of my very own blood feud, having offended the honour of an Albanian. I had invoked the rule of the Kanun and was destined to be horribly slain out here in the Albanian countryside by a taxi driving reject from the Goombay Dance Band.
Ervin blasted his horn and pulled alongside us on the single track road. He was spitting threats as he raced along beside us. We all react in strange ways to fear and for some reason my own defence mechanism was to smile and wave to my pursuer. Not surprisingly, this enraged him further and he swerved in front of us causing our bemused driver to come to an abrupt halt.
Ervin’s car was parked across the road and he sprang from the driver’s seat and strode towards us. My partner sank in her seat and our driver turned to me and uttered the reassuring words ‘He a very bad man’. After quickly taking in my surroundings and deciding there was no escape route, I decided that if I was to meet my end, cowering in the backseat of a taxi would be a less than honourable exit. I got out of the car and faced my tormentor.
I’d love to tell you that Ervin told me that I’d insulted his honour and that he must slay me to regain it. Or that I must give him my girlfriend as a booty of war. Even that I must pay him the return fare to the border. Unfortunately I have no idea what he said to me. He unleashed a frightening tirade of Albanian abuse whilst thumping his heart with his fist and spitting theatrically at my feet. That was the extent of the violence and he soon retreated, leaving me shaking as I stumbled back to the taxi. Our driver looked like he was weighing up the benefits of extricating himself from the feud by fleeing, versus the potential of an inflated fare to the border. As usual, the lure of greenbacks overcame his fear and we set off to drive the remaining five miles or so through the scrubby countryside.
Ervin’s tactic was now to drive at around 5 miles an hour in front of us, swerving occasionally to prevent our car overtaking him. He seemed to be weighing up his options. Our driver shook his head and muttered a curse in Albanian before meeting my eyes in the mirror. “Very bad man” he confirmed.
We eventually arrived at the border and Ervin pulled up in front of us. We paid our driver and exited our vehicle at pace, trying to appear nonchalant as we strode towards the Montenegran border , and safety. Unfortunately I couldn’t resist the urge to look back and saw Ervin scrabbling in the footwell of his car, with our driver seemingly remonstrating with him.
Suddenly, all became clear, as every psychothriller stalker movie and cold war spy flick morphed into a nightmare vision in my brain. Ervin would exact his revenge by shooting me at the exact point I crossed the border. The murder would therefore take place in a different country and he would scoff at the law, safe in his Albanian bandit’s lair.
I’ve left countries in a number of unusual ways, but none so strange as that day. I can still picture the bemused border guard as my partner and I sprinted for the border, lurching from side to side as I yelled ‘zig zag!!’ and employed my best bullet evasion technique.
Our passports stamped, I felt it safe to look back at Albania. Ervin had retrieved the ‘weapon’ from his car…it looked like a large kebab. As I looked on, he took a messy bite and slowly raised his right hand, the middle finger extended in my direction, and a drool of chilli sauce edged down his chin. His honour regained, Ervin jumped back in his car and swerved away with a spectacular screech of tyres, a blast of March of the Valkyries and a kebab which bounced off our taxi’s roof. I breathed a sigh of relief and it was clammy sweat, not clouds, which I wiped from my forehead as I gratefully crossed the border into Montenegro, one of that rare breed, a survivor of an Albanian blood feud.