“Have you heard of the Janissaries?” my great-grandmother would ask every time I visited her in Albania.
“No,” I had said the first time.
Unfortunately, I could not have my favourite English tea for the duration of the story, because that hasn’t yet been imported into this region. Having tea with milk is as alien to them as eating cheese, tomato and bread for lunch is to us (this is an Albanian dish). Instead I did just that, brought out a plate with some goat’s cheese and bread before picking a tomato from the garden.
“They were Christian boys who were taken by the Ottomans to fight in the Muslim army.” There is a hint of bitterness in her voice, colonialisation does tend to leave this aftertaste.
It was at this moment that I realised that I should already know about these kidnapped boys – after all Albania’s greatest hero was a Janissary. Skanderbeg was a young Christian boy when he was taken by the Turks.
“There is a reason why they are taken as children – their surface is soft and easier to mould – to become something they are not. And when they become men, they are devoted to their new parents, they adopt a foreign nationalism.” I think we call this the Stockholm Syndrome back home. It is where the victim grows affectionate towards their kidnapper.
“To fully serve their new empire they must perform one task. They are sent back to kill their former families. Once this is done, the transition is complete.”
“Nana, is there a reason you are telling me this?” I didn’t need to ask, for I knew the reason. I had read enough Fanon and Said to understand the technicalities of colonialism – erosion of the past was the first stage.
“You see Skanderbeg was taken as a young boy here in Albania.”
“I know.” The bronze statue in the city square was like an omnipresent reminder of the outsider’s barbarianism. “And when he became a man, he was sent to kill his family. Do you know what he did?” I did.
“He knew where he came from, his adopted land was never enough to compensate the absence of his motherland. He didn’t kill his family. Instead he came to Albania and raised an army to fight the Ottomans. He succeeded and reclaimed his Christianity back. You see, that statue of Skanderbeg isn’t just a reminder of his strength and courage – although he did become a mighty general. It is there, in the middle of the square, to remind us of our identity. We must never forget like he never did.”
“Please tell me how I have lost my identity Nana?”
“Can you write Albanian?”
“Well I am talking to you, aren’t I?” Even if I did have to stutter and use hand gestures to fill in the silent spaces that I could not with Albanian words. English words come naturally to me, I don’t have to think before I speak. Unless of course I mean to be offensive or rude or cause upset, in which case silence is always the best policy.
“Yes, you are my child, but you do not speak with passion. Would you speak Albanian if I wasn’t sitting right here? Would you speak it to your siblings?”
I shook my head.
“Then you will forgive me for calling you my modern Janissary. All the young have gone away from here. They are taken away as children by their parents. Maybe not to fight in an army but they become theirs and no longer ours. I was so sad when you left so young, at four years, I knew then that you would become an adopted child.”
With that she handed me a book, the title I could not read for some of the letters were unfamiliar to me. The English alphabet has only twenty-six letters compared to Albania’s thirty-six. So I had never bothered to learn the letters (ë, xh, gj) that were missing from my adopted language. But I read the author, Ismail Kadri.
The truth is, I feel like Albania is the parent that was always absent. It had sent me away because of its wars. Maybe that is what a loving parent does, send you away to a safer place. But it was too late. I could never love my real parent as much as I did my adopted. The boundary had become blurred and the two countries, in my mind, took opposite roles. Albania was my adopted and England my blood family.
But since silence is the best policy I did not tell my Nana that I really was her modern Janissary and that there was no way of getting me back.
Teuta Hoxha is a university student currently reading English Literature at King’s College London. She describes herself as a self-trained juggler and addict. As well as juggling her degree, Teuta has had her work published in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Tab and manages her own blog. Currently she is working on two novels and a play, but progress is slow. Teuta loves watching period dramas, finding fun ways to help people pronounce her name, and she is addicted to writing and good food.