“Introducing Albania to the English-speaking academic community”

May 8, 2020

The practise of Cultural Studies as applied to albanian literature, linguistics and culture by researchers of albanian origin in the USA.

 a research paper presented at  the international conference


Author: Hektor Çiftja

University “A.Xhuvani”, Elbasan, Albania


there is undoubtly a community of scholars of Albanian origin who have lived and had a very dynamic academic life in the universities of Western Europe,North America and Canada. Their scholarly work is mostly written in the English Language and for a western academic audience. To mention quite a few, Arshi Pipa and Stavro Skëndi are two of them. Anytime the history of albanian intelectual thought and scholarship is told, it does not seem to give these authors space they deserve, probably because their work was not published in the Albanian language, but mostly because their framework of research and scholarship has not fallen into the framework of research and scholarship of intelectual circles of Tirana and Prishtina. My first statement in this paper is that they are and they should be considered a fundamental part of albanian intelectual history and that their work has a very respectable part in the corpus of research literature and scholarship in the field of Albanian Studies.

The second statement that I put forward in this paper is that if we were to draw a “ map” of albanian history of research and scholarship in the field of Albanian Studies, scholars like Arshi Pipa and Stavro Skëndi who wrote in the English language would represent a way of looking at albanian linguistics, literature and history which is quite grounded in the spirit of the academic discipline of Cultural Studies, a practice not unknown to us today, but which does give a new insight and perspective in the way we still see our national history, linguistics and literature

In one of his poems the Irish poet William Butler Yeats[i] (1865 – 1939) wrote:

I made my song a coat

covered with embroideries

out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Song, let them take it,

for there is more enterprise

In walking naked

Even today there are examples myths permeate the intelectual debate over some circles in the ballkans. My belief is that pure scholarship that dismisses the myths and introducing that in the education system is a condition si ne quanon that the current generation and future generations in the ballkans head toward a more understanding and peaceful developments.

The case of Albania, I believe, paralels that of most Ballkan countries in which the myths of nationalism which was reinforced in many cases by the dictatorships and communism. In Albania, scholarly work in the humanities has been carried in several circles. One of the circles circumnavigated and in some instances still circumnavigates round the ideas developed in the institution in the capital, in Tirana. Here, the myth as a particular set of ideas with a moral content told as a narrative by a community about itself[ii] dominates the analyses and interpretation of scientific facts and findings. To find some pure scholarship, one must go to the other side of the Atlantic, in the universities in the USA. There, albanian scholars and I believe other scholars from the Ballkans remained or became ardent nationalists, but that rarely interferes with their scholarship, in the sense of the mythology built and reinforced in the offical cicles of the capitals, be it Tirana, Pristina or any other capital. In my paper I am going to discuss the work of some prominent albanian-americans like Stavro Skëndi, (1905-1989) Albanian American linguist and historian and Arshi Pipa, (1920 – 1997), an Albanian philosopher, writer, poet and literary critic with a greater focus on the latter.

Before commenting upon his scholarly work, I would list some of common myths found in albanian intelectual writing. Noel Malcolm in his paper “Myths of Albanian National Identity: Some key elements, as expressed in the works of albanian writers in the early twentieth century” [iii]identifies four categories of albanian national myths:


  1. the myth of origins and priority;
  2. the myth of ethnic homogeneity and cultural purity;
  3. the myth of permanent national struggle; and
  4. the myth of indiference to religion.

The myth of origins and priority relate to the belief that the Albanian are the most ancient race in southeastern Europe and this is related to hypothese in pelasgian theory. The primary function of pelasgian theory was of course to eastablish a claim of priority.

Closely linked to the myth of origins was the myth of a pure, homogeneus ethnic identity: in addition to claiming that albanianshad always lived in the same place, it was neccessary to show that they had always remained pure albanians, untouched by any intrusion, admixture or dilution of foreign elements.

Next, from the myth of permanent consciousness of national identity, it was only a short step to the myth of permanent struggle to defend that identity against outsiders.

According to the set of beliefs related to the indiference in religion, the choice between Christianity and Islam did not matter for the Albanians, because their national identity existed indipendently, rooted in its ancient Illyrian past.

To end with, this is only a very short summary of the set of beliefs that are commonly found in the writings of albanian intelectuals. this set of ideas and beliefs, despite their scientific ground, were very understandable in the framework of the 19-th and the first part of the 20-th century because of mere historical reasons trying to reinforce the feelings of nationalisms. The communist period needed and made complete and selective use of this myths to reinforce propoganda. therefore, I believe, these myths, are still found today, and are quite common as well. As mentioned earlier in this paper, we need to look somewhere else for pure scholarship on albanian and Ballkan studies.

My example here is the scholarly work of the albanian –american Arshi Pipa, professor of Italian Literature at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Previously, Pipa who went to USA in the late 50-s had affirmed himself as a poet and critic with the publication of works like “Libri i burgut” (1959), a collection of poems written during his decade-long imprisonment in socialist Albania, two other books of poems, Rusha (1968) and Meridiana (1969) and a critical work on the Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, a Noble Prize winner, entitled “Montale and Dante” (1968). The magnum opus of his life as a scholar is the “trilogia albanica”, a three-volume study published by the Troefenik Publishing House in Munich (1978), as part of a series “Albanische Forschungen”, (Albanian studies).

Volume 1 of Pipa’s study is on “Albanian Folk Verse: Structure and Genre”. Volume 2, “Hieronimus De Rada” is devoted to the noted arbëresh (albanian) poet and patriot in Italy. Volume 3, entitled “Albanian Literature: Social perspectives

Pipa, a native Albanian, who came to the United States in the late 1950s, affirmed himself as a poet and critic with the publication of works like Libri i burgut (The Prison Book) (1959), a collection of poems written during his decade-long imprisonment in socialist Albania; two other books of poems, Rusha (1968), and Meridiana (1969); and a critical work on the Italian poet; Eugenio Montale, a Nobel Prize winner, entitled Montale and Dante (1968). His latest work, the “magnum opus” of his life as a scholar, is the “Trilogia Albanica”, a three-volume study published by the Troefenik Publishing House in Munich (1978), as a part of the series Albanische Forschungen (Albanian Studies).

Volume I of Pipa’s study is on “Albanian Folk Verse: Structure and Genre”. Volume 2, “Hieronymus De Rada”, is devoted to the noted Arberesh (Albanian) poet and patriot in Italy. Volume 3, entitled “Albanian Literature: Social Perspectives”, concerns itself with the sociological aspects of that literature. The trilogy numbers 800 pages in all, the largest of the three volumes being the study on De Rada. All the parts of the work contain extensive bibliographies, and detailed, well organized indexes. Volumes 1 and 2 moreover contain numerous tables of statistical data to supplement the textual matter.

Volume 1, Albanian Poetry

This part treats of metrics, proverbs and riddles, magic songs, children’s rhymes, choral songs, funeral chants, epic verse, rhapsody, burlesque and satirical verse. The author tells us in the preface that this book “owes iris existence to: 10 excursions from [his) work on De Rada”. He ran into problems while analyzing the memes of De Rada’s poetry, and was obliged to study Albanian metrics as a whole, in order to resolve those problems. Furthermore, he “had no models” for a work of this kind and had to rely considerably on his “own knowledge and experience” (p. 8). In other words, he broke new ground in the study of Albanian metrics, making Volume I an original work, probably the most original part of the Trilogia. Most of the texts in the book originated from Shkoder and the Labëri region, those being the two areas with which he says, “I am connected by both birth and cultural background” (p. 8). One major difficulty were the collections of materials in the genres of lyric poetry, and burlesque and satirical verse, the reason being that Albanian collectors of folklore were primarily concerned with epic, or patriotic poetry, and tended to neglect genres that seemed to them frivolous, or nor truly representative of the Albanian folk spirit and culture (pp. 73, 138). An interesting item is the author’s remark that he gathered much of the material for this book while imprisoned in Albania (1946-1956). It is also to Pipa’s credit that he acknowledges the value of the work in folklore done in socialist Albania, as well as his debt to it (p. 12).

In preparing this study, the author had to grapple with old texts whose orthography differs so much from that of contemporary Albanian as to make them appeal to have been written in another language. It required penetrating understanding and critical acumen co decipher and evaluate intelligent texts of that sort, It is fortunate that this work was undertaken by a man like Pipa, who, being himself a poet with a background to Literary criticism, was equipped with the sympathetic understanding, poetic sensibility, and critical rigor that are required.

Volume 2, De Rada

The book on De Rada is central to the Trilogia. It is the keystone that binds together the entire work. Here the author has brought to bear all of his resources, his skills as a scholar, and his devotion to the task at hand, and the results are evident throughout. We have here a sympathetic study of a poet by a poet who understands De Rada’s archaic Albanian, has an intimate knowledge of the Italian language and society, and is familiar with the setting where De Rada spent his life, having visited there many times. Beyond that, he draws on a vast reservoir of knowledge of Arberesh folklore and history, and of the linguistic, literary, political, and philosophical currents in Europe that influenced De Rada’s thought and activity. The whole is like a richly-woven tapestry.

The study includes a chronological table on De Rada’s life ( 1814 -1903), and works; analysis of his poetry; a discussion of his style and ideology as reflected in his linguistics, aesthetics, and politics; plus a bibliography and some two dozen illustrations of pages from De Rada’s writings, among them a few personal levels. A valuable part of the bibliography is a five-page inventory of collections of De Rada manuscripts in Cosenza (Italy), Florence, Copenhagen, and Tirane. The study examines the many facets of the leading Arberesh poet, illuminating not only his life, but many features of Arberesh society as well. Most people probably know De Rada only as a poet, the author of Milosao, his greatest work, which Pipa calls “an exotic flower” and “a pearl” that stands alone in the world of Albanian literature. But De Rada was the author of numerous other works, including volumes of poetry and treatises on Scanderbeg, Albanian ethnicity, history and language, plus an autobiography. He was an Albanian patriot, a radical (in his youth) who spent time in prison, a printer, the publisher of a magazine, “Fiamuri Arbrit”, and an educator.

Evaluating the Milosao, Pipa notes that it is a love poem grounded in social conflict. It is the offspring of three cultures: “Albanian language and folklore, Byzantine piety, and Italian progressive politics” (p.263). He maintains however that after De Rada published the poem, his work suffered steady deterioration. “There is no progress,” he says, in De Rada’s poetry…But “Milosao” according to Pipa, was “the first national work of art” in the Albanian literature, and may therefore be regarded as the foundation of the literature, Looked at from the vantage point, he finds that De Rada’s opinion of himself as “the Albanian Homer is nor without justification” (p.60).

The volume on De Rada presents concise and incisive tableaus of his views on the family, church, the state, history, literature, folklore, language, education, politics, and ethics. An impressive treasure of the volume is the discussion of the progressive change in De Rada’s ideology, side by side with the many revisions and reprinting of lush works. There are brilliant passages here and there that sum up whole areas of De Rada’s creative work and life.

Pipa accepts De Rada’s claim that “his work as a whole is an Albanian monument” (p. 254). But he is eager to demonstrate. Nevertheless, that in the area of politics, De Rada was “an obscurantist thinker” (p.8), who defended monarchy and opposed democracy and socialism (pp. 225-230). He notes that “De Rada’s concept of patriotism is both patriarchal and patrician” (p. 46). He further claims that De Rada hoped for “the rise of feudal Albania from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire” (p. 247).

No doubt, Pipa’s thesis on De Rada’s politics will be contested. But this does not in any way take away from De Rada’s patriotic service to the Albanian nation, Pipa makes it clear. Indeed, he was so devoted to the cause of Albanian nationalism, and identified so strongly with the land of his ancestors, that “he considered himself an exile” in Italy, where in fact he was born and spent his whole life (p. 248).

The author sprinkles his study with an impressive number of foreign words and phrases – French, Italian, German, Latin etc., which are a part of the vocabulary of exceptionally literate people.

Volume 3 “Albanian Literature- a Social Perspective”

We come now to the last part of the Trilogia, which the author describes as a series of “essays on Albanian literature and folklore” (p. 7). These essays cover the Arberesh literary tradition, shepherds and peasants in Albanian literature, the poetry of Migjeni, the peasant in the literature of socialist Albania, and the sociological character of Albanian literature, followed by a concluding section on the periodisation of that literature. The last section is a valuable summary of the different types of Albanian literature, as manifested over four centuries, from 1555 – the date of the publication of the first known book in Albanian to 1974. There is also an extensive bibliography of some 50 pages that must have been painstaking research to compile, plus maps of southern Italy and Sicily showing the location of Arberesh villages.

In this study, the author ranges freely over a wide territory -etymology, literature, politics, cultural history, ethnology – and makes numerous remarks and judgments on political parties, the governments of Noli and Zog, national figures like Scanderbeg and L. Gurakuqi, and the character of the Albanian people. These judgments are for the most part novel, forcefully expressed and occasionally jolting, and for that very reason are almost certain to stir controversy, all the more so since in some cases the author does not elaborate on such judgments, or attempts to argue his positions, but is content to state his conclusions and pass on.

The study led Pipa to a number of findings that depart radically from official positions held by the literary and academic establishments in Albania. One such finding is that “a search for [ethnic] origins in the Balkan Peninsula … leads nowhere” (p.78). In other words, it is futile to state with certainty that such and such a people or ethnic group is native to this or that particular land or region. Other findings relate to the literature of Socialist Realism in contemporary Albania. It is argued that this type of literature ought more properly to be called “socialist neo-romanticism,” since it presents a striking similarity with the romantic literature of the national awakening period. This is apparent, the author points out, from its “overemphasis on nationalism, its predilection for epic bombast, and its infatuation with folklore” (p.9). Accordingly, he delivers a heavy verdict on the literature of socialist Albania, viewing its products as “an uninterrupted series of propaganda clichés devoid of artistic value” (p. 185). He nevertheless sees some merit in the early work of older writers like P. Marko, L. Siliqi, and the poetry of younger writers, such as F. Arapi and D. Agolli, and above all in the prose and poetry of I. Kadare, Albania’s leading literary figure.

The sociological approach to the study of Albanian literature yielded the author some noteworthy generalizations. For example that “Albanian literature is largely an outgrowth of folklore” (p.7), that it is “a most pertinent expression of Albanian nationalism” (p. 165), that it is “inseparable from Albanian politics” (p. 195), and that it “presents a marked tendency towards epic heroism, while shirking realism as a rule” (pp. 195-196). In a memorable line, Pipa observes that “an Albanian author treats the pen like a gun and approaches the page as if it were a battlefield” (P.195). In another striking line, we are told that Albanian literature “tends to cover, rather than discover, reality” (p. 128).

The author of this volume feels a special affinity with Migjeni (acronym for Millosh Gjergj Nikolla), and in a preceding essay on the young Shkoder poet, argues that he was the first to introduce socialist poetry, in Albania, thereby bringing to an end the romantic tradition in Albanian literature. Migjeni is seen here as “a modern revolutionary Christ” who sings to “the Victory of the proletariat over the doomed bourgeoisie,” bur who nevertheless both loves and hates the Occident (p. 8). It’s an outstanding piece of Criticism. There are, in addition, useful critiques of the works of Naim Frasheri, Gjergj Fishta, and Cajupi.

Nonetheless, Volume 3 is marred somewhat by certain inadequacies and omissions. For instance. Authors like Asdren and Foqion Postoli are dismissed with a sentence or two. The section on the periodization of literature leaves out names like Spiro Dine, Thimi Mirko, and Nonda Bulka. The first name of Arapi is mistakenly given as Ismail (p. 185), instead of Fares. And I am puzzled by references to “Scutan Sea” (pp. 17,115), which r have always known, and seen in maps, as Lake Shkoder or Lake of Scutari.

These reservations apart, It remains that the study on Albanian literature is broad In scope, rich In data, and as interesting both in its content and style as for its daring, iconoclastic character. It should be clear from the foregoing that Trilogia Albanica by Professor Pipa occupies a special place in Albanian scholarship. It is, to my knowledge, the first work ~ of its kind in English. The novelty of its form, the wide range of Ideas and disciplines that it encompasses, the Original treatment of its subject matter, and its wealth of data should assure for it a distinguished place in Albanian literature. It is not extravagant to say that the Trilogia establishes I[S author as the leading scholar in the United States on De Rada and the Arberesh people, the structure and nature of Albanian poetry, and the character of Albanian literature in general. The third volume of the work comes with some personal data on the author. But a separate and fuller biographical sketch would have been a welcomed addition to this important work 10 Albanian


[i] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, London: macmillan, 2-nd Edition 1950

[ii] Schopflin, George, “The nature of myth-some theoretical aspects”, in “Albanian Identities”, Indiana University press, 2002, pg 26

[iii] “Albanian Identities”, Indiana University press, 2002