Besa (Albanian culture)
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Besa (pledge of honour) is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as "faith", that means "to keep the promise" and "word of honor". The concept is synonymous to the Classical Latin word fides, which in Late Ancient and Medieval Latin took on the Christian meaning of "faith, (religious) belief" today extant in Romance languages (and then also loaned into Albanian, as feja), but which originally had an ethical/juridical scope. The Albanian adjective besnik, derived from besa, means "faithful", "trustworthy", ie. one who heeps his word. Besnik for men and Besa for women continue to be very popular names among Albanians.
Cultural concept and institution
|“||An Albanian who says besa once cannot in anyway break [his] promise and cannot be unfaithful [to it].||”|
|— Mehmed Ferid Pasha, Ottoman-Albanian grand vizier (1903), |
The besa was an important institution within the tribal society of the Albanian Malisors (highlanders). Albanian tribes swore oaths to jointly fight against the government and in this aspect the besa served to uphold tribal autonomy. The besa was used toward regulating tribal affairs between and within the Albanian tribes. The Ottoman government used the besa as a way to co-opt Albanian tribes in supporting state polices or to seal agreements.
During the Ottoman period, the besa would be cited in government reports regarding Albanian unrest, especially in relation to the tribes. The besa formed a central place within Albanian society in relation to generating military and political power. Besas held Albanians together, united them and would wane when the will to enforce them dissipated. In times of revolt against the Ottomans by Albanians, the besa functioned as a link among different groups and tribes.
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Some say that the word besa traces back to the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, a collection of laws which regulated the Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society between 1400 and today. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of "Albanianism". However, besa as a cultural principle isn't a word Lek Dukagjini coined for the first time in the Kanun. Besa has been an integral part of the Albanians, noted since the "Ballad of Konstandin", a song sung by Albanians in the Balkans and Arberesh of Italy, who left the country before because of the Ottoman Empire.
Late Ottoman period
During the Great Eastern Crisis, Albanians gathered in Prizren, Kosovo (1878) and made a besa to form a political alliance (League of Prizren) aimed at upholding Ottoman territorial integrity to prevent the partition of Albanian lands by neigbouring Balkan countries. In 1881 Albanians swore a besa and rebelled against the Ottoman government. Abdul Hamid II opposed blood feuds of the Albanian tribes and issued (1892-1893) a proclamation to the people of the Ișkodra (Shkodër) area urging them to make a besa and reject the practice, in the hope that the very institution (besa) that upheld the vendetta could be used against it.
In 1907, the empire sent a military inspection commission to Kosovo and one of its fact finding objectives was concerned with the prevention of a "general besa" against the Ottoman government. During the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908, Kosovo Albanians that gathered at Firzovik (Ferizaj) agreed to a besa toward pressuring sultan Abdul Hamid II to restore constitutional government. In November 1908 during the Congress of Manastir on the Albanian alphabet question, delegates selected a committee of 11 that swore a besa promising that nothing would be revealed before a final decision and in keeping with that oath agreed to two alphabets as the step forward. During the Albanian revolt of 1910, Kosovo Albanian chieftains gathered at Firzovik and swore a besa to fight the centralist polices of the Ottoman Young Turk government. In the Albanian revolt of 1912, Albanians pledged a besa against the Young Turk government which they had assisted into gaining power in 1908. Haxhi Zeka, a landowner from Ipek (Pejë) organized a meeting of 450 Kosovo Albanian notables in 1899 and they agreed to form Besa-Besë (League of Peja) to fight the Ottoman government and swore a besa to suspend all blood feuding.
Besa during World War II
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Besa also means taking care of those in need and being hospitable. During World War II, Albanians saved over 2000 Jews from Nazi persecution. Rather than hiding the Jews in attics or the woods, Albanians gave them clothes, gave them Albanian names, and treated them as part of the family. The concept of besa is incorporated into their culture. Before World War II only about 200 Albanians were Jewish. At the end of the war about 2000 Jews were living in Albania. An award-winning feature film documentary BESA: The Promise (2012) is about American photographer Norman H. Gershman's quest to tell the story of Besa and the Albanians who saved Jews during World War II. This story was featured on CBS News Sunday Morning on November 8, 2009 for the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, which occurred on November 9, 1938.
Besa related sayings include:
- Besa e shqiptarit nuk shitet pazarit (the honor of an Albanian can not be sold or bought in a bazaar)
- Shqiptaret vdesin dhe besen nuk e shkelin (Albanians would die rather than break honor)
- Besa e shqiptarit si purteka e arit (the Albanians' honor is worth more than gold)
Literature and arts
In 1874 Sami Frashëri wrote a play Besâ yâhut Âhde Vefâ (Pledge of Honour or Loyalty to an Oath) with themes based on an Albanian ethnicity, a bond to a ethnic based territory, ethno-cultural diversity as underlying Ottoman unity, honour, loyalty and self sacrifice. The play revolved around a betrothed girl kidnapped by a jealous villager that kills her father and whose mother vows revenge co-opting the culprit's father who gives his besa to help not knowing its his son, later killing him and himself ending with family reconciliation. At the time the play's discussion of besa signified to more astute Ottoman audiences the political implications of the concept and possible subversive connotations in future usage while it assisted Albanians in rallying militarily and politically around a national program. By the early twentieth century, the themes of the play highlighting a besa for self sacrifice of the homeland carried a subversive message for Albanians to aim at unifying the nation and defend the homeland, something Ottoman authorities viewed as fostering nationalist sentiments.
In 1896, the Ottoman government provincial almanac for Kosovo titled Kosova Salnamesi had a two page entry on besa and compared it to the French concept of parole d'honneur (word of honour).
Frashëri wrote a political treatise Albania: What she has been, What she is, What she shall be (1899) on the Albanian question and proposed that Albanians make a besa to demand the empire and Europe recognize Albanian national rights, especially by applying pressure upon the Ottomans to achieve those aims.
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