Never cross Albania on an overnight bus, that’s my advice.

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The War Nerd Weekly

Radio War Nerd, Dispatch #2

It’s September 11, but you’re gonna get that anniversary story from everybody else, so let’s just pretend that I wrote this yesterday, a day that will not live in infamy or anything else.

I’m a little late this week, thanks to another cross-Balkan migration. To Albania this time, a fifth-floor walk-up in the Adriatic Sea town of Durres. 

Never cross Albania on an overnight bus, that’s my advice. As we wove over the ridges of the troublesome province known to the Romans as “Illyricum”, the woman ahead of us was vomiting nonstop from motion sickness. Her daughters ignored her. The lights stayed on, the Albanian hip-hop played at full volume all night.

There’s a tradition here of not worrying too much about women’s suffering. Albanian proverbs held that women were “sacks,” whose job was to “endure” until the merciful release of death. Those crazy Maoists who ruled Albania during the Cold War get a lot of bad press, mostly for their one-man “mushroom” bunkers, but they changed the way this place thought about women. Before they took over, a woman’s life was worth three purses, a man’s six. And if the murdered woman was pregnant, the “Code Leke” ordered that her belly was to be opened up to check the gender of the fetus. If it was a boy, then you, Mister Murderer, owed her family six purses for the baby; if it was a girl, you were only on the hook for three extra purses. You can just imagine the nervous murderer pacing outside the autopsy room murmuring, “C’mon Griselda!”

No matter what year you start from, Albanian history sounds pretty grim, but then so does any honest history, pick any spot on the globe you want. All I know is that so far Albania has been a pleasant surprise, totally unlike any of the available travel clichés. There are three of these still bouncing around the Guesthouse Archipelago: 

—“It’s a crazy Stalinist place.”
Ridiculous. None of these ex-East Bloc places are communist. You want Communist, go North. This is small-business heaven, though Rand Paul might not be as much at home  in it as he thinks he would.

“The mob runs it.”
Maybe at some level they do, but then you could say the same for most places. All I know is that most people here don’t lock their doors at night, and women run on the beach in shorts and crop tops without anybody bothering them.

“Europe’s only Muslim-majority nation, infiltrated by jihadis….”
This is the biggest surprise of all, for us. We’ve spent so much time in the Middle East that we expected to get blasted out of bed by 120-decibel Fajr at 5 a.m., and to see minarets on every block. 

Au contraire. Oh, so contraire! We felt something weird at first, then realized: No muzzeins! No call to prayer! Even in Italy and New Zealand you get amplified prayer calls every morning, but not here. Not a single one. And not a single mosque. If this is a Muslim-majority country, it’s not like any we’ve ever seen.

Albania is nationalist, not sectarian. Big, big difference. What you do see all over the place are icons of a very fierce nationalism based on the idea of Greater Albania slopping like an amoeba over most of the western balkans. And I have to say, for unashamed warlike iconography, Albania rules. This flag, with the very fancy-yet-aggressive adjective “Autocthonous,” is all over the place, in grim red and black. 

That black two-headed eagle is flapping around on every street too, couched in good ol’ blood red. This photo shows the side of a souvenir shed by our building, where the autochthonous flag was selling out (by the way, notice that the adjective is in English; English rules the Balkans). That night we couldn’t sleep for the roars, all-male choruses of cheering. It was coming from a corner place, and the red-and-black flag was waving outside. 

But this was no Salafist gathering. It was a betting shop/bar, and the occasion was a soccer game. Football, whatever you want to call it. Albania vs. Serbia, I think. Next day, the flags were gone. 

We’ve only seen one sign of Islamist-tinged politics here, and this one was just weird. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Pizzeria, two blocks from our place in Durres:

Erdogan, as most of you know, is the Islamist leader of Turkey, a hero to the red-state pious hicks and a demon to the coastal elites (yeah, just like you-know-where). I’m not a fan, but never expected to see his name—his whole name—written in loving cursive on the front of a pizza place here. In fact I’d never have noticed anything at all, as full of this beachfront is of noisy small businesses, except that when I walked past in my foreign-legion kepi and backpack, looking like Tourist-Caricature-Squared, I got two serious glares from a couple of guys standing outside the place. These were the first glares I got in Albania. I turned, saw Erdogan’s name on the storefront, and kept walking. Asked Katherine after a few yards, “Are those two guys still staring at us?” “Yep,” she said, and we kept walking. I went back later, more discreetly, to get the photo. That’s me, risking death, disfigurement, or worse yet, a few moments of yelling and social awkwardness, to bring you lousy graphics like these

When I went back to get the photo, I saw what might account for the two guys’ bad mood: This pizzeria is packing up, giving up, moving out. Albania doesn’t seem interested. 

That fits with the little I’ve learned so far about the amazing, grim, horrific, heroic history of Albania. The national hero is Skanderbeg, an Albanian princeling who rebelled against the Ottomans and fended them off for a quarter of a century, the third quarter of the 15th c.  No easy task; that was when the Turks were unstoppable. Skanderbeg, like the Albanians traditionally have, looked west for help—converted back to Catholicism, expected help from Christendom. 

You can guess how that ended. No help, and re-occupation by the Ottomans as soon as Skanderbeg, the Great Uniter, was dead. You can count on Europe, especially Central Europe, to betray all potential allies. If there’s one thing I’ll say for us pelagic Anglos, it’s that we may not be great fighters, but we understand the value of alliances. 

So Albania fell back into the power of the Turks. And “fell” is the word. My Milanese friend Annibale once said of the Turks, “They are a fell people,” and my first thought was, “Whoa, you can’t use that word! Not even one tenth of native English speakers know it; you can’t go around making us look worse than we already do!” But these damn European polymaths, you can’t stop ’em.

And he was right; Turkey is a fell place. The Ottomans darkened this part of the world for 500 years, and all with the complicity of England and France. I got a reminder of that from Mark Twain, of all people, who, when stateside, hated Christianity and made it his personal religion to undercut American piety. His Innocents Abroad is a popular TESL book in these weird destinations, so we bought a copy. And here’s his quite accurate account of the Ottomans’ fell influence and Western Europe’s role in extending it: 

“Five thousand Christians were massacred in Damascus in 1861 by the Turks….It is soothing to the heart to abuse England and France for interposing to save the Ottoman empire from the destruction it has so richly deserved for a thousand years. It hurts my vanity to see these pagans refuse to eat of food that has been cooked for us, or to eat from a dish we have eaten from, or to drink from a goatskin which we have polluted with our Christian lips except by filtering it through a rag which they put over the mouth of it or through a sponge! I never disliked a Chinaman as I do these degraded Turks and Arabs, and when Russia is ready to war with them again, I hope England and France will not find it good breeding or good judgment to interfere."

It wasn’t until the very atypical “Young Turks” picked Imperial Germany over Imperial England in 1914 that Paris and London stopped propping up the Ottomans. The various horrors the Ottomans inflicted never made any impact on their friends at the Quai d’Orsay and FM.

What happened then is still playing out across Europe. The Ottoman Empire died and rose again as Turkey, the most nationalistic, ethnically-monolithic state on earth. A week ago, a drowned baby from Kobani washed up on the shore of the Black Sea. 

And today, on the streets of Frankfurt, Erdogan’s supporters attacked Kurdish citizens for daring to be Kurds rather than ersatz Turks. 

And the big news in Neocon panic land is that Russia might at last do something to help its fading Levantine allies, the Alawite-Syrian Ba’ath, against the inland Sunni who’ve been backed fulltime by Erdogan and his red-state inland voters. 

There’s absolutely nothing surprising, or scary, or new about Russia backing an old ally like Assad, but it hit the big time in the US media, where a total lack of literary talent is apparently the secret of a lucrative career. Case in point, the first paragraph of a Daily Beast story by Michael Weiss, neocon stooge:

“The end of summer. It means back-to-school shopping, tearfully ended beach-borne romances, Labor Day barbecues—and, it would seem, the increased likelihood of new Russian adventurism.”

Weiss must’ve done K-Mart ads before breaking into the journo biz. This could go on Roseanne reruns no questions asked: “Summer’s almost over! Time for the kids to head back to school! And, of course, for more Russian adventurism, now on sale at a K-Mart near you!”

(And speaking of Weiss's summer silliness, in May of this year he boldly predicted, "Putin Invasion Coming This Summer". In Ukraine. Ah well, that's why Weiss gets paid the big neocon bucks.) 

Of course the US, Saudi, UAE, Jordanian, Israeli, and British air forces have been blasting anything that moved in Syria for years, but that’s not “adventurism.” Adventurism is when Putin does it. 

Can’t lie, though; I enjoy having dummies like Michael Weiss around. They can have the money and the offices. I’ll take the pure joy of knowing they’ll be around to kick for years, sweet years, to come. 

Now back to the Balkan bus. Next week, we'll record and post our third Radio War Nerd podcast. Thanks again to everyone for subscribing and for all your comments. 

—War Nerd

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