Having spent my formative years with a Kosovar family, I found myself immersed in a world of warmth, openness, and kindness. Now, years later, I delve deep into the roots of their enduring traditions and the enchanting concept of “besë”—a beacon of honor and hospitality that has stood the test of time.
Genetically, I am not Albanian, and neither are my parents. Yet, my identity feels more Albanian than anything else, thanks to my 11 years of life spent in Kosovo, where I learned Albanian as my first language.
What truly cemented my connection to Kosovo was the decision my mom made when I needed a babysitter. Instead of hiring someone to come to our house, she sent me to stay with a Kosovar family while she was at work. I spent my days with them after school, slept over on weekends, and whenever my mom went on business trips.
They became my second family, and growing up with them left a lasting impact on my identity.
I immersed myself in Albanian TV programs, listened to Albanian music, disliked pasul [a traditional bean dish], and adored llokuma [savory doughnuts]. I made the traditions and values of the Kosovar culture my own. In 2008, when Kosovo finally gained independence, I learned my first sentence, urime pavarsia, [happy independence] and that further deepened my connection to the country. The Kosovar culture, to me, is one of the most beautiful in the world.
While Kosovo may be Europe’s newest country, it boasts some of the oldest standing traditions. In a continent where identities have been lost and cultures assimilated, the Albanians have admirably preserved their heritage.
Moving back to the Netherlands, my country of origin, I struggled to relate to people who seemed highly individualistic. It took me a while to find my place, as I was accustomed to the ease of friendships and social interactions in Prishtina.
This cultural shock I experienced can be defined as “first world problems.” In countries with more material security and a booming economy, our focus tends to shift towards grievances that we wouldn’t have time for otherwise. In developing countries, however, this isn’t the case. With bigger challenges at hand, people find comfort and happiness in seemingly small things, like spending time with neighbors, family, and friends over a cup of coffee.
People in Kosovo have always been open and welcoming, even influencing the international community to embrace the Kosovar way of life, creating a tight-knit and socially engaging environment. However, this unique upbringing had its challenges for me. Growing up with such hospitable people, I hesitated to ask for what I wanted, assuming that if no one offered it, it wasn’t an option.
Later, I realized that this level of constant offering and asking may not be customary in other countries. Nevertheless, I still exhibit this trait, surprising others with my accommodating nature, which I attribute to my time in Kosovo.
Leaving Kosovo in 2018 after spending my entire childhood in Prishtina was an emotional experience. Every smile and affectionate gesture from the Kosovars left a profound impact on me. I now see it as a privilege to have grown up in such an environment, and it saddens me to hear others talk about leaving the country for better opportunities, knowing that the beautiful culture and spirit might be at risk.
With some time passed since my departure, I felt compelled to write a tribute to Kosovo and its people. I wanted to express my gratitude for the way of life it showed me, particularly the importance of hospitality and finding joy in doing things for others.
Living abroad often leads to staying within an international bubble, interacting mainly with other expats in similar social circles. However, I was fortunate enough to experience Kosovo and its culture fully, which left a lasting impression on me.
The norms of hospitality were especially remarkable. The willingness of a family to embrace a complete stranger as one of their own is something I doubt one would find to the same extent in any other culture. I partook in their weddings, shared in conversations over çaj [tea], and enjoyed sugary treats during visits from guests. I treated my 20 plus cousins as if they were my own.
The openness and warmth of the Kosovars have set the bar very high for my standards of hospitality.
Curiosity led me to explore the origins of these deep moral values and traditions within the Kosovar culture.
Kosovars hold their social customs and conduct in high regard, to the extent that it sometimes it used to superse official laws. The Albanian Kosovar way of life was influenced, in part, by Kanuns, which are socio-political lifestyle codes, with the most influential one being the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, an old social code that was codified in the 19th century.
This ancient legal code defined the Albanian character and has played a significant role in preventing the assimilation of Albanians throughout history, along with the secluded location of Northern Albanian societies. The traditions of the Kanun have been passed down orally, and although many aspects of Kanun, like blood feuds, have been watered down, the code still serves as a guideline for the society.
The Kanun serves as both a customary law and a reference frame for social behavior, contributing to the construction of Albanian identity. Its highest principle, besa, is challenging to translate into other languages and encompasses the notions of a sworn oath, a binding promise, and faith.
Besa is a key factor behind the strong drive to be hospitable, as guests are considered sacred in Albanian homes, and betraying their trust leads to disgrace. While the severity of punishments for betraying besa has eradicated over time, the principles of honor and hospitality remain a cornerstone of Albanian culture.
Another significant concept in the Kanun is that “An Albanian’s house is the dwelling of God and the Guest.” This means that a house is first and foremost a place for God and guests, highlighting the paramount importance of guests.
Traditions do get weaker with time. They lose their rigidity and become less black and white. Traditions become open to interpretation and, especially in this age of social media, are influenced by other cultures. Kosovo is developing and changing rapidly as country, its culture included.
I asked around, posing the question “why do you think the cultural norms are changing” to different generations of Kosovars, and the general consensus amongst them was that because many more people work now, and work longer hours in comparison to before, means that people simply do not have the time to visit each other so often anymore. After a long day of work people are just too tired and would rather rest. This is something that already happened in other places in the world a long time ago, going together with economic growth and accumulation of material possessions [and causing the first world problems I mentioned earlier]. Now this is happening in Kosovo as well, as its culture is more and more influenced by habits brought back by the Kosovo diaspora, economic growth, and influences of social media, to name a few.
In spite of this, I don’t think the Albanian culture will ever change drastically. Social ties continue to be of utmost importance and visiting each other, going out together, chatting for hours, eating together and the norms of hospitality remain a huge part of the Kosovar culture. Kosovo remains even today.
Isabelle Fennema is a journalist intern at Prishtina Insight. Having lived in Kosovo until the age of 12 she returned this summer to get experience in journalism. She studies humanities in Brussels, Belgium.
Note: This article was edited to specify that the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini was codified in the 19th century, but it is much older.