Sunday, September 6, 2009

You can take your heart away from home but you can’t take home away from your heart

I’ve recently started a column with The Malaysian Insider which appears every fortnightly on Sunday. This is the second article which is accessible here under a different title (Find heart in your home, you’ll have home in your heart) or just read below.

There is a beautiful song by Ilir Shaqiri, a Kosovar Albanian singer, that captures the immense joy and comfort of finding home in a foreign land better than any other songs I’ve known. (You can listen to it here)

I first heard of this song in Timor Leste when I was working with the United Nations back in 2002. One of my Kosovar friends had played it and despite not understanding a word of Albanian, I fell in love with the moving ballad, Shaqiri’s warm voice and the exotic sound of the Latin-Slavic language.

Naturally, I was curious to know the meaning. With my friend’s help, I discovered that the lyrics were even lovelier than the song itself.

It tells a moving tale of a Kosovar Albanian who travels to Istanbul on a business trip. During the trip, he enters a poçari shop (poçari means a clay vase seller in Albanian) and asks to see the best vase available. While inspecting the vase, it accidentally slips away from his hands and breaks into twenty-five pieces, much to his mortification.

The poçari goes berserk and starts to swear in Turkish. Offended by the poçari’s unnecessary insults, he swears back in Albanian. Expecting the poçari to put up a fight, he sees tears welling up in his eyes instead.

“Is this Turk, this Muslim going crazy? I swore at him and he’s hugging me,” he wonders.

The poçari reaches for another vase and hands it over to him and says pleadingly, “Swear on me again, please. I am also Albanian. Brother, swear on me in Albanian again. Albanian words cannot be bought here in the bazaar.”

Alarmed by this, the other customers run out from the shop. When the poçari and him are finally alone, the vases come crushing down and shake the Sea of Marmara.

According to my friend, there are many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia who were forced to escape to Turkey during the first and second world wars as well as the series of wars that erupted in former Yugoslavia during most of 1990s.

The Serbian government was determined to exterminate the “Turks”, a term given to ethnic Albanians who are predominantly Muslims, in reference to the spread of Islam by the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 ethnic Albanians were driven out from their homes to Turkey between the first and second world wars and 250,000 more after the second world war. An estimated 2,000 (I was told 20,000) ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic’s leadership.

It’s no wonder that the poçari is moved to tears when he hears his mother tongue uttered for the first time after a presumably long and painful period of exile, despite its ill-intention.

Five years ago, I was in Dubai during a transit from Kabul to Kuala Lumpur. I only had time to check into a hotel and leave the next day on an early morning flight. Feeling bored, I decided to check out the hotel’s boutique shops.

An interesting shop selling Middle-Eastern paraphernalia sparked my interest. I wanted to buy one of those make-your-own bracelets with intricate carvings on silver alphabet cubes as a gift for someone. The problem was, each cube would set me back quite a lot and the person doesn’t exactly have a short name.

“Do you give discounts for these if I buy more than five pieces?” I asked in true Malaysian fashion despite the shop owner’s sombre expression. He didn’t look like he was going to entertain my attempt to haggle.

“Where are these from?” I persisted in an attempt to break the silence and hopefully, during the process, he might soften.

“Iran,” he answered rather grudgingly. By then, he probably assumed that I was not worth his time since I appeared to be a cheap-skate.

“Are you from Iran?” I persevered. He nodded his head.

I smiled and said, “Chetor Hasti? (How are you?)” perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. I was feeling smug that I could converse in basic Farsi, a similar language to Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages.

Unexpectedly, the Iranian man broke into a huge smile. I could literally see the muscle on his cheeks relaxed and his initial hostility disappeared altogether.

He replied cheerfully, “Khoob Hastam, khoob Hastam (I’m fine, I’m fine).”

He was curious with my rudimentary knowledge of the language and I obtained his further approval once I explained that I worked in Afghanistan.

“You take this. Gratis. It’s gift from me,” he urged. It was impossible to refuse him as he pried open my hand and pushed the bracelet firmly onto my palm. I decided to accept his well-meaning gift graciously for I understood that by refusing him, it would insult his generosity and kindness.

“Tashakor (thank you),” I said to him with a polite head bow and my right arm folded across my chest. He laughed good-naturedly and replied, “In Farsi, we say ‘merci’.”

I am constantly amazed by our desperate need to identify ourselves with something familiar and it reminded me of the time that I had spent in Wales as a law student. We had a large Malaysian student community and I have never felt more Malaysian since then.

The issue of racial differences never came into question despite the Chinese and Indians being highly outnumbered. If anything, we all embraced and magnified the differences by flaunting them in cultural events.

Since we didn’t have sufficient Chinese and Indian Malaysians, the Malay students had to participate in Chinese and Indian dances. They never complained but were eager to partake in the cultural exchanges. We even had friends from Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India and Pakistan who volunteered to get involved.

Our spirit of solidarity and unity attracted them and that made us true ambassadors. We were in a foreign territory and hence, there was no issue of whose soil it belongs to. Life as a Malaysian was simple and unambiguous.

Malaysia is not just a country for many of us, it’s home and the experiences I had from living abroad teaches me the horror of ethnic intolerance and how precious it is to be free in your homeland.

I received unverified information that in a seminar conducted by Tun Mahathir, he had said that the only way for Malaysians to be united is if everyone were to become Muslims. I snorted and thought about the sectarian fights between Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s what I think. Unity can be achieved in three ways. First, for those people who call the minorities as pendatang to be sent off to a foreign land where they are subjected to discrimination and restrained from practising their faith. Hopefully, they’ll understand how it feels like to be unwelcomed.

Second, for all of us to become minorities in a foreign land because then, we will not be Malays, Chinese or Indians, but simply Malaysians. Third, nobody has to leave home but, we have to start treating each other as Malaysians.

The poçari and Iranian man taught us an important lesson. Home has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. It’s a place where your heart belongs to.


  1. Serbs are killers and their religion orthodox priests bless their serbian soldiers who kill innocent Albanians that can be muslim, christian or whatever.
    The parents told to their children that if they kill as many as more Albanians they can they will go in higher level in paradise.

    I am a christian Albanian and I love the good people of the world and I would never kill somebody for nothing.
    In serbia is totally different where their country is run by fake propaganda who is supported by russians and slavic people and they are grown like that. In serbia if you say you are Albanian they will kill you immediately.
    Slavs serbs and greeks wanted always to exterminate us just for being Albanians. Is so sad that the world think that we are muslims where we are not all. Yes we have som muslim population but they are not fanatic at all and mostly albanians are atheists.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate receiving direct information from someone who is much closer to the place in question.

    Just some questions if you don't mind. Are you an Albanian from Albania or other parts of former Yugoslavia?

    From what you're saying, the war against the Albanians by the Serbs is not based on religion but ethnicity? Do you know how many Albanian Christians who were killed during the war?

  3. Congratulations on a great article and on getting published!!

  4. Thanks very much, Nicky. Hope you feel better.