Fan Noli is a hero to us

By Mal Berisha

A speech held at the symposium dedicated to Fan Noli’s life and legacy  in Boston, on  November 22, 2015

mal11Dear Very Rev Arthur Liolin,

Dear President of Pan Albanian Federation Vatra, Dr Gjon Bucaj,

Dear friends!

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here in Boston— the omphalos of Albanian culture, tradition, and heritage. Home of the brilliant patriot we are all gathered to honor—Fan Noli. It is an utmost pleasure to be amongst you all. I am confident as it relates to  Noli’s legacy every single Albanian could effortlessly dredge up the most heartfelt words for his long list of accomplishments. Fan Noli’s life was full of extraordinary deeds, to which we owe much and are immensely proud of. In my school days, I was captivated by his poetry. So enchanting were his words that I would find myself memorizing these beautiful poems and reciting them at every given chance.

During my service to my country as a Diplomat, I have made it a priority to apprise myself of the men and women who make us proud to be Albanian. It is therefore the reason I have repeatedly visited the sepulchre of Sami Frasheri in Istanbul, the portrait of Mehmet Ali Pascha of Egypt at the Tate Britain Gallery, or taking the initiative to erect the bust of our beloved national hero Skanderbeg in London and Molise Regioni, Italy. Amidst these luminous figures is Fan Noli as well, a man of multifarious interests and activities.

When one imagines the multitude of a great such as Noli, one cannot help but get plunged into a world of the arts, music, and politics. For me, these were the driving forces for further inquiry surrounding the aura of Noli. As fate would have it, whilst the Consul General of Albania in Istanbul an American scholar by the name of John Freely visited me in the Consulate. Dr. Freely is a physicist, professor, and author of a number of popular history books on Istanbul, Athens, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire. A fair skinned, grey haired man with a magnanimous spirit, he entered into my office together with a gentleman named Emin Sahatci, editor of the magazine, “Cornucopia”. In addition, Dr Freely is well known for his historical book—Istanbul, the Imperial City where he outlines the rich history of Istanbul and gives e detailed account of the contribution of Albanian families such as Kupruli, or Shemsedin Samiu, (Sami Frasheri), Hoxha Tasimi and others to the Ottoman Empire. He has also written the biography of the “The Lost Messiah”, Sabbathai Zevi, the Hebrew leader who was forced to convert into Islam by the Grand Vezir Ahmet Kuprulu. Zevi spent the remaining years of his life in Albanian lands, predominantly Ulqinj and Berat, where he ideated a sect of Dervishes of which the followers practice their rituals to this day. This story is unearthed in Dr.  Freely’s book.

My fascination grew as the conversation advanced. At this point, the name of Fan Noli was mentioned and I was anxious to append all that I knew about him into the historical agglomeration with my guests. After listening to my boyhood encounters with Noli’s works and admiration for his talent, Mr. Feely who was as informed about Noli proposed we visited his place of birth in Ibrik Tepe, a village approximately 25 km from the Greek-Turkish border.

Along with Dr Freely and Sahatci we set out to visit Ibrik Tepe. In my imagination, it was a place where Noli was inspired to become a globe-trotter, a Harvard man, politician, and man of faith. The village lacked paved roads and was dusty. In the 19th century, the village was a hamlet inhabited by Orthodox Albanians originating from the Southern region. As we observed for particular characteristics belonging to its past we found nothing but a typical Turkish village. In the hope of discovering traces of Albanian existence, we asked local villagers yet to no avail. Most were Muslims who were dislocated from Bulgaria to their new environment, presumably during the Great War. We proceeded to walk around the village and inquired about three peculiar doors which were embellished with ornaments foreign to Ottoman tradition. These gates were evidence of non-Muslim life and plausibly a sign of Albanian families who had fled the country sensing the inevitable relocation of Bulgarian Muslims to their hometown.

As we took photographs, we pondered about how difficult life had been for Albanians who had left their country behind in pursuit of greater prosperity. It was a period of time with extreme hardships, especially for Albanians in the Ottoman regime. We were convinced the village was the birthplace of Noli. Following our visit to these homes with extrinsic gates, we made our way to the city hall where the Mayor, rightfully mystified, greeted us. We could do very little to hide our enthusiasm. The focal point of the visit was to gather additional information about Noli’s life and explore the possibilities of honoring his life and legacy in his born place.

The Mayor was an affable, unsophisticated man with limited knowledge about history. As it is common in Turkey, we were offered Turkish tea immediately after sitting in the Divans of his office. No longer able to hide his curiousness about a professor from the United States, a Diplomat from Albania, and a writer from the big city, the Mayor asked how he could be of any help. We thoroughly stated the reason for our visit to his village. We spoke about a son of the village, a clergyman, and a poet. None of the titles rang a bell for the Mayor. When we informed the Mayor that this son was the Prime Minister of Albania in 1924, he jumped astonishingly up from his chair. This fact struck a chord for the provincial politician who could already envisage using this new finding in the next elections, perhaps.

Flabbergasted yet honored he exclaimed:

My God! Such a great man has come out of our village?

We continued a very friendly conversation with the Mayor. Equipped with a collage of books by Noli, I presented the Mayor some of his well-known works. The mayor would periodically utter his shock at the fact that a son of the village had become a Prime Minister and he was not made aware of this feat. During his jubilation, I found the right moment to ask the Mayor if he would agree to honor Noli with a monument in the village. Without blinking he agreed but raised concerns about the financial aspect of the memorial.

Upon my arrival to the Consulate, I laid out a report detailing the visit to Noli’s village for my government. Merely months after the visit I left Istanbul incapacitating any chance of going forward with the dream of honoring Noli. Even though I was not able to go through with the project, the seed was planted.

Years passed and this dream became reality. In 2012, Albanians celebrated 100 years of independent Albania. In January of that year, the bust of Fan Noli, carved by Andrea Demce, an Albanian sculptor, was erected in Ibrik Tepe commemorating his legacy and patrimony on his 130 anniversary of his birth. Noli stands proud not only in his village but in the hearts and minds of all Albanians around the world as a patriot, man of faith, and literary genius.

I wish to also share with you an instance at the Shakespeare museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. As I entered the premises with my wife, Donika, we were a component of a larger group consisting of people from various places of the globe. Part of the experience was to interact with the group and state the name of the country you belonged to. The guide who had surely encountered individuals from many countries would then respond with a greeting in the tourist’s mother tongue.

When I stated that I was Albanian, the guide instantly turned towards me and said: Mirdita! Miresevini!

Magnetized by his knowledge of our language and driven by a sense of inquisitiveness, I asked him if he knew any other words in Albanian. He informed me that he knew basic words in all the languages that Shakespeare had been translated. Furthermore, he said: I know Albanian is a rich language and that a famous translator by the name of Fan Noli had brought Shakespeare to the Albanian audience and had done so in a magnificent fashion.

Fan Noli is a hero to us all and inspiration to the new generation of Albanians who dare to dream as big as he did. I am proud to have been part of this symposium and thank you all for allowing me to share with you my personal thoughts and experiences in his remembrance.

Thank you once more!