Lazy Turks (and Albanians) : Orientalism of Albanian Intellectuals in 1920s-1930s

, par Enis Sulstarova Department of Sociology, University of Tirana, Albania


In the first week of April 2012 an odd event occurred in the city of Lushje that made the news headlines in TVs and newspapers : a group of Swedish students, under the guidance of a local Protestant pastor, had volunteered to clean the streets and squares of the city. Their action was performed before the eyes of the local citizens who just kept observing with amusement this unusual performance. No one of the local citizens joined the Swedish students to clean the street in front of their homes. Many comments in the press and e-blogs pointed to the difference between Albanians and the Europeans : the former lacks the work ethic and the civic consciousness of the later ; compared to Europeans we Albanians are lazy, indolence and indifference are the root of our undervelopment, etc. One headline is revealing in this respect : “Të rinjtë suedezë pastrojnë qytetin e Lushnjes, banorët vendas bëjnë sehir” (Tema, 06.04.2012), which is translated as “Swedish young people clean up the city of Lushnjw, whereas the locals contemplate with amusement”. The word the journalist chose to give the meaning of “contemplate with amusement” is sehir, which has entered the Albanian language from the Ottoman language. The Albanian Language Dictionary explains that in colloquial parlance, sehir means to pass the time without doing anything, not to get involved in anything, to stay with arms crossed when something must be done. The journalist has made the word choice properly, to convey to readers the sense of absolute indolence, that which is characteristic of the Orientals, contrary to the industriousness of Europeans, implying that “we” Albanians are less European and remain somehow Oriental in our (non)actions. The common Albanian words for “laziness” are përtaci and dembelizëm. The later one is borrowed from the Turkish word tembel. The epithet dembel (lazy, idle) is used as a synonym of the more literary word përtac, but conveys a stronger emphasis, because it associates someone’s idleness with being old-fashioned and corrupt in spirit, and also more similar to the Turks. Often, in a more derogatory manner, a very, or “extreme” lazy person is called by Albanians dembel Stambolli (a lazy person from Istanbul).
Our habit of doing nothing useful in with our free time, but only drinking coffee and gossip, make us similar to Turks. This is the head line of another article published in the daily Shekulli, on 06.05.2009 ). The article comments a study conducted about how free time is spent in 18 countries. Accordingly, Frenchmen sleep and eat a lot, Germans and the Americans like to shop and Turks spent most of their free time “socially” : visiting friends and relatives and joining for a chat in cafés. The Albanians are not included in the study, but the journalist deduces that if they were, they certainly would be ranking closer to the Turks than to the Europeans. The online version of the article is followed by over 30 comments of Albanians readers from different parts of the world, most of them approving the connection the journalist has made between Albanians and Turks. They seem to take for granted that the Turks and the Albanians are lazy compared to other Europeans, and no one takes notice that Albanians are not included in the study, or the fact this was a study about FREE time and that sleeping, eating, watching and shopping of other Europeans are not productive activities after all (Internet :
The Turks has made us lazy, so goes a very popular cliché among Albanians, and many lament that we are not getting rid of this vice that the centuries of Ottoman invasion imprinted in our national character. Indolence is considered a handicap that is made visible in the mirror of how other Europeans behave, as in the recent example from Lushnjë, and which reveals the cultural difference from “normal” Europeans. It seems that Albanians have made their own a very common Orientalist discursive strategy to designate “otherness” to native peoples inside and outside Europe. The Orientals were systematically called lazy, because of the climate, despotism, bigotry etc., by modern European/Westerner travelers and colonial officials (Said, 1978). The myth of laziness of the natives was used during colonialism by Europeans to morally legitimize the taking over of land and territories from the natives and to introduce among the colonized intensive and exploitative labor, in some places even forced labor and slavery, in order to make big and fast profits (Alatas, 1977). Albert Memmi, a foremost critic of colonialism, has written that

Nothing could better justify the colonizer’s privileged position than his industry, and nothing could better justify the colonized’s destitution than his indolence. The mythical portrait of the colonized therefore includes an unbelievable laziness, and that of the colonizer, a virtuous taste for action (1965 : 79).

Laziness is often presented in popular imagination as a moral deficiency that is responsible for the poverty of the poor people. Their deprivation is allegedly caused by lack of industriousness. As one social scientist puts it “poverty is pathologized by being attributed to defective or dysfunctional individuals, rather than to wider structural factors, or even capitalism itself” (Dorey, 2010 : 334). In the last decades, as polarization between the wealthy and the poor is growing in Europe, the trend to blame the poor for their poverty is on rise and the support for wealth redistribution has fallen. According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2007, in 15 countries out of 27 members of European Union, those who think that the main cause of poverty is laziness make up from 20 to 39 percent of population (ibid. : 336).
Also, indolence is an accusation made by the national political, economical and cultural elites to the lower classes of people, especially the peasants, who are looked at as conservative and resistant to disciplinary projects of modernization, industrialization and urbanization. This is with the case of Albanian intellectual elite after the First World War. This paper examines how the issue of laziness was framed in the writings of that time as a trait “imported” to Albanians by the Ottoman invasion and which was incompatible with the European and Occidental civilization, in which they wanted Albania to join. The Albanian intellectual elite borrowed the image of the “lazy Oriental” established by the tradition of Western Orientalism, but contrary to European Orientalism, the laziness in Albanian intellectuals’ discourse was blamed on the former masters of the land, the Turks. By taking the position of European victims of the Asian yoke, they argued that Albanian people’s poverty, backwardness and laziness were the effect of disastrous Ottoman rule. They saw their contribution as a self-critique, as a way to uncover the deficiencies of the Albanian character, in order to reform the Albanian man and make him work to build the modern Albania. Those intellectuals of the time who wrote about the laziness of Albanias were mimetic to Western discourse on the laziness of the natives, but at the same time were acting as an agency of change, for they claimed to show the way forward and to educate the people. Despite their identification with the people, their discourse on laziness betrayed an element of class and status superiority vis-à-vis the mass of common Albanians. Before going into different textual examples, we briefly presents the situation of Albania in the interwar period.

Interwar Albania

Albania came out of the First World War in very depressing conditions. During the war it had been invaded by Serbian, Greek, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and French armies battling one another, which had inflicted victims and sufferings on a people who had already felt the savagery of the First Balkan War. Its future seemed uncertain, because of the plans made by the Allies during the war to grant pieces of Albanian territory to the neighbors. But, due to a patriotic fervor and to the new international atmosphere after the war, Albania managed to preserve the boundaries of 1913 and to be accepted as a member to the League of Nations in 1921.
At this time, Albania was one of the most primitive countries in Europe in terms of development. Its economy was an agrarian one, in a country of nearly 1 million inhabitants, which nevertheless could not feed the population without importing grain every year. In the cities there were few manufactures and the only modern inter-city road system was constructed during the war for the supply needs of the invading armies. Despite the various reforms, Albania remained a poor and underdeveloped country throughout the interwar period and was hit hard by the Great Depression. There the crisis lasted longer then in developed countries and reached its peak in 1934. By 1938 the level of foreign trade was still under that of year 1928 (Prifti and Shpuza, 2007 : 108-109). To overcome stagnation, Albania needed foreign investments and aid, and it turned to Italy, which was interested in Albania for strategic reasons. The new fascist regime wanted to turn Albania into a base for the expansion in the Balkans.
In early 1920s, after the stability of the state boundaries was secured, a degree of internal instability followed. There were frequent changes of government, sometimes including armed struggles between different contenders. The politician who dominated during the period was Ahmet Zog, originally a young chieftain from Mat region, in the north of Tirana. He overcame the opposition and managed to rule the country, first as prime-minister, then as president (1925-1928), and at last as “King of Albanians” (1928- 1939). Early in his career, Zog understood that the stability of his rule depended on the development of the country and he initiated many administrative, economic and cultural reforms. In an interview by the Daily Telegraph in 1928, King Zog declared that “we are centuries behind Europe in civilization… It is my determination to civilize my people and make them as far as possible adopt Western habits and customs” (cited in Fischer, 1995 : 22). During his rule, Albania adopted the civil, penal and commerce legal codes of European countries, a central bank was established, a land reform was attempted, many public works were accomplished throughout the country a system of primary and secondary schools covered nearly all the country, foreign instructors were brought in to train a modern army, and efforts were made to change the traditional ways of living and to introduce Western modernity in education and cultural spheres.
Nevertheless, the costs of these reforms made Zog more and more dependent on Italy. He thought that he could take the Italian money and use it to strengthen the Albanian economy, in order to create a national unity that would deny the Italians the political control of the country (ibid. : 37). This policy succeeded until 1939, when Mussolini decided to invade the country. Despite the many failures, the regime of Zog provided Albania with a central government, the contours of a modern state, and unity for enough time to establish a strong national identification among the cultural elite, as this is demonstrated by the lively intellectual debates on the development of the country.

Laziness and Albanian Orientalism

In the texts by Albanian intellectuals during the interwar period, the signifiers “Occident” and “Europe” were associated with diverse political, social, and economic demands. “Europe” was articulated in discourses that made the apology of the regime, as well as in discourses expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation that called for social reforms. Nearly all intellectuals active in public debates were “Westernizers”, even those of left-wing sympathies, who otherwise were critical of bourgeois civilization and imperialism. Images of the Occident exerted a powerful attraction to the intellectuals, because it represented of a new model of socio-political organization and way of life, which they wished for Albania. In essentialist terms, they thought that Albanians belonged to Europe, thus their destiny is the European civilization. A young journalist, Ismet Toto, wrote in 1936 that

Albania should be Europeanized, it should become a Switzerland in the Balkans... The logic of history, our geographic position, the spiritual capabilities of our people and all that is good and noble in this country, compel us to choose the way of Europeanization and the embracing of moral principles of means and manner invented by the science and the civilization of this continent (Toto, 1997 : 60 ; emphasis in original).

Why there is such a gap between Albania and Occident, or, who is to blame for preventing Albania to be Occident ? The unanimous vote of young intellectuals in 1920s-1930s goes for the Ottoman Empire and the Turks. The main lasting influence of the Ottoman invasion, was the “pollution” of the Albanian, otherwise a European type, with Oriental influences. Some of the influences are termed as laziness, indolence, lethargy, apathy, passivity, in contrast to the industriousness, energy, zeal, activity, and creativeness of the Occidental men. For instance, Zef Mala, a young journalist and early communist activist in Shkodër, wrote that “the typical fatalism of demoralized peoples of the East has become our characteristic, too” (Mala, 2002 : 79). Another journalist, Tajar Zavalani in 1933 wrote that the worst damage the Turkish rule had left behind in Albania was not the lack of infrastructure but the disfiguration of the necessary virtues that the people now needed to enter the into the road of “true civilization” (Zavalani, 1998 : 10).
Laziness of Albanians was not essential or biological, but was caused by historical and cultural factors, during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The common view shared by publicists such as Mit’hat Frashëri (2008), Zavalani (1998 : 77) and Vangjel Koça (1999 : 93) is that the Turks saw in Albanians excellent warriors and offered to them the opportunity to make a living through being mercenaries and plundering. As a consequence, the Albanians neglected productive labor, they preferred more to join the unending wars of the Turks than to toil the soil. According to Koça (1999 : 93), the fact that contemporary Albanians under the guidance of the king Zog I had turned to work, was a sign that they have abandoned once and for all mercenarism and were entering in the era of progress.
The image of Albanians as a warlike nation was met with approval by the intellectuals of the National Reawakening movement before the independence. Writers such as Sami Frashëri, Pashko Vasa and others wrote that Albania was never properly conquered by the Turks, but on the contrary Albanians preserved their freedom and fought side by side with the Turks and ruled the empire jointly. Sami Frashwri in 1989 wrote that “Albania in the era of the Turks became more prosperous and rich than ever” (Frashëri, 1999 : 22), because Albanians could plunder the enemies of the empire, while preserving their own freedom. According to Sami, Pashko Vasa etc., things began to turn bad for Albanians after the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century. In the interwar period the profession of the warrior was interpreted as being unproductive and detrimental to the education of Albanians with the modern work ethic. The writer Ernest Koliqi in an article published in 1932 wrote that “among nations work is the surest source of progress and civilization” (Koliqi, 2003 : 710). The cradle of contemporary European civilization is Athens, because from that city-state we inherit all “key ideas which have always directed the proud path of arian race along the centuries (ibid.). Athens was a small city, but it was made great because of the hard work of its inhabitants and the same goes for Florence or Holland in other centuries. Then Koliqi argues that the Ottoman invasion in 15th century isolated Albania from Europe. When they become independent in the 20th century they realized that they had regressed from the state of civilization they were five centuries ago. European mind in 20th century is imagining alternatives of organization beyond the nation, whereas among Albanians the national idea is not powerful. Another proof of regress is that Albanians value high the one who stays idle and not the one who works hard : “This parasitism is thought as the ideal of human well-being just in the century where the billionaire Ford works harder that the workers in his factories” (ibid. : 713). Nevertheless, there was no reason to be fatalistic about the fate of Albanian nation, wrote Koliqi, because Albanians are strong in natural qualities and their survival in history is enough to prove this. The problem lies in that “indolence in body and spirit that we inherited from the long Eastern rule. [Through education] we will teach children in the early ages to hate indolence and inactivity” (ibid. : 715).
Mit’hat Frashëri in several articles written in 1920s pointed out that Albanians during the Ottoman times had never experienced the public governance that organizes the people to achieve common goals, as it is the case in the West, but have seen it as a foreign power. That is why after independence they still wait passively for the foreign powers to solve the problems in their country. He reprehends those lazy Albanians for staying twenty-four hours a day in the cafes speaking of politics and waiting to eat the halva that is cooked in the kitchen of Europe (Frashëri, 1997 : 170). Halva (hallvë in Albanian) is mentioned purposely because it is a common Oriental dessert and it is imagined as a component part of the indolent, careless and pleasure life of an Oriental man. Another reason for laziness mentioned by Frashëri is that Albanians are satisfied with few things and they do not have the ambition to leave well and to have luxuries, which would make them work harder. Instead, when they have enough to eat they simply stop working. Even among those who work, there are thousands who despise physical hard work and prefer to open a small shop and to pretend they are merchants, “but in reality they are people without work” (ibid. : 171). Frashëri uses the word tyxhar for merchant, again a Turkish word (tüccar), in order to emphasize that the habit of showing off as merchant is a continuation of the old Ottoman ways.
When speaking and writing about the Balkans, post-Enlightenment Westerners mentioned laziness and indolence alongside squalor, passivity, superstition, cruelty, misogyny, or corruption (Jezernik, 2010 : 23). Especially repulsive to the 19th century Western travelers to the Balkans and Turkey was the way the locals sit for a long period of time to drink coffee. At that time in industrialized region of Europe coffee was considered a useful stimulant and working classes had started to consume it freely. But “wasting” precious time over cups of (Turkish) coffee and tobacco was considered by some Western travelers in the Balkans as a refusal to work on the part of the locals. To them such an idleness was more characteristic to animals than to humans (ibid. : 244-248). Similarly, Albanian intellectuals of the interwar period expressed themselves very harshly against the habit of drinking coffee and killing time in cafes. A relevant example is an article by Vangjel Koça in 1929 which is titled “Social Hygiene” and begins with the slogan “We must close the cafes, those cradles of laziness” (Koça, 1999 : 100). He compares the way Europeans and Orientals spend the free time. Germans and Englishmen prefer to engage with sports or walk in the open air and they are healthier than the Chinese who pass the time smoking hashish in closed cafes (ibid. : 102). The habit of frequenting cafes in Albania is a remnant of Orient, therefore this has to change.

There are no cafes resembling ours in civilized countries. The café in our country is a tradition of Orient. It marks our Oriental spirit. Without erasing the café, our oriental spirit cannot start reforming. We must close the cafés and we must get used to hygienic and clean recreation. Don’t tell me that without cafés the ones without work will have nowhere to go. There are no men without work in the struggle of life. Unless one is a thief, gambler or social parasite, all have something to do. Those who work cannot kill time in cafés. Thus, those who frequent cafés are from the category of those parasites who have the habit of laziness (ibid. : 101).

Even the traditional ways of giving alms for the poor or donating money to institutions are not healthy, says Koça in another articles published in 1929 and 1934, because they can make the poor lazy. Charity must be socially organized in Albania, as it is in Europe, in order to benefit the whole society. By social organization, Koça meant that the money should be spent on modern institutions such as hospitals, retirement homes for the old, orphanages etc. In the modern world such charity was organized by both state and private initiatives. In Albania it would take some time for private initiatives to flourish, so the state should make an example. To this aim, Koça suggested that the state could use the idle wealth of Christian monasteries and Muslim tekkes. Society profits nothing from them, because these religious institutions represent the anachronism of Middle Ages and they seek to perpetuate the greatest division that Albanians inherited from the Ottoman times (ibid : 35-37, 80-81).
The above arguments were published in the newspapers and journals by journalists and other intellectuals in the interwar period in order to shape the public consciousness and to morally reform the Albanian society, in order to catch up with the modern world. They put their faith on state actions and the education of the new generation. What united them was the praise of work and industry as the ways of progress, regardless of their other political persuasion that divided them. This explains the idealistic, moralistic and optimistic tone present in most of their articles, as well as their collective condemnation of the Orient and laziness.

Concluding remarks

The Orientalist discourse of Albanian intellectual of interwar period parallels and feeds contemporary discourse about the natural indolence of Turks, and about Albanians as their “lazy” cultural victims. Such a discourse, then and now, is a productive one, in two senses. First, it produces certain subjects and objects of discourse. Secondly it presents on work and productivity as the highest ethical human activity, inducing people to work harder for the development of their society. The problem with this discourse on laziness is that usually isolates this trait as a cultural and negative remnant of the Ottoman times, an Eastern/Asian sinister influence in the spirit of Albanians, without putting it in a sociological analysis of work, industrialization and society. Such views from the past about the ethic of work and laziness should not be adopted unquestioningly and uncritically. Clichés that are sedimented with time in common sense do not allow for reasoning. Laziness is a relative concept, empty of substance and it must always be judged depending from the circumstances. Not to mention that according to some theorists, among them the philosopher Bertrand Russell writing in the 1930s, idleness and contemplation are what should be praised as the road towards human happiness, because belief in the virtuousness of work is bringing much harm in the modern world (Russell, 1994). Likewise, apathy and indolence are not given national characteristics but characterizations that are linked to contexts, actors and interests. As it true of elsewhere and of other peoples, many Albanians who live in the country, or abroad and who work hard to make a living, sometimes in dire circumstances, would for sure reject the label of lazy for themselves.


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Enis Sulstarova
Department of Sociology, University of Tirana, Albania
E-mail :