I want to tell you a story about burns. The Communists burned the books first. Anything that offended the tastes of the party was burned. Books were the worst because they spread ideas like diseases. They burned them. The intellectuals, the artists, the imams, the priests, the writers, the people with the loud voices were sent to isolated mountain work camps to be reeducated by building bunkers.
The same old story. The iron hand of communism grips a country and freedom is crushed. We all get to pat ourselves on the backs for being Americans.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Albania near Kosovo, in a place called Tropoja. I worked with a Mobile Library bringing books back into the most isolated villages in The Balkans. To give you some idea of how isolated that we are talking, Northern Albania was the last known functioning midieval society, up until the 1930s. That is the 1930s. With a 9. It is the most isolated part of the country, and therefore perfect for sending anyone against the party. There is a joke that goes around Tropoja about a particularly isolated village named Lek Bebaj. It goes like this:
"Lek Bibaj is so isolated!"
"How isolated is it!?"
"Lek Bibaj is so isolated, that the first time they saw a truck- they tried to feed it!"
You do not want to tell that joke in Lek Bibaj. Tropoja has a reputation for more than being isolated. The district of Tropoja has a reputation for blood feuding. The ancient Albanian holy law, The Kanun sanctions killing for killing between families and clans to maintain order in the villages. So between two draconian sets of laws, the law of Kanun, and the rule of the Communist Party, Tropoja marched on.
Then it all collapsed. The death throes of the Communist regime and the battle across the border in Kosovo, made Tropoja into a war zone. The year was 1997. The same year that Men in Black came out. In the villages of Tropoja, the Kanun is king. Law and order come from an ancient holy text that pits families against one another for literally hundreds of years. It didn't make sense to me until I saw the girl with the black hands.
Myself, and two Albanian guys (Naim and Illir) drove for an hour and a half over dirt roads with a van painted with rainbows, full of books. We would park the van, give kids the books, do some English lessons with them, maybe play a little guitar, and head on out to the next village.
We got out of the van into one of the most beautiful early winter days I had seen in Albania. Long sloping grass hills and a clear blue sky. Snow was still caked in the craggy rocks on the mountains where the sun couldn't get to it.
The children came out of the makeshift school house, maybe 12 of them. They ran to the library screaming, as if words could not accurately express the infinity they were feeling at the mere fact they could get the next Harry Potter in Albanian. I milled about the children, reading with them, or checking off their library cards. Then I saw the girl with the black hands.
They didn't look real. They looked like wood. They looked like charcoal. They looked like, if I touched them they would dissolve into dust. I squatted down to read with her. She ran away from me. It wasn't usual for them to hear a foreigner speaking Albanian so I thought that I had just terrified her by butchering my Albanian.
I went and talked to Naim. He told me the story. She was afraid that we would be mad. There was a fire at her place, a traditional wood and stone house with a wood burning stove. She had been left alone. Her mother left, and her father was a drunk. He left her to take care of her younger sister. The fire from the stove caught in the house. The little girl with the black hands burned her hands trying to get her sister and the books she borrowed from the library out of the house. Her sister didn't make it. Neither did the books. She thought that we would be mad at her because they were the Mobile Library's books. It happened a week before we drove up.
She was taken in by the community. The father hadn't come back yet. I asked Naim what would happen to him on the ride back home in our van covered in rainbows. The Kanun takes care of people who abandon their families. He would be killed. The Kanun fills in the cracks in justice. It deals with the messes, and it keeps order and like any set of holy laws it has an answer for everything- but you may not like it.
Before the girl with the black hands, I looked down on the Kanun with the disdain afforded to me by the wealth of my parents and my country. I saw it as barbarism. Then I met her. I saw her hands. And I was comforted by the fact that this man would most likely die because of his actions. That was scared me. I was so certain.
The Communists tried to stamp out the Kanun. They burned it along with the other holy books. They stamped out any other idea of justice. But somewhere, deep down we all have out own ideas of justice, so we give them up to something greater than ourselves. Something that says what is and is not okay to burn.