IN THE LAND OF THE UNWRITTEN LAW

Rosita Forbes, née Joan Rosita Torr, (1890 – 1967) was an English travel writer, novelist and explorer. In 1920–1921 she was the first European woman to visit the Kufra Oasis in Libya (together with the Egyptian explorer Ahmed Hasanein) in a period when this was closed to Westerners. She was the daughter of a British MP, was an indomitable and widely-travelled adventuress who journeyed to the most exotic, remote, and dangerous locations and lived to write about them. She would visit ancient bazaars and mix freely with the local population, as well as interviewing colorful nomadic characters along the way. Forbes crossed through Libyan deserts on a camel in the 1920’s, searching for the forbidden city of Kufara. She journeyed from Peshawar to Samarkand via Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1930’s. Other adventures took her to the Middle East, Abyssinia, Kenya, and South America. Rosita had a flair for languages from childhood and loved to travel. She joined her first husband, a British army colonel, on his garrison duties in China, India and Australia. During World War I, she drove ambulances on the Western Front. In 1918, now divorced, Forbes was commissioned by a French magazine to study French colonialism in Africa and was dispatched to Morocco. From then on, she developed an interest in both history and politics which were later infused with her travel writings.

“AT THE GRIM HOME OF JON MARCOJON”
A Revelation of the Incredible Lives Lived the Tribesmen in the Most Picturesque and Untamed State in Europe

By Rosita Forbes – Who Has Just Returned from the Wilds of the Adriatic (published November 9, 1929)

In Oroshi each house has a rock to itself, and there are not more than a dozen of them, half a mile apart, but each is a patriarchal affair wherein dwell three or four generations. Built of grey stone, with loop-holed walls and a curious jutting-out machicolation from which boiling water could comfortably be poured onto any unwelcome head, they are reinforced by huge palisades to protect them against the packs of wolves which in winter, a hundred or two hundred strong, range the countryside.

In the largest of these grim buildings lives Jon Marcojon (Gjon Markagjoni). Chief of the Mirdite, and his hospitality is in keeping with the strength of his bones, for though he is not very tall, his knee joint is just about treble the size of an ordinary man’s, which is perhaps as well, for it needs a human goat to climb his mountains. We reached his house towards sunset, our arrival heralded by shouts from the crags, from which sentinels watched the valley. Marcojon, in dark breeches and coat, girt with a cartridge-belt wherein gleamed the ivory handle of a revolver presented by King Zog, was sitting on the edge of the cliff, where a circle of roughly-hewn stones made a sort of council chamber between the palisaded house and the ravine below. He welcomed us warmly and took us to the huge guest-room on the first floor.

There was a bed in one corner, quantities of bright red rugs from the hand-looms of Kossava on the floor, and a long deal table at which coffee was instantly served. Then came the usual three-hour pause, during which conversation was stimulated by a raki, and after that dinner appeared, borne by armed henchmen, while the sons waited on their father’s guests. We ate mightily on sheep, curdled milk, and goat’s cheese, and schewing the bed piled high with scarlet quilts, we slept on the floor-when we were allowed to sleep at all, for the Albanian is content with a short four hour’s rest in summer, and thinks his guest is ill if he or she requires any more. It is quite impossible not to rise with the sun, for if you don’t, the whole family sits around and shakes you gently at intervals to say it is after dawn.

“I must sleep, I will sleep.” I used to mutter, distraught, and burrow out of sight in my flea-bag with my fingers stuffed in my years.

After half an hour there would be a sibilant inquiry: “Are you ill?” Are you sure you are not ill?” And someone would be sent for raki.

“I shall be ill if you don’t let me sleep.” I would cry, with murder seething in my brain, and be left in peace for ten minutes, after which the old grandmother would be summoned to decide whether I was so ill I was going to die.

Dava Markagjoni with guards and grandson Ndue in the left corner – 1928

The only human being in Albania who ever suggested I could sleep was Jon Marcojon’s mother, a splendid creature, strong-featured and stalwart as Sarah the wife of Abraham. She saw me return from a twelve-hour ride which had turned out to be mostly walk, over rocks which I imagined could only exist in the nightmares of over-excited goats. My face was like damp beetroot. My eyes were scarlet. Doubtless I blundered up the last spirals with as little control of my limbs as a camel surprised that it can walk at all. Brilliant with crimson embroidery on a long white coat, hung with necklaces of gold coins and gold earrings, capable, cool, and quite ready at sixty-seven (as she informed me) to walk all day with many kilos on her back, the old lady grasped my arm and led me straight to a mat. “Sleep,” she commanded, but she and several other women sat on the same carpet and patted me at regular intervals to see if I were all right, and after an hour they woke me. “It is unhealthy to sleep too much” they said cheerfully.

The Albanian tribeswoman is as strong as her brothers, and she has to do most of the work in the field and market, because the men are always involved in a feud and cannot leave their house without a rifle. Marcojon’s wife, who was living in a hut with the flocks pasturing high above Oroshi, was deep-bosomed, broad and comely, with a confident smile and the smooth skin of a girl in spite of her ten children.

Kapidan Ndue, Kapidan Gjon and Kapidan Mark Markagjoni

As usual in the mountains, she and the Mirdite chieftain had had a trial span of domesticity (“to see if she were strong,” explained with delicacy, the eldest son, who was evidently devoted to his mother), and then when the first boy was born, they had married. The Albanian woman has no choice in the matter of her future husband, and so strong is her tribal instinct her greatest devotion generally goes to her brother who is of the same blood. A story is still told in Scutari of a Mirdite woman whose husband betrayed her brother to an enemy. The wife waited till her lord was asleep and then killed him with his own knife and killed their two sons as well, so that the line of a traitor should not continue.

In Oroshi I noticed one of the qeraxhis (the men who drive their pack-ponies from one end of the mountains to the other) was clean-shaven and had small feel. One day it was necessary to use the mountain telephone, that is, to shout the news that a guest was coming across twenty miles of valley. A tribesman leapt on to a rock and turned himself into a human megaphone. His face grew blotched and purple, his veins swelled, he stuck his thumbs into his ears, apparently to keep the drums from bursting and from his tense strained figure there issued a howl which leaped like a living thing from rock to rock. In this way news travels from one district to another faster than our telegrams, for anyone hearing is bound in honor to forward the message to its destination.

“Can you do that?” I asked the beardless tribesman, and it was only then I learned she was a woman. She had refused to marry the man to whom her parents had engaged her, prenatally, and so she had been obliged to swear the oath of virginity before twelve witnesses, after which she had the right to live as a man, smoking and eating with her fellow drivers, wearing the same felt trousers and ragged shirt, carrying a rifle and taking part, if she chose, in vendetta.

Published by “The Sphere”, November 9, 1929

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