SINGING WATERS

Ann Bridge (1889–1974) is the pseudonym of Mary Ann Dolling (Sanders), Lady O’Malley, also known as Cottie Sanders. Bridge wrote 14 novels, mostly based on her experiences living in foreign countries, one book of short stories, a mystery series, and several autobiographical non-fiction books.

She visited Albania twice in 1933 and in 1935. Her last visit became the backdrop of her novel Singing Waters, which is based on her visit to the Sarajet and her sojourn there. She lived with the family of Kapidan Gjon Markagjoni for almost one month and goes into great detail in her “fiction” novel about her stay at the Sarajet and meeting the family.

Although a fiction, the book reads more like a travel journal. The detailed description of the Sarajet and the daily activities there during that period is fascinating. The names have been slightly altered, nevertheless the description of the characters and their relationships are unmistakable.

Please note that I put in parenthesis the actual names of the family members, which were changed for her ‘fiction’ novel. The changes to the names are based on the timeline of her visit to the Sarajet.

Below are excerpts from her book “Singin Waters” New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1946

(pg 31) “At Torosh (Orosh) there is a great church, and a mitred Abbot. That is another thing to see—High Mass on Whit-Sunday in the church at Torosh. Again, all the people come from miles around in costumes of very great beauty, and fill the church with the glory of their clothes and of their conscious devotion. It is one of the most splendid sights left in the world.” “Can one stay there? Is there a hotel?” she asked, casually. Nils laughed.
“My dear young lady, no! Not in Torosh.”
“Where do people stay, then?”
“In tents, if they have them. If not, they sleep in the open. One does not find any of your cosmopolitan ‘comfort moderne’ in Albania, thank God! If one travels, one takes a tent and a camp-bed, and food and cooking vessels, and sleeps where one pleases, under the stars. Actually at Torosh, those who know Prince Lek-Gionaj (Gjon Marka Gjoni) can sometimes stay with him.”

(pg 91) “But there’s nothing to see up-country, as you call it—just mountains and wild, wild places,” Warren protested. “There’s no place to go.”
“Yes there is. There’s that place with an Abbot, and a big church, and a kind of prince living somewhere close by, that one stays with,” said Gloire obstinately.
Warren looked at her with an enquiring gaze. Who on earth had been putting that into her head?
“Oh, you mean Torosh,” he said. “But that’s a hell of a trip! And not just anyone can go and stay with Lek-Gionaj, you have to be invited.”

(pg 123-124) “…Mirdita and Mati, where we’re going, is the one district which preserved its autonomy and its great family all through the Turkish occupation.”
“Which family is that?”
“The Lek-Gionajs.”
Gloire pricked up her ears. Larsen had spoken of Lek-Gionaj. She listened with more attention than usual as Colonel Robinson went on—“It’s rather complicated, the whole tribal or clan system, but it boils down to something like this. The smallest unit is the fisse, or family—that is to say people having a common male ancestor, who mayn’t intermarry.”
“They are grouped in bairaks—bairak means standard, really—and the bairaktar, or standard-bearer, is the hereditary chief and military leader of that group, which usually means a particular valley or district. Some of the
very large tribes have several bairaks and bairaktars—Mirdita is divided into five bairaks. Each bairak is ruled by a council of elders presided over by the bairaktar—he’s half a magistrate and half a sort of hereditary mayor.”
“Then is Lek-Gionaj a bairaktar?” enquired Gloire.
“No—he’s much more than that. He’s the hereditary chief of the whole of Mirdita.”
“A sort of prince, in fact?”
“Well, you might say that he corresponds to a small German or Austrian princely family—the Fürst, who is never royal; but they don’t use that title here. A much closer parallel is with the Scottish hereditary chieftain who bears no title at all, like the Mackintosh or the Macleod—or the head of Clan Cameron, who is just called Lochiel.”

(pg 155) The residence—for house is hardly the word—of Gjergj Lek-Gionaj (Gjon Marka Gjoni), hereditary Kapidan or Prince of his clan, stood boldly on one of the projecting spurs running down from Mali Shënjt, commanding the valley below and the track up to the pass at its head; the slopes round it were of that characteristic formation of decomposing rock, flecked with a sparse dark growth of stunted pines and juniper. The house had recently been added to and in part rebuilt, and its flattish spreading tiled roof and gleaming white-wash concealed the massiveness of the structure and gave it, from a distance, a deceptive resemblance to a large country villa in Southern Italy. But this was no villa. On all sides but one, where the ground dropped steeply to the valley, the upper slope was revetted into a wall of mortared stone at least twelve feet high, surmounted by a stockade of oak palings the size and thickness of railway sleepers; the only approach was by a sloping ramp, leading up to a solid oak gate in this stockade. The house itself, whose walls were four or five feet thick, was built round three sides of a square, forming a sort of courtyard—the fourth side was partially closed by a slatted wooden building, isolated from the rest. In this courtyard, into which the caravan filed with its usual deliberation, there was a feature which at once caught Miss Glanfield’s eye. On the courtyard walls of ancient houses and castles in England the mellow stone or brick often holds rings, fastened by staples driven deep into the masonry, to which the horses of travelers used to be tied—in this Albanian courtyard the masonry held in great numbers, not rings but iron hooks, whose use immediately became apparent, for the gendarmes and the pony-men at once hung their rifles on them by the slings!

(pg 155-156) The Prince and Princess—it is the nearest English equivalent for their position—met their guests in the courtyard; Lek-Gionaj greeted them first, and then with Colonel Robinson proceeded to deal with the disposal of the baggage and the men and animals of the caravan, including the gendarmerie escort; his wife, who had stood with folded hands and in perfect silence, now stepped forward and did her part, the welcoming of the women guests. Mrs. Robinson translated her little speech. She said: “You are welcome, very welcome. The house and everything in it is yours. But here we are in the mountains, and I fear that you will suffer—indeed I fear that you will suffer much.”

Mrs. Robinson having made some suitable response, Mme. Lek-Gionaj (Mrika Marka Gjoni) led them indoors, and up a road stone staircase to a vast room, as large as two billiard-rooms, in which a long table was set for a meal—a welcome sight, for it was now 1.30, and they had breakfasted at 5.30. Besides the table the room contained immense numbers of small high-backed wooden chairs of cheap modern make, a huge brass samovar, a wireless-set which did not go, a brass bedstead in one corner, and some bright Kelim rugs; on the walls were two pictures, an oleograph of the Holy Family and an enlarged and expressionless photograph of Lek-Gionaj’s father. The three windows were set so high and deep in the thickness of the wall that it was impossible to see out of them; they were heavily barred with iron scrollwork.

(pg 157) A long, a very long pause ensued on this occasion. Lek-Gionaj, attended by Pieter (Mark), his eldest son, sat on two of the upright wooden chairs opposite Colonel Robinson, and talked to him; Mme. Lek-Gionaj, attended by two of her daughters, a beautiful girl of seventeen called Lisa (Dila b.1919), and Marte (Bardha b.1925), a gay little creature of about nine, sat opposite Mrs. Robinson, Miss Glanfield, and Gloire, and conversed with them; Rudolf Valentino handed round minute glasses of raki, the aniseed-flavoured liqueur of those regions, and a metal dish of flat squares of a rather hard sour white cheese. Each guest was supplied with a fork with which to spear the cheese; the dish was black with a thousand flies—spearing a piece, one blew on it to remove them before popping it hastily into one’s mouth. Gloire didn’t much like the cheese and thought the flies revolting, but she was so hungry that she took a piece whenever the dish came round, and so tired and thirsty that she emptied her little glass of raki as often as the servant filled it.

(pg 167-168) Finally, she looked at the Lek-Gionajs themselves, standing among their flocks and herds and servants as Abraham and Sarah might have stood of old on the plains of Palestine. Lek-Gionaj was a short man, thick-set; it was hard to see much of Abraham in the semi-European dress which he affected—an old-fashioned Norfolk suit with pleated back and patch pockets, kneestockings, and stout black laced shoes, most oddly combined with a collarless shirt, gauged to the neck, and an immensely broad cummerbund of striped black and silver silk which, embracing the bottom of his neat waistcoat, fastened in front with a huge silver buckle set with turquoises, at least eight inches across. Yet there was something patriarchal about him; the quiet, substantial satisfaction with which he stood, feet apart, surveying his fleecy, vocal, visible wealth—a satisfaction which the sight of packets of gilt-edged securities in a safe can never quite afford—and the tone of friendly interest and calm unquestioned authority with which he spoke to his men.

Kapidan Gjon Marka Gjoni (aka Gjergji Lek-Gionaj)

In Mme. Lek-Gionaj, on the other hand, it was easy to see Sarah, or the wife of any patriarch. She was a massive woman, much taller than her husband and immensely broad in the beam, with a large, broad-browed, bigmouthed face, firm and solid as an early Epstein sculpture. Her face in repose was so expressionless as to be almost sulky, but gave a great sense of latent power. Her huge frame was splendidly clothed. Full white linen trousers tapered down from her vast hips to quite small feet, and over them, bell-like, hung the skirts of her white linen tunic, which was most delicately pleated and embroidered on the bosom; over this was a jacket of deep purple velvet, and a brilliantly striped silk apron fell to her knees, held in place by another silk shawl, embroidered this time and tied round the waist. Over all she wore a sleeveless coat of white woollen homespun, reaching in front only a few inches beyond the arm-holes, which were surrounded by a band of embroidery in vivid reds and greens—there was more of this embroidery on the hips and round the neck and hem. It was of an Oriental magnificence, this dress, and the stern impassive countenance was almost oriental too. Her head-dress was as stern as her face. A fringed shawl of black silk was folded squarely across that great sculptured forehead and bound above the ears—it fell in a black cascade of fringe down to the middle of that vast white coat at the back—in front, a great plait of bronze dark hair was somehow drawn up through the black folds, and lay across her head like a coronal. She wore no jewellery, and indeed her natural splendour needed none. Calmly, silent except when addressed, she stood watching her flocks, her husband, and her off-spring—for Marte and Lisa had accompanied them down to the fold, and Pieter stood with his father. Oh yes, so indeed might Sarah have stood, Miss Glanfield thought, or that great matron of whom King Solomon sang, or the notable woman who entertained the prophet Elijah. This was what womanhood meant in a simpler, earlier world. It was impossible to conceive of coquetry, or the competitive spirit, or ruinous extravagance in the pursuit of fashion so much as entering into the conception of that great creature, traditionally garbed, traditionally occupied in secular duties and responsibilities.

Mrika Marka Gjoni (aka Mme. Lek-Gionaj)

(pg 169) They walked round the house, admiring the new portion which had been built on a few years before. The new building had a fine doorway in delicate close-grained pale grey stone, with six names carved across the lintel— of course Miss Glanfield had to know whose they were. Mme. Lek-Gionaj obliged—those of her husband and her five sons (Gjon, Mark, Ndue, Llesh, Dede, Nikoll).

(pg 170) To the left of this entrance another door, less ornate, opened direct from the courtyard into a great room, as large or larger than that on the floor above where they had eaten and slept—here the men employed about the establishment lived, and here the visiting gendarmes and teamsters were housed. The visitors looked in. Except for a number of coarse bright rugs on the floor, the room was quite bare; the pack-saddles of the pony-team were piled up in one corner, and in another on a raised platform quilts and bedding, neatly folded, lay under a vast coloured sheet; out in the centre of the room, under the light of the high-set scroll-barred windows, the teamsters and gendarmes, seated on the floor, were brewing coffee over a small charcoal stove, smoking and chatting.

(pg171) The kitchen in the Lek-Gionaj mansion was, exceptionally, on the ground floor—as a rule in Albania the animals, poultry and farm implements occupy the bottom level of the house, and the kitchen, sleeping rooms and guest-room are upstairs; but the Lek-Gionajs had stables for their animals for winter use, and therefore a ground-floor kitchen. It was another very large room, like a great cavern, faintly lit by a paraffin lamp hanging from the ceiling, and the last of the daylight which crept in through the barred windows. A wood fire burned on a wide open hearth; above it hung a great copper pot in which water bubbled: permanent hot water, Mrs. Robinson murmured to Gloire—the pot was kept there day and night; a metal coffee-pot stood in the ashes—coffee too was on tap night and day to be ready to serve to any chance guest. On the floor in front of the fire a woman knelt, arranging a freshly-skinned lamb on a spit; presently she took it up and placed the spit in front of the flames. Under the window were shelves, on which stood various cooking utensils, and silver-washed copper bowls of kous, the sour milk of the whole Balkan region; very large flat trays or dishes of this same silvered copper, some of them worked in beautiful designs, were ranged against the walls—it was from these, placed on the floor, that meals were eaten, Mrs. Robinson explained. The walls were covered with metal vessels of various sorts, ladles, knives, spoons and tongs; from the smoke blackened rafters hung quantities of dried gourds, they contained beans, pulse and lentils and also dried seeds for sowing. On one wall hung a guitar. As there were neither presses nor tables, obviously everything had to lean or hang, and did. The place seemed full of a crowd of women, occupied in various ways—one, kneeling on the floor, was rolling out pastry on one of the metal trays; another, also kneeling, was chopping up herbs on a smaller dish; Mme. Lek-Gionaj ran an expert and masterful eye over each.

(l to r) Dava Markagjoni, Llesh, Marta (wife of Mark), Kap. Gjon, Kap. Mark, Kap. Ndue, Mrika, Dila, Marta – 1930

(pg 175) ‘”A married woman here has enormous authority and power—but she doesn’t worry about the outward appearances of it. When I see people like Mme. Lek-Gionaj running some fifty women and more men, with her children and grandchildren growing up around her in willing obedience, and affection, and respect, and her husband relying on her for wisdom and counsel, whether she eats with the guests or not seems a small thing! I often compare her in my mind with the professional women and business girls back home, who are so proud of their ‘economic independence’—living alone or with a woman friend in some little apartment, and I think that they have nothing on her. They are puttering around at some little artificial job; she is building men and women.”

(pg 229) Groups of men frequently turned up at the Kapidan’s house; food was cooked for them, and they were closeted for hours with Lek-Gionaj. From Dr. Emmeline she always learned who they were: sometimes members of his own clan, but often of some other—he was the recognised chief of all the Catholic clans, and their problems were brought to him for advice and solution. She had watched the earnest faces grouped in the courtyard, and Lek-Gionaj’s own anxious face, creased with thought, as he weighed and dealt with the difficulties of his people; she had realised his patience and his concern. Once he had had to go down to Tirana to represent their point of view to the authorities; this had been a very important occasion, and every one went about looking serious till his return.

(pg 245) “Why, all right. On Christmas Eve,” said the old woman, “the housewife sweeps the house right through and white-washes it from end to end. She clears most of the ashes from the hearth, and at twilight she puts on the great log, like the Northern Yule log—that’s pretty well the one thing our customs have in common with yours,” she said, nodding her white head at the Swede. “When everyone has come in from work they dine, sitting in a semicircle round the fire; and after that the house-father lights a candle and says a prayer. Then he takes a spray of juniper and puts it on the fire—I really don’t know what the significance of that is—anyway while it is crackling the family chants. When the chant is done the father pours a libation of wine on the log and on the four corners of the hearth; and for each of the corners he says a letter—K, R, Y, Q—that spells the Albanian name for the Cross. Then they bring an unleavened loaf to the table, and the mother sets an apple with a sprig of olive stuck in it on the bread. The part of the loaf under the apple never gets eaten till three days are past—that’s in memory of the three days in the Tomb.”

“Well, they attend Mass, of course—and then there is the special wheaten food. Overnight the mistress of the house puts a vessel of the finest clean wheat on the fire, and leaves it to cook all night; and at the noonday meal on Christmas Day she pours melted butter over it, and they eat it. That’s in remembrance of Bethlehem too—there is a legend that this was the shepherds’ choicest food, and that they ate it in rejoicing for the Nativity on the first Christmas Day.”

(pg 247) The last night came. Larsen was going to escort them down, and in addition the General had sent Fran up again to wait on Miss Glanfield. That night, for the last time, Lek-Gionaj and Pieter dined with their guests, and before the evening meal Mme. Lek-Gionaj came and took coffee and raki with them, accompanied by Lisa and little Marte, and Mrs. Pieter, still looking fragile and big-eyed. It was a much less formal visit than the first evening. Dr. Emmeline acted as interpreter, but this time Miss Glanfield and the Princess had subjects in common—her health, Mrs. Pieter’s health, the baby, the imminent migration of the household to the high pastures (which had been postponed for a few days on the writer’s account), gratitude, pleasure. Gloire for her part spoke and laughed independently with Lisa and Mrs. Pieter; though thumbs were occasionally twiddled, it was all much livelier than on the day they arrived. Miss Glanfield had decided to surrender her wrist-watch, a rather charming one with a gold mesh strap, in token of gratitude—this was duly presented and obviously gave great pleasure. It was arranged that Larsen should take it down to Tirana and try to get Mme. Lek-Gionaj’s name and a suitable inscription engraved on it—for a gift without an inscription means little in Albania. Gloire slightly embarrassed everyone by giving Lisa the huge diamond bracelet which Nils had noticed in the train—it was a rather overwhelming present. However, after it had been duly admired on the dark velvet sleeve of the young girl’s jacket, Mme. Lek-Gionaj impounded it, observing that such jewels were only for married women, and that Lisa would be able to wear it later on—at which there was giggling and blushes. The old Doctor, with her usual competence, had caused the messengers who went for the ponies to bring up a large linen bag full of silver leks—these Gloire, on her instructions, gave in handfuls to the children of ail the household servants, the correct and rather pretty method of tipping in High Albania. When dinner—a positive farewell banquet—was over, and the Lek-Gionaj men had gone, Larsen lingered a little.

(pg 251) They made an early start next morning, for the journey was to be in easy stages. Lek-Gionaj had lent a sure-footed pony of his own for Miss Glanfield’s use, with a better saddle than those of the usual caravan ponies, and one of his own men to lead it; the leg, still in a splint, was supported in a broad canvas sling with a loop to pass over a man’s shoulder—Fran and Larsen took turns at carrying this, or walked beside the writer, to steady her if the pony should stumble. A couple of gendarmes from the post at Torosh were to escort them half-way to that night’s camp; these included the cheerful corporal who had given Gloire coffee and played the accordion to her before High Mass on Whit-Sunday.

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