Albanac, not Šiptar

“Nisam mogu da vjerujem,” said my friend. I couldn’t believe it.

He’d just returned from a trip to Tirana, Albania where he watched Albanian soccer team play Bosnia to a 1-1 draw in Euro 2012 qualifying and was retelling stories from his adventure.

“Kad smo stigli na granicu, bila je ova fraza na znaku: ‘Repulika Shqiperise,'”  When we arrived at the border, the sign read: Republic of Albania.

Okay, so this wasn’t an earth-shattering revelation – follows that when you enter a country, you see that country’s name on a sign.  But he continued.

“Republika šiptara!? Oni sami sebe nazivaju šiptari!” He declared incredulously.  The Republic of shiptars!? They call themselves shiptars!

It was that word šiptar that had stunned him.  Of course he knew that in Albanian, Albania is called Shqipëria, but it was shock to realize that the Albanian word for Albanian – someone from Albania – was shqiptar. This wasn’t because the etymology didn’t make sense (Albania – Albanian; Shqipëria – shqiptar … duh). Rather, he was surprised because in the Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian language šiptar (pronounced the same as shqiptar) is a pejorative, a slur used in place of the politically correct albanac.

“Uvijek sam mislio da je to ružna riječ, ali nije!?” I always thought that was an ugly word, but it’s not!?

I cringed – it actually is.  At its best condescending, the word is often used describe Albanians – often as a primitive, boorish and uneducated people.  In writing it’s generally used by often nationalistic authors, explicitly antagonistic toward Albanians, and in conversations the word carries a definite negative connotation.

I’d heard this sentiment often – mostly in conversations about bakeries in Bosnia. Locals often contemptuously comment that all bakeries are owned by Albanians, or “šiptari.” One acquaintance noted incredulously, “Onaj šiptar vozi BMW i ti nemaš auto!?” That Albanian drives a BMW, and you don’t have a car!?, as if it was some sort of sin that this uncivilized foreigner drives an expensive car, while a respectable United States citizens walks around town.

Didn’t seem so outrageous to me.  The guy had some capital and business acumen – two things I haven’t got – and  found a way to run a small business in a place where it’s notoriously hard to run small businesses.  He’d earned the right to drive whatever car he wanted.

But what really made me cringe was the fact that in the same breath that my friend pronounced his newfound knowledge that šiptar was not a harmful word, he began relating stories about his trip that reflected significant prejudice toward Albanians.

The roads were in awful shape – gravel roads everywhere.

Tirana was dirty.

Fans didn’t know how to cheer like cultured aficionados, and, of course, in a place like that the stadium was filled to three times the safe capacity…

And so I told him, “Hey, it’s really not okay to use that word just because Albanians use it in the Albanian language.

“It’s attached to a long history of prejudice in the former Yugslav republics.  Just think about how it’s used in everyday conversation.  Just think about how you’re using it now.

“That would be similar to me saying, ‘Hey, the “N” word isn’t actually that bad.  I just realized it’s derived from the Latin word for black and some African Americans in the United States use it to describe themselves. Just listen to rap music.'”

Well, that certainly caught him off-guard, and the conversation moved on to lighter subjects.  Eventually, we headed into town, and I forgot the conversation altogether.

But later that evening, out of the blue, on our way to Pekara Nora (Bakery Nora) to buy a couple late night pastries, my buddy commented, “Hej, dobro je bilo što si rekao o crncima u Americi.  Nisam tako razmišljao prije.” What you said about African Americans in the United States was good.  I’d never thought about it that way before.

Then, in the bakery, as the Albanian owner handed us our food, my friend asked abruptly, “Sad sam bio u Albaniji za utakmicu – lijepa zemlja – i sam skontao da se nazivaju ‘šiptari.’ Bio sam zbunjen jer sam uvijek mislio da je to uvreda. Da li je uvredljivo da vas zovem ‘šiptar?'”  I was just in Albania for a football match – beautiful country – and realized that Albanians call themselves “shiptars.” I was confused because I always thought it was an insult. Is it insulting for me to call you a shiptar.

“Ma, jeste,” responded the owner.  Well, yes it is.

“Ako smijem, zašto?” my friend questioned through a mouthful of pizza.  If I may ask, why?

“Zvuči neprijatno,” the owner offered. It sounds unfriendly. “To je naša riječ, i kad to ti kažeš naglasak je skroz pokvaren. Nije šip-tar nego šip-taaar,” he noted, emphasizing the correct syllable.  It’s our word, and when you say it in Bosnian, the accent is all wrong.  It’s not šip-tar, it’s šip-taaaaaar. “Bolje ti je da koristiš ‘albanac.'” Better to use ‘albanac.’

My friend listened intently, still munching on his ketchup covered pizza.

“Hvala što si mi to obijasnio.”  Thanks for clearing that up.

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6 responses to “Albanac, not Šiptar”

  1. Мостовљанин says :

    So, what about Niger and Nigeria (countries)? Shall we call them Sub-Saharan-African and Sub-Saharan-Africania?

    So, Black people in USA are called African-Americans now? What about those Americans from Egypt or Libya? They’re not black, but are from Africa. Are they called European-Americans? European-African-Americans?

    What about Indians (from India)? They have dark skin, but are not (may I say it?) “Negros”? How you call them? Asian-Americans? Asian-European-Americans? What about Kalmyks? They have ‘yellow’ skin and sloppy eyes, but they’ve been living in Europe for 3-400 years. Asians?

    Political correctness is religion in USA and laughing stock in Europe (except for some EU politicians). Political correctness is intolerant people’s weapon. Of those who can’t stand others having different opinion, freedom to think and speak. (read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness)

    The real problem is: you wont change perception about some group of people if you’re forced to change name for that g.o.p. (by some very powerful and too much sensitive folks) Soon, you’ll get in situation when Albanian will be a pejorative term too. Like it is in Italy: [it]They are some Albanesi, go arrest them/forgive them for stupidity[/it], etc. If some group is being stereotyped (real word?) and wants to change that, the group shall open itself to broader audience, especially to those with stereotypes about it. That way, others, neighbours, will learn about the group real things, and stereotypes will be gone in a generation or two. It doesn’t help if they just yell on others: you mustnt call us Shiptari/Faggots/Gypsys/Younameit

    • matthewharms says :

      Sure, being politically correct is a joke if it never moves beyond a superficial semantic debate. And, of course, just creating a new “politically correct” title doesn’t automatically destroy the prejudice that underlies a term we’ve identified as racist.

      But, really, this story’s not about someone simply changing their vocabulary. It’s a story about a responsible, kind individual taking the time to reflect on the value judgments implicitly or explicitly made when he/she and others use a specific word, and, more importantly, someone who decided to take the initiative to start a conversation and give an individual from a marginalized group a voice by asking what is and is not appropriate. Seems to me like this is where real transformation starts. It’s not just up to the “stereotyped” group to initiate that process…

  2. Мостовљанин says :

    It’s true. It might me hard for some stereotyped groups to enlighten minds of those who grow and eat stereotypes (about the group) every day. A middleman is needed in cases like that.

    Your approach is good. If other middlemen would use reasonable words in spite of tight lips and mad looks, the world would be a better place.

    “Thanks for clearing that up.” 🙂

  3. julianne says :

    hey matt, this is a great story. thanks for sharing. we are all in need of transformation and this is inspiring.

  4. Shqiptari i mirenjohur says :

    We hate the word “siptar” because it is slung at us in a manner as perjorative (if not moreso) as the word nigger. In every case it is extraordinarily insulting, and will result with you being attacked. You should have asked your bosnian friend if he likes it when serbs call bosnians balija, bosance (meaning barefoot),

  5. Arian says :

    It’s offensive because of the matter and tone it is used. Albanians call eachother Shqiptar. When Serbs use Siptari it’s always in a negative connotation. Of course they’re going to take offence.

    Albanians use the derogatory words “Shki” or “Shkije” or even Cetnik similarly toward Serbs.

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