Book Review: Elsie, A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk Culture, Reviewed by Isa Blumi
- Balkan Academic Book Review 26/2001
Robert Elsie, A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk
Culture.London: Hurst & Company (published in the USA by NYU Press), 2001.
357 pp., 45.00 GBP, ISBN 1-85065-570-7 (Hardcover).
Reviewed by Isa Blumi (New York University), Email: ngapeja@...
the book from Amazon
<http://www.hurstpub.co.uk/>Homepage of the Publisher
Robert Elsie has been a prolific and dedicated scholar of Albanian culture and literature for many years now. Author and editor of a number of books and articles on Kosovar and Albanian culture, his work has consistently demonstrated a professional as well as sympathetic attachment to a culture and people that has received little attention under such terms. Elsie's latest work, clearly a culmination of years of research and writing, is a fine indication of Elsie's legitimate place in mainstream academia. There are not many Robert Elsie's in the world who have dedicated the time and energy to appreciate Albanians' place in the history of the Balkans and indeed, the cultural pantheon of Western Civilization. Elsie encyclopedic work has done a great service to a moribund field and should be a part of anyone's collection who is interested in Balkan culture. I sincerely hope this book can bring the attention the subject deserves.
What is key about this work is that Elsie has demonstrated the important link Albanian culture provides between assumed polar "civilizations"-Islamic and Christian-and I would hope this kind of fruitful cultural synthesis will now be more appreciated by colleagues from Greece, Serbia and elsewhere. The book explores the themes, phrases and words that are prominent in Albanian cultural history and Elsie has organized their presentation alphabetically, much like an encyclopedia would. It seeks to provide easy access to the few scholars who may come across these terms during the course of their work. For this reason, it is an easy-to-read reference work that serves its limited function. For those of us, on the other hand, who spend our time defining meaning as opposed to simply describing it, this book may be hard to read from beginning to end. I do not think Elsie intended it to be read in such a manner, which is a shame, for there is some very interesting material here.
I am therefore a bit perplexed (or is the sentiment disappointment?) as to why Elsie elected to organize this mass of information in such a way. It is a strange concept for me, this "dictionary." I wish I could simply let this slide, but I feel Elsie may have missed a golden opportunity here. Much of the material Elsie has collected, as the author himself notes, are of such obscure and a rarely frequented nature that it is quite unlikely that owners of this book would use it other than the way Elsie has organized it. While some phrases and terms may indeed pop up in one's exploration of things Albanian, the function of this work should not solely be seen as a reference for a few novices. The format, again, is not conducive to more general reading which is a shame as the book would be much more accessible to a wider audience if Elsie considered presenting this complicated diversity as a narrative that explicitly argues for the subject's permanent integration into Balkan cultural and social history. It is precisely here that Elsie could have really made a contribution to firmly asserting a place for Albania's multiplicity of cultures in the Balkans.
As it stands, the terms and phrases are symbolically and functionally deemed external to a social relevance that many readers in the Balkans undoubtedly sense. There is a general tendency among non-Albanian researchers who work on Albanian topics to render exotic Albanian cultural idiosyncrasies, a habit Robert Elsie is largely successful at avoiding in other works. Unfortunately, this book does just that: render exotic the practices and beliefs Elsie is cataloguing here when they should be forcing us to, instead of isolating Albanians, rather see them as daily practices that have their own geneologies which link Albanians with the world around them. In sum, the unequal time and space dedicated to the hundreds of terms has a way of (unintentionally) marginalizing the intrinsic value of these phenomenon and rendering exotic those who may still hold dear some of the notions in the book. As an encyclopedia/dictionary, Elsie has, I am afraid, reinforced the diminished place of Albania on the academic imagination.
The material put together in this "dictionary" clearly points to Albania's cultural integrative quality, even if it is not spelled out explicitly. There are occasions when Elsie identifies the shared cultural heritage between Greek, Latin and Slav cultures. Alas, not enough is done to reinforce this notion as the format and even, at times, the manner in which Elsie "defines" the terms, reinforces the sense that we really are looking at an alien, odd and marginal part of humanity.
My suggestion to Elsie, and if not he, someone with his linguistic skills and scholarly curiosity, to situate these 260 pages of terms and phrases in the larger Balkan context. Elsie has done all the hard work here, the bibliography is a gold mine (good luck in finding the material in any one library) and he has done so in a manner that truly spans the many sectarian and periodic divides of Albanian history. His treatment of Albanian Sufism is particularly good and I believe the book is the first in any language to link the disparate orders in such a way historically that actually does justice to its complexity and importance to Balkan culture. Elsie had already in other publications demonstrated his expertise in Catholic saint worship and does a fine job of explaining both Albanian Catholic and Orthodox traditional idiom within the larger Balkan context. The material is all here, it just needs a theoretically sophisticated scholar to fuse the details within a narrative that specifically seeks to demonstrate both a persistent dynamism that suggests transformation, adaptation and integration as well as Albania's vastly under-appreciated role in a larger Balkan and indeed Mediterranean context.
It is also a shame this book is so prohibitively expensive as every library that is worth its claim as a storage house of knowledge should have a copy. In spite of the exorbitant price tag, the publishers and in particular its editors did a poor job of editing the book, leaving behind some careless typographical errors and sloppy transcription of Ottoman/Arabic terms. The "soft g" and the hard I in Turkish look awful in the book. Also, I think Elsie could do well to switch fonts because stylistically, the font used here, (it seems to be the same in all of his other publications), is inappropriate for such an empirical masterpiece. Lastly, while the publishers did not invest enough time to making this "dictionary" the best it could possibly be, I must commend them for accepting Elsie's book. I sincerely hope this book finds more readers than Elsie's other books, which have been ignored despite their exceptional intellectual and scholarly worth. It is one of those truly obnoxious realities of publishing and scholarship that some truly talented scholars remain unappreciated because their topics of expertise remain "peripheral." Elsie's work, if not obvious, is at least implicitly, of great historical and theoretical value. Again, he has done the difficult work, now it is time that someone out there take his material to the next level of familiarity and help redefine the impressions so many have of the Balkans and its assumed uni-dimensional and segregated cultural heritage.
This an earlier book reviews are available at: www.seep.ceu.hu/balkans
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