Back in Albania with Four Fresh Oranges and a Plan

Mary Shiraef
7 min readFeb 15, 2024

A month ago, I began a U.S. Department of State Title VIII Fellowship, administered by the American Councils for International Education. This is one of four research updates requested from the field. The award was an absolute godsend since I am finishing up my dissertation and had anticipated a gap in funding this semester — when I learned the amazing news of the support, allowing me to focus on my research and writing tasks at hand fully and continue studying Albanian as I’d hoped.

When I arrived in Tirana, I brought my driver a local sweet from New Orleans, where I flew from in the U.S. He promptly handed me three incredibly fresh oranges, seemingly out of nowhere! It was a perfect welcome back to Albania, where I have noticed that informal bartering with high-quality food remains a social practice as in other Balkan societies.


The purpose of my Ph.D. research in Albania is to understand the dynamics produced by communist-era “multiethnic identity engineering” — a phenomenon that I explain in my dissertation as the process in which a national leader both recognized multiple ethnicities in the state apparatus and repressed others according to his political preferences, especially in border regions. I use this concept to bring light to the fact that before post-war, communist-era nation-building processes, especially in southern Albania (1945 and afterward), contiguous territories related to a distinctive national identity were not the norm. Instead, the effort to build coherent territorial recognition of diverse ethnicities involved both privileging certain ethnic groups and repressing others — including members of linguistically homogenous ethnic groups as well as other smaller or less “desirable” groups to the state and its socialization plan.

Multiethnic identity engineering occurred in southern Albania, most prominently for the Greek minority, which was partially recognized in Sarandë’s and Gjirokastër’s villages and partially repressed in some of Himarë’s villages, as well as some of Vlorë’s, according to the communist leader, Enver Hoxha’s, enforcement plan for the border with Greece in and after 1945. I study this phenomenon — and the on-the-ground dynamics it produced during communism — because it helps explain, on the one hand, the contemporary challenges people in Himarë continue to face today on this issue and, on the other, why Greeks in Sarandë and Gjirokastër, who did not experience this ancestral repression of the Greek identity, tend to be better integrated (both societally and politically), see less ethnic conflict, and elect local candidates aligned with the Albanian ruling party rather than based on ethnicity or Greek nationalism. In short, the experiences with their ethnic identity during communism continue to be salient for Greeks in Himarë — but less so in Sarandë and Gjirokastër.

Preliminary Findings

The dynamic produced by Albania’s multiethnic identity engineering during the communist period (1945 to 1974) for the ethnically repressed group in my study was the assimilation of 19–25% of the population. By assimilation, I mean the repressed population began to name their children with more Albanian-sounding names, e.g. Kristaq instead of Kristos (both Orthodox-sounding names), and names which then would have sounded more secular altogether, e.g. Liljana — meaning Lily — instead of names like Sose, which had a local connotation of “not another girl” and was considered a backward-sounding name by the state’s communist ideology. For those who were recognized as Greek during communism, the dynamic produced was the integration of Greeks into Albania’s socialist plan — meaning families continued to give Greek-sounding names to their children but also trended in the direction of socially acceptable Greek names, such as Ancient Greek ones rather than Orthodox names. The analysis of this group is ongoing, so I do not have percentages here, but I am reasonably confident of this trend.

Language Training

Although most of the population I study can speak Greek, as I can at a conversational level, I have chosen to study Albanian throughout my Ph.D. program because I believe it is respectful to my host country, and I see my future work expanding to focus also on non-Greek populations — especially the many Albanians who migrated to Greece, Italy, Germany, and the US. Becoming fluent in Albanian is not my current career goal, but I believe it is important to make steady progress in the language. For that reason, my instructor and I made the following progress in our first month of studying again together:

  1. Review from previously covered material in the textbook Discovering Albanian (Mëniku & Campos 2011)
  2. Sentence writing practice with old and new vocabulary words
  3. Speaking practice about my research.

Studying Albanian was beneficial for my fieldwork because it allowed me to realize that Greek-Albanians who experienced the communist regime most often speak Albanian better than Greek. After all, the bulk of their education was in Albanian. This knowledge has aided our ability to communicate with each other. Now that I have studied and practiced the pronunciation of Albanian, I often read the interview questions in Albanian for them, and they respond in Greek (since my Greek is better than my Albanian). In a recent blog post, A Little Language Can Go a Long Way, I explain further why I recommend language study for other students and scholars in my field — although it is time-consuming and never truly “finished.”

The entrance to Tirana’s castle after a rainy day in the capital — just like my textbook told me it would: Tirana në janar është me shi.

Timeline and Work Done

As projected in my Project Timeline, I took up a 50% research and 50% writing plan in Sarandë, Albania — a key site for my project’s research. I also wrote 30 pages of a paper I am aiming to complete by mid-May and submitted it for feedback from my Ph.D. dissertation supervisors and a scholar in my field. I received feedback from two of them and incorporated one of their comments into a second version of the draft, and I have begun to consider how to address the comments of the second reader. I conducted one of the two interviews I planned for the spring.

I have yet to transcribe additional civil registry data (as I projected for spring) because it will require a 3-day trip to Tirana. However, I did apply for funds from my university to cover the travel and research assistance I will need to get to and from Tirana and for the transcription work itself. I have communicated to my in-country host, Linda Mëniku, that I intend to complete that in March. I have commenced my Albanian language training program of two hours per week. My local instructor and I meet regularly on Wednesdays at 2:00 pm (Albania time) via Zoom. We also correspond asynchronously every other day about homework assignments, corrections to my written work, and questions about Albanian as they arise in my study.

Co-curricular Activities

Regarding cultural exchange and outreach, I played volleyball with a group that plays regularly in Tirana. I love playing with them because they are very skilled and can play competitively but also are of mixed gender, age, ethnicity, religion, etc.

I also watched Ilir Tsouko’s documentary about Albanian nurses and Germany’s program for recruiting Albanian nurses to work in Germany. I discussed it with my local Albanian friend and my Albanian language instructor. I thought the documentary was very well done and brought light to an important issue: a byproduct effect of establishing immigration paths to wealthier countries in need of labor has nearly depleted the nursing force in Albania for their aging population.

Similar to Tsouko, I have worked with nurses during my fieldwork to access remote villages because they are often the only ones who know the way — as well as who to contact if a road needs to be fixed in order to pass. Albania’s roads to remote villages are sporadically maintained — as I discovered in the field one day when we encountered a mudslide that had to be smoothed over to pass safely. When we arrived in the village, several locals received care for the first time since the pandemic lockdowns were enforced in 2020 — in Tirana and especially in the border areas. The nurse featured in the documentary hikes to each village he serves in the north — as we did in some instances in the south. In some cases, roads were intentionally destroyed during the communist period because of how close they were to the border with Greece and not yet rebuilt, presumably for the same reason. In the face of these access challenges, the remaining nurses in Albania are modern-day heroes.

Assessing the road and getting it fixed with the critical resources of a local nurse — on our way to Malçan

Finally, I spent a few hours copyediting my instructor’s article about the translation of classic texts into Albanian before, during, and after communism — which was accepted for publication in an international scientific journal in the Balkans and required review from a native English speaker before publication.

Luckily, I have not faced any significant challenges in getting my research in Albania off the ground this year — thanks partly to my prior experience in the region and partly due to the American Councils’ professional preparation and planning for my time here.

I would like to express my gratitude to American Councils, my language instructor, and the U.S. Department of State for the opportunity to expand my research as part of this program. I highly recommend it to other scholars interested in studying this part of the world.



Mary Shiraef

Everyday Researcher, Occasional Teacher. I write here about the people, experiences, and businesses that bring me joy and occasionally, the politics that don't.