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The moment when you connected with a stranger

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

I do not know any other song that captures the immense joy and comfort of finding home in a foreign land better than this beautiful song by Ilir Shaqiri, a Kosovar Albanian singer. I first heard of this song in Timor Leste when I was working with the United Nations in 2002. One of my Kosovar friends had played it and despite not understanding a word of Albanian, I fell in love with the moving ballad, Shaqiri’s warm voice and the exotic sound of the Latin-Slavic language.

Naturally, I was curious to know the meaning. With my friend’s help, I discovered that the lyrics is even lovelier than the song itself.

It tells a moving tale of a Kosovar Albanian who travels to Istanbul on a business trip. During the trip, he enters a poçari's shop (poçari means a clay vase seller in Albanian) and asks to see the best vase available. While inspecting the vase, it accidentally slips away from his hands and breaks into twenty-five pieces, much to his mortification.

The poçari goes berserk and starts to swear in Turkish. Offended by the poçari’s unnecessary insults, he swears back in Albanian. Expecting the poçari to put up a fight, he sees tears welling up in his eyes instead. “Is this Turk, this Muslim going crazy? I swore at him and he’s hugging me,” he wonders.

The poçari reaches for another vase and hands it over to him and says pleadingly, “Swear on me again, please. I am also Albanian. Brother, swear on me in Albanian again. Albanian words cannot be bought here in the bazaar.”

Alarmed by this, the other customers run out from the shop. When the poçari and him are finally alone, the vases come crushing down and shake the Sea of Marmara.

According to my friend, there are many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia whom were forced to escape to Turkey during the first and second world wars as well as the series of wars that erupted in former Yugoslavia during most of 1990s. The Serbian government was determined to exterminate the “Turks”, a term given to ethnic Albanians who are predominantly Muslims, in reference to the spread of Islam by the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 ethnic Albanians were driven out from their homes to Turkey between the first and second world wars and 250,000 more after the second world war. An estimated 2,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic’s leadership. It’s no wonder that the poçari is moved to tears when he hears his mother tongue uttered for the first time after presumably a long and painful period of exile, despite its ill-intention.

In 2004, I was in Dubai during a transit from Kabul to Kuala Lumpur. I only had time to check into a hotel and leave the next day on an early morning flight. Feeling bored, I decided to check out the hotel’s boutique shops. An interesting shop selling Middle-Eastern paraphernalia sparked my curiosity. I wanted to buy one of those make-your-own bracelets with intricate carvings on silver alphabet cubes as a gift for someone special. The problem was, each cube would set me back quite a lot and the person doesn’t exactly have a short name.

“Do you give discounts for these if I buy more than five pieces?” I ventured to ask despite the shop owner's somber expression. He didn’t look like he was going to entertain my attempt to haggle.

“Where are these from?” I persisted in an attempt to break the silence and hoping he might soften in the course of a conversation.

“Iran,” he answered gruffly. By then, he probably assumed that I was not worth his time since I appeared to be a cheap-skate.

“Are you from Iran?” I persevered. He nodded his head.

I smiled and said, “Chetor Hasti?” perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. I was feeling smug that I could converse in basic Farsi, a similar language to Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages.

Unexpectedly, the Iranian broke into a huge smile. I could literally see the muscle on his cheeks relaxed and his initial hostility melted away.

He replied cheerfully, “Khoob Hastam, khoob Hastam.”

He was more curious with my rudimentary knowledge of the language than making a sale and once I explained that I worked in Afghanistan, I earned his approval further.

“You take this. Gratis. It’s gift from me,” he urged. It was impossible to refuse him as he pried open my hand and pushed the bracelet firmly onto my palm. I decided to accept his well-meaning gift graciously for I understood that by refusing him, it would insult his generosity and kindness.

“Tashakor,” I said with a polite head bow and my right arm folded across my chest. He laughed good-naturedly and replied, “In Farsi, we say merci.”

I am constantly amazed by our desperate need to identify ourselves with something familiar and it reminded me of the time that I had spent in Wales as a law student. We had a large Malaysian student community and I have never felt more Malaysian since then. The issue of racial differences never came into question despite the Chinese and Indians being highly outnumbered. If anything, we all embraced and magnified the differences by flaunting them in cultural events. Since we didn’t have sufficient Chinese and Indian Malaysians, the Malay students had to participate in Chinese and Indian dances. They never complained but instead were more than eager to partake in the cultural exchanges. We even had friends from England, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India and Pakistan who volunteered to get involved.

Our spirit of solidarity and unity attracted them and that made us true ambassadors. We were in a foreign territory and hence, there was no issue of whose soil it belongs to. Life as a Malaysian was simple and unambiguous.

Malaysia is not just a country for many of us, it’s home and the experiences I had from living abroad teaches me the horror of ethnic intolerance and how precious it is to be free in your homeland.

The poçari and Iranian taught us an important lesson. Home has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. It’s a place where your heart belongs to.

1 September 2009

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