From Tradition to Art: Albanian Dowry Practices Adapt to the 21st Century

Among Albanians, it is tradition that when a woman is to be married, she must construct her dowry (Albanian: çejz, pronounced CH-aze). Taking the form of an exhibition that is supposed to be seen by everyone, traditional Albanian dowries consist of objects and many garments.


 

Çejz’ entered the Albanian language during Ottoman rule (in Turkish: çeyiz), although the dowry is a tradition that has existed in Albania long before the Ottomans came. In order to leave her father’s house, an Albanian woman had to create her own çejz, with scissors, soaps, different types of necklaces, shirts, earrings and colorful doublets. These and more objects have portrayed, and still today represent, a transfer of parental fortune, gifts and money, with one sole intention: the wedding of the girl.

According to tradition, çejz is a gathering of wealth which, according to this ritual, a woman carries when starting a new life with her husband. Over time, this practice has come to be characterized by a specific, complex and beautiful handicraft with a unique aesthetic, such that çejz is now a cultural heritage; it communicates a lot about the lifestyle of the Albanian people and must be protected and preserved for future generations.

 

‘I am very passionate about çejz, I love my own çejz and I would love for my kids to have a decent one’

“When I was married, nine years ago, I had two packed rooms with çejz, one with my own stuff and another one with garments and things brought by the groom’s family. There was a room with garments, with gold, dresses and dallame (Albanian wedding gowns). It was a decent çejz to leave my house with; the girl has to leave her house with çejz, just like God has said, as it is an emotion that embodies the fact that the girl went to another house in a complete way.”

Bekrije is a young woman in her mid-30s and fanatic about çejz. She tells her story when I visit her store where she is selling dowry material and other clothes for brides. She says that nowadays, dowries are not contemplated and embraced in the way they were a decade ago, although as a tradition çejz cannot be easily detached from the Albanian people.

“There are women who come here and ask for çejz,  they want to have it ready and as beautiful as it can be, with jeleka and dallame, tentene, some of them want more serious shirts,” Bekrije explains. “I am always careful when I knit, because a very small mistake can make the whole thing go wrong. It is still a tradition of embroidery, when you hear that a woman is going to get married you knit something for her.”

“If you don’t see this tradition that doesn’t mean it’s disappearing. When you have a passion for it, you respect our traditions and our çejz. For me it’s pure joy to work in çejz, and to also maintain it. I did myself 40 tentene [crocheted lace] for the partygoers and other people who came to my wedding, my sister distributed them so that they knew the bride did something handmade. My soul is in great joy when I use it. I have three jeleka [a traditional bridal vest] and I change them according to the occasion, and I would love for my kids to have a decent one, even if they will not like it,” says Bekrije, making the case that çejz is still an important part of Albanian culture, even if it is not as widespread today as it once was.

(Photo credit: artist Doruntina Ukimeri, with permission)

What is the interest today in having a çejz?

The period during which a dowry is prepared, known in the folk culture as the nër unaz, is characterized by stringent moral norms. The woman is subject to several movement restrictions: she cannot socialize with her friends as freely or as frequently, she cannot wander around the neighborhood, she cannot be seen outside of her yard – especially by her soon-to-be husband, and she cannot be seen working in the fields.

As a sign of her betrothal, the woman wears a scarf on her head. In the Has region (which comprises parts of northeastern Albania and southwestern Kosovo), the girl would wear a white scarf with a short fringe, while in Malësi të Madhe (Great Highlands) the girl would wear a white xhubletë (suit) with oja (a kind of spherical dress ornament).

As soon as dowry preparations have been completed and, following continuous consultations between the two families which can sometimes last for several years, there would be a moment when the groom’s family would go to the bride’s family to ‘cut the deal’ (me këput’ hesap) and ‘take the thread’ (marrë penin).

A beautiful and traditional act, çejz is today losing attention and importance in Albanian culture. Modern times have brought generations that are skeptical of adapting to this part of the marriage institution, oftentimes not taking into account the aspect of saving the ritual of tradition. Many members of younger generations also fail to realize that çejz comes in handy throughout the ‘new life’ of the woman, as there are many traditional occasions for which someone would wear pieces of their çejz.

The tailor and seller at LETA d.p.z. in Pristina (a store specializing in bridal garments and knit goods), who does not want her name known, says that the interest in çejz nowadays is much smaller than before, largely because the general perception towards the entire çejz package has evolved. “It is not something very useful today, the çejz. When diaspora come here, they want it more, more than the locals,” says the seller. “A long time ago, tentene were used to decorate the tables in the house, because the tables were awful so tentene made it more colorful and beautiful. Today, everyone buys very beautiful tables so tentene are not considered.”

During an open discussion recently at Motrat Gallery in Pristina, Nita Luci, a sociologist and professor at the University of Prishtina and RIT Kosovo, told the audience that dowries have always been treated as something beautiful, yet not as a form of asset that allowed for the transformation or evolution of the social or economic position of women. Rather, çejz have served to make social and economic hierarchies more rigid. “What has been communicated through dowries depends on the generations and socio-economic affiliation. It is a matter of economic, symbolic and cultural capital, as well as access to power,” Luci explained.

(Photo credit: artist, Doruntina Ukimeri, with permission)

 

Keeping çejz alive through paper filigrees and artistic projects

Despite its recent decrease in popularity, çejz among Albanians still holds life. It is unlikely to go away completely because, through various initiatives, the dowry still sparks emotions in the brides-to-be, as well as in those who do not consider the tradition to be a leftover of patriarchal society but rather as a form of art, a public exhibition that cannot be destroyed.

Sali Shoshi, the Executive Director of Cultural Heritage Without Borders (CHWB), explains that CHWB has helped preserve çejz and other cultural heritages of ethnic groups in the Balkans, including Albanians, through research and publications.

In 2005, CHWB organized an Albanian wedding, replete with all traditional practices including çejz. The wedding was put on in collaboration with the local communities of Drenoc and Isniq.

“Another contribution of CHWB is the support of craftsmanship and handicrafts. CHWB has helped in founding and consolidating NGO JETA in Deçan, a group of handicraft women. It has been 15 years long since this NGO is active and one of its activities is the handicraft aspect, including here the preparation of dowry. Of course, nowadays çejz has been transformed and has to do more with preserving a tradition on its most utility manner,” says Shoshi.

Doruntina Ukimeri, an artist from Kosovo, has taken on an important mission through the Heritage Space program implemented by CHWB: translating çejz into an artistic project that can also generate money. Since 2012, Ukimeri has worked with filigree on paper, a unique technique in which she creates works with çejz motifs. She herself did not get married with a dowry, but as a child she remembers seeing many dowries and has always been fascinated by how much handiwork is invested to make çejz as close to perfection as possible.

“First of all, I wanted to recreate my grandma’s carpet, which she put in her dowry when she got married. The paper filigree takes a lot of time, seeks attention to details and I use thin paper in 5 millimeter strips. In our project, with the sole intention that these works should be sold, I have started with smaller formats of works: instead of a whole goblet I am only creating a flower of it, instead of one tentene, just a part of it,” Ukimeri tells.

A few weeks ago, Ukimeri opened a personal exhibition with these works. Soon she will start selling them online, and later even in stores.

In 2016, another exhibition, in Malësia of Lekaj, had çejz as its main focus. The exhibition, titled Paja e Nuses (The Bride’s Çejz), had a very low number of visitors. The owner of the Ethnologic Museum, which hosted the exhibition, was surprised that not a lot of people came to see the show.

“I am surprised because some parts are being exhibited for the first time and it’s a cultural high value that needs attention. A lot of traditions like this are being forgotten and I feel Malësia in this way is being de-nationalized in terms of remembering and persevering traditions,” relayed Shtjefën Ivezaj, the owner of the museum.

(Photo credit: artist Doruntina Ukimeri, with permission)

Çejz, part of Albanian Kanuns throughout the years

In the past, çejz was something not to be missed in the chronology of a wedding, when young girls were preparing for another chapter in their lives. Sheets, decorations and rugs needed to be part of the çejz. Even today, a bride’s çejz figuratively consist of more or less the same elements: goblets, vests, carpets, rugs, filigree earrings, tentene, opinga, filigree collars and cushions.

In Albanian culture, the bride’s çejz was also defined and respected by the Kanun, a book that some time ago represented the summary of Albanian norms and doctrines of a juridical and social character. The Kanun is a set of traditional Albanian laws. Kanun was primarily oral and only in the 20th century was it published in writing. The Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini (Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit) was codified in the 15th century. The Law of Lek Dukagjini (kanun) was named after a medieval prince Lekë Dukagjini of the fifteenth century who ruled in northern Albania and codified the customary laws of the highlands.

In its fourth book, the Kanun of Skanderbeg deals with engagement and marriage. Here it is determined, among other things, what the dress and çejz should be. In Chapter IX of the fourth book, the ritual of sheji is explained: “Sheji is the ring, the horn, the scarf and the money that the groom’s house should send to the bride’s house in order to take their daughter for their boy. Money will not be exhibited within the çejz, but will go directly to the house owners.”

Chapter XI details the differences between the çejz of a Muslim bride and that of a Christian bride. According to the Kanun of Skanderbeg, the average çejz of a Muslim bride should consist of, among other things, 15-20 pairs of shirts and garments, 8 goblets, 15 pairs of woolen socks, 4 pairs of opinga, 6 rings, 1 pair of earrings, 1 comb and a duvak (veil) – sometimes with an eagle in the middle of it, and sometimes with a cross of gold. The average çejz of a Christian bride should consist of, among other things, 15-20 pairs of shirts and garments, 6 silk scarves, 15 pairs of woolen socks, and 1 bandolier (necklace).

“The Kanun of Skanderbeg emphasizes what should be inside of a çejz, because this has been a strong tradition among Albanians and a very connected one in all lifestyles. Women had to put pajamas, rugs, opinga, jewels, and it came to a point where they also prepared things to commemorate death and also intimate garments of women,” says Ukimeri, who has conducted research on dowry traditions among Albanians, a little-documented practice.

 

Çejz lives on

“I am glad that finally in Kosovo we are talking about çejz, as I thought this was a very taboo topic. Today, modern girls do not need the help of anyone to buy something that they value and like. However, to me çejz was always sort of an exhibition that also generated money, as many women could help their families by selling çejz,” says Ukimeri.

“My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law are delighted when they see me using çejz. I use them for different festivities, religious days, weddings. Otherwise, it is also nice that my family sees I am using my dowry and it is not just a waste of time and money. Çejz has its own charm and whoever likes it will practice it and pay it respect,” concludes Bekrije definitively.

 

This article has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or BIRN and AJK.

 

 

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Arber Selmani

Arbër Selmani is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher from Pristina. He works as a digital media and publications editor at the EU Info Centre in Pristina. He is a 2018 Sakharov Fellow of the European Parliament. He has worked for several Medias in Kosovo, including here Klan Kosova TV, Zeri – daily newspaper and KultPlus. Selmani mostly writes about arts and culture, social issues, LGBT and collective memory.