The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
First, Paris. Then San Bernardino. Now, Brussels. In between, there has also been Ankara and Istanbul. In response, the hatemongers are becoming more and more vocal. Muslims are seen as non-European, non-Western and even un-American because they are not Christian.
Two small countries may have a lot to teach the world. During World War II, Denmark and Albania protected their Jewish populations. The Danish resistance evacuated thousands of Jews. Albania hid its 200 Jews and its Jewish population increased. Rachel Goslins' 2012 documentary "Besa: The Promise" details how a Muslim military king of Albania opened borders, how ordinary citizens hid Jews, how one man passed on his promise to his son, and how his son journeyed to Israel after the fall of communism in Albania to fulfill that promise. Goslins' film is a reminder that Muslims have fought for their faith, for democracy and for the humane and compassionate treatment of others. The concept of "besa" is described by several of the interviewees. It means one should protect guests "as if they were your own eyes" and "the besa of an Albanian is heavier than a gold bar."
This 2012 movie will come as a pleasant surprise for people who wonder what contributions Muslims have made. Norman Gershman, a Jewish American photographer, was so surprised he exclaimed, "But Muslims who saved Jews? Who ever heard about that?" Through Gershman's investigations, he met and captured the faces and stories of some Muslim heroes and the Jews they saved. Some passed away before the documentary was finished as noted at the end.
Albania could have ended up like Germany. Adolf Hitler ran for office, but lost and then got appointed chancellor before making himself a dictator. Germany was predominately Christian and that aided Hitler's rise, although not as much as he had hoped. Before World War II, an estimated 70 percent of the Albanian population was Muslim, 20 percent was Eastern Orthodox Christian and 10 percent were Roman Catholic, according to the CIA World Factbook. King Zog I, the King of the Albanians, was first a prime minister of Albania, before becoming the president (1925-1928), and then the king (1928-1939). King Zog was also a military dictator, but he swore his oath on both the Bible and the Quran, and, in 1938, he opened up the borders to Jewish refugees.
His only child, Leka Zogu, explains in "Besa: The Promise": "Why did he allow the Jews to come? Because he felt it was not a human act that the Germans would carry out." Zogu heard that 400 passports were handed out but wasn't sure about the number of visas.
Those refugees found people willing to offer them sanctuary. Exactly how many we may never know. During World War II, 30,000 Albanians were killed and 100,000 were left homeless. Yet an estimated 2,000 Jews were rescued by the Albanian people. That was during an era where the U.S. turned away the SS St. Louis with about 1,000 refugees on board, all of whom returned to Europe.
During World War II, when Italy and Germany invaded, King Zog fled with his wife and only child. Still, Muslim families hid the Jews, disguising them as Muslims. After the defeat of the Germans, most of the Jewish refugees left. But the Communists closed down Albania. In 1967, the documentary tells us, religion was banned. Islam as well as Judaism was taboo. In 1991, Albania opened up, and the stories, almost a half a century old, began to come out. One Jewish woman recalls how wearing a modest Muslim head scarf saved her. The Muslim brothers who saved her family recall how their knees shook with fear. Does that change the meaning of Muslim modesty?
For one man, the opening of Albania meant the possibility of fulfilling the besa he made to his father. His father had taken in a Jewish couple and their son. The Jewish man, Nissim Aladjem, had left three books with the father, promising to come back for them. The books, one of them a Talmud, would have been burned if they had been found under Communism. Rexhep Hoxha made a special box in which to hide the books, and the family hid them and their own Quran, keeping religion in their hearts. Rexhep Hoxha now looked for the man, Nissim Aladjem, who never came back for the books.
The documentary follows Hoxha's journey from Albania to Israel, and finally to the completion of his besa. The Albanian Jews suffered for their faith during World War II, but their neighbors protected them. All Albanians suffered for their religious faith under communism. Gershman strongly feels that "this little country, doing what they did, has something to teach the world" and that "this message of besa is so needed in the world."
"Besa: The Promise" is a small film. It premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2012. It is still making the festival rounds, including a screening at the Austin Film Festival in January 2016. While the movie "Free Men" had a major French film star, this movie doesn't have that kind of backing, but I feel that in today's climate of Islamophobia, the movie is worth talking about. Both "Free Men" and this documentary reveal how little we as Americans know about Muslims in Europe and their role in fighting the Nazi Final Solution. Just as terrorists can be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist, the people who extend kindness to others can be of any religion. In the case of Albania, a predominately Muslim country, the Jewish living there were protected well enough that their numbers increased.
In the war against terrorism, we should be careful not to become terrorists ourselves, invoking hate and prejudice against Muslims or those who look like Muslims, or against those who have the face of an Arab or Persian or whatever one assumes a Muslim extremist looks like. And we should not assume that someone who looks Arab is Muslim or that a head scarf is oppressive. Albanian Muslims could have assimilated into German Nazi culture or enforced communist culture. "Besa: The Promise" reveals the courage and generosity of Albanians and asks the rest of the world, why not? Why not embrace besa?