My Church Is Empty

Forgive me, language. Forgive me; I have forgotten your lightness. Forgive me, I forgot to run with all my might, forgive me, I forgot to roll on the grass and scrape my knees on the asphalt, forgive me, I forgot how words get stuck in your throat like a napkin in the sink and how they become transformed into tears, digging a riverbed into your skin.

Imagine me nearing the confessional, my eyes glued to the floor; I sink into the chair, next to a wooden divider woven like a net, trying to talk to the empty space on the other side.

It’s Monday. My church is empty.

I am kneeling on the altar and my eyes roll upward towards the dome above, above, above… towering over me but the words aren’t shqip, and I feel it wrap around me, the desire to escape, to cross the continent, to jump so high that when the ground approaches my soles, I will find my mother’s arms around me.

Who do I pray to when there is no God to bring my language back to my mouth, when I can only create my language inside my throat, who do I implore when I seek forgiveness?

Forgiveness. Albanian: Falje. To gift something without asking anything in return.

Forgiveness. To offer absolution for a sin or mistake.

In my language, we request forgiveness[2]. Forgiveness is a trip, a quest, a study that transcends roaming to find what I have lost. In my language, endja (meandering, roaming) and ëndja (delight) are sisters that stare at each-other from the same mirror, both convinced they’re the reincarnation of the truth.

I will tell you tales of hell, I will cough up my lungs on the floor for you to see whose air I have breathed as my own, I will tell you of the horseless rider who lost his sister 7 kingdoms away[3], I will rain over a sun-scorched desert. Drops will drip onto the ends of my sentences[4], onto my forehead, as gray shadows dance over the sky that vomits over the city, a scream that doesn’t belong to anyone.

The church is empty. I am too afraid to look up and become blind, I will lose light because there is no sun, I cannot see it that high in the sky’s apogee.

Stop me, stop me please, my breath is dragging my tongue to my stomach, it’s exploding in a vacuum, and I don’t know how to pretend as though I have not been spending months running without a shrine to kneel before, where I can whisper and murmur what my mind has been yelling for months.

Where is the Balkan corner that embraces the curl of my mouth, because I am tired of pretending I don’t remember it.

I want you[5], capitol dust.[6]

I want you interloping roofs of conscience.[7]

I want you, salt-smelling air.[8]

I want you, lake mirror, perpetual truth-teller.[9]

I want you, cliff that splinters in birds.

I love you, courage that throws herself from the citadel.[10]

The most bitter panting is to swallow your tears. The numbest shiver is that of the unopened book. The most ruthless frost is the one that wraps your marrow with limbo.

The church is empty.

Come outside, they said. Come outside, there is no point to forcing yourself into familiar corners. Come outside to eat the unknown. Come outside, to inhale the pungent aroma of the frowning city.

I didn’t go out. I ran with all my might, I rolled down the grass and scraped my knees on the asphalt, the words got stuck in my throat like a napkin in the sink and became tears digging a riverbed on my skin.


Friends, random people who may be reading this, hello and welcome to this article.

I originally wrote the above piece in Albanian, and it was written in a tantrum of homesickness and desperation, because I miss my language more than I ever thought I would. If you are my friends, you probably know exactly why I miss my language, and the complicated relationship she and I share and struggle through.

I can’t remember when, but my friend Hannah Cook once commented on the way that I speak about where I am from and the language I speak; I unconsciously transform them into my property. I say ‘my language’ and ‘my country’ as though they belong to me only in a singular way. I was dumb struck for a moment. I had never noticed it before, how intrinsic both of these things are to who I am.

In a completely unrelated way, this article is kind of about neither of those things, but also about both those things. Bear with me.

Maybe some of you are aware of an Albanian writer called Ismail Kadare.

Let’s be honest, most of you aren’t.

Anyway, that is not what is important.

What is important is that he recently received the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, a prize that is given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society. At least, that’s what my mother was telling me via Skype, as I typed away on my Biology assignment, not really paying attention. It’s funny how suddenly, yesterday; I encountered an article in an Albanian news source and got reminded of my conversation.

I went online and I started reading about him like crazy, and how he won this prize. It was as though I was rediscovering my previously untapped national pride. I was conscious of the fact that it’s probably not fair for me to turn his personal achievement into a nation’s achievement, but I couldn’t help but think of the fact that his entire work is in Albanian and for a very long second, I felt shame.

I love to write, and even though I don’t do it very often, it’s kind of my dream in life, to do it professionally. Almost all of my pieces, at least the ones I care about, are in English.

Ismail Kadare is responsible for some of the best works of literature ever written not only in the Albanian language, but in any language, I am more than safe to presume. He possesses skill and imagination that bring his work not only closer to those who are natives to Albania, but to any person who values the impeccable artistry that he weaves into his work.

He used symbolism and allegory in a time when one of the most dangerous professions in Albania was to be an artist. He in fact said as much when he applied for political asylum in France: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible. The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.” Kadare always took care in producing his work, carefully embellishing communism and dictatorship in a diaphanous layer of satire and metaphor.

So many in Albania brand him as a traitor for not taking a stand against the regime at the time.

In a time when taking a stand meant facing the firing squad, having your entire work burnt down, spending the rest of your life in prison or working and slaving your life away in labor camps, forever branding the rest of your family and relatives as dissidents and enemies of the state.

I think I have made my position on this topic very clear. I find it positively ludicrous that you expect a person to martyr himself, when obviously, they’re struggling to stay afloat just as much as you are. I think it is an unrealistic expectation, to expect one person’s sacrifice to save 3 million, when this person didn’t even have that much leverage on his side, except his writing.

Anyway, that is one of the reasons I don’t agree with my country. I become so personally invested in people and phenomena that matter to me, that when my compatriots reject them as insufficiently effective, I turn into a resentful storm and vow to hate and reject them in return. I find it impossible to understand how they can brand a man of such importance as a dissident, when I find the courage he had to keep on writing exemplary. Can you judge someone who was probably under immense pressure for neither going against nor giving in? Can you judge someone who had to create an entire story to buy his freedom?[11]

I guess this is what brought me to the place where I now find myself. I unconsciously pushed my roots away, only to find out they’re the only church I prefer to pray to. So much is wrong with the way my country is run, and led and understood, that I guess I gave up trying to ignore those traits in favor of its better ones. I grew tired with having to deal with the mess that I had to face everyday that I ran away, in all the senses.

It was finding Ismail Kadare’s quotes online in English that made me suddenly tear up, realizing I had read them before, in my own language. It was as though in a single moment, I remembered all that I have ever loved about my provenance, and the sheer weight of mall and mallëngjim[12] settled over my eyelids like the welcome burden of sleep. I can’t remember being more awake, as I wrote what precedes this article.

I realized that I feel myself emerging in my language in the moments when I can’t help but wish for home to magically construct itself around me. My concept of home has become so inextricably linked to language, it is manifested into every single desire to return I have ever expressed. I feel as though it took 6 months, the Middle East and a multitude of amazing people, for me to understand that my identity and exposure to multiculturalism are not mutually exclusive.


Ismail Kadare has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature several times, and as he so ingeniously says, he doesn’t mind not winning; he’s been nominated so often, people already assume he won it. In addition to this stupendously long article about my existential crises, allow me to shamelessly market this amazing, life-changing writer in the most obvious way possible…

By adding a large number of quotes.

“Why the Albanians had created the institution of the guest, exalting it above all other human relations, even those of kinship. “Perhaps the answer lies in the democratic character of this institution,” he said, setting himself to think his way through the matter. “Any ordinary man, on any day, can be raised to the lofty station of a guest. The path to that temporary deification is open to anybody at any time.[…] Given that anyone at all can grasp the sceptre of the guest,” he went on, “and since that sceptre, for every Albanian, surpasses even the king’s sceptre, may we not assume that in the Albanian’s life of danger and want, that to be a guest if only for four hours or twenty-four hours, is a kind of respite, a moment of oblivion, a truce, a reprieve, and—why not?—an escape from everyday life into some divine reality?”
― Ismail KadareBroken April

“If an animal has to be sacrificed when a new bridge is built, what will it take to build a whole new world?”
― Ismail KadareChronicle in Stone

“I couldn’t get to sleep. The book lay nearby. A thin object on the divan. So strange. Between two cardboard covers were noises, doors, howls, horses, people. All side by side, pressed tightly against one another. Boiled down to little black marks. Hair, eyes, voices, nails, legs, knocks on doors, walls, blood, beards, the sound of horseshoes, shouts. All docile, blindly obedient to the little black marks. The letters run in mad haste, now here, now there. The a’s, f’s, y’s, k’s all run. They gather together to create a horse or a hailstorm. They run again. Now they create a dagger, a night, a murder. Then streets, slamming doors, silence. Running and running. Never stopping.”
― Ismail KadareChronicle in Stone


“Can a country’s people be better than its planes?”
― Ismail KadareChronicle in Stone

“Shiny musical instruments wailed, their mouths open like lilies.”
― Ismail KadareChronicle in Stone

“Sunday had spread all over the city. It looked as if the sun had smacked into the earth and broken into pieces and chunks of wet light were scattered everywhere — in the streets, on the window panes, on puddles and roofs. I remembered a day long ago when Grandmother had cleaned a big fish. Her forearms were splattered with shiny scales. It was as if she had Sunday in her whole body. When my father got angry, he had Tuesday.”
― Ismail KadareChronicle in Stone

“This is where they keep the dreams about the end of the world, according to the inhabitants of places where the winters are very windy.”
― Ismail KadareThe Palace Of Dreams

“Some people,” the Vizier went on, “think it’s the world of anxieties and dreams – your world, in short – that governs this one. I myself think it’s from this world that everything is governed. I think it’s this world that chooses the dreams and anxieties and imaginings that ought to be brought to the surface, as a bucket draws water from a well. Do you see what I mean? It’s this world that selects what it wants from the abyss.”
― Ismail KadareThe Palace Of Dreams

I think I will stop now. U kry[13], as they say.

Written by Martina Hysi

Edited by Hannah Cook and Sofia Arthurs-Schoppe

[1] Untranslatable words that relate to nostalgia.

[2] Forgiveness: Falje in Albanian, means to give something as a gift without recompense, or to forgive someone. The word request, kërkoj, means to look for, but also means to ask for. Endje means to roam, without purpose usually. Ëndja  means delight, a completely different thing, but almost identically spelled and pronounced.

[3] There is an Albanian folk tale named Konstandin and Doruntina, in which a mother who had 7 sons and one daughter decides to send her only daughter, Doruntina to be married 7 kingdoms away, at the staunch request of her youngest, Konstandin. He promises her, that no matter what, he will always go and bring Doruntina back.  After a long and bloody war, she loses all of her sons. The tale then tells the story of Konstandin becoming resurrected to go and keep his promise. He brings his sister back (while she has no idea that her brother is in fact, dead) to his mother, and then returns to his grave. As the mother opens the door and realizes who it is, she asks who brought her home. Doruntina tells her it was her brother. Her mother shrieks that her brother and all of her other siblings are dead, and that is when they both die in each-other’s arms.

[4] Drop, in Albanian pikë, also means fullstop.

[5] Dua in Albanian means to want, but also to love.

[6] Referring to Tirana, the city I live in.

[7] Referring to Berat, the city I was born in.

[8] Referring to Vlorë, one of the many seaside cities.

[9] Referring to Pogradec, the city harboring part of Lake Ohrid.

[10]Referring to Princess Argjiro from Gjirokastër, who instead of surrendering herself to Turkish invaders, threw herself from the citadel.

[11] The Great Winter, a novel where he depicts Enver Hoxha, our dictator at the time, in a flattering light.

[12] Untranslatable words that relate to nostalgia.

[13] Done, finished, well done.


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