January is the month of resolutions. With a New Year beginning, people are ready and eager to start 2014 improving their lives. More often than not, however, these resolutions are superficial and end quickly after being made. This year, I have decided to make a resolution for the first time. For 2014 I pledge myself to the principle of “besa.”
Besa is a term that refers to a rigid honor code derived from the nation of Albania, which resides north of Greece on the Adriatic Sea. Essentially besa refers to a “word of honor” and is a cultural practice started in the 1400s. I bring this up because besa is something everyone should set amongst their New Year’s resolutions.
Honor codes seem to have dissipated with modernity and changing cultural norms, but besa and its fundamentals have remained the same. Besa is more a way of life as opposed to a code of conduct. It not only dictates how you behave, it truly seeps into your moral fiber and envelops your character.
What strikes me most about besa is how Albanians, despite extreme pressure and threat of death, stood their ground a remained loyal to that code.
In September of 1943 German paratroopers dropped into the Albanian capital of Tirana. Nazi forces had control over Albania for about a year before Albanian guerilla forces recaptured Tirana. In that time the Nazis ordered the predominantly Muslim nation to turn over its Jewish citizens. Besa, however, impeded and ultimately superseded those orders. Under the auspices of besa, Jewish people living in Albania were treated as guests. The code of honor dictates that Albanians not disrespect or turn away a guest.
Rather than hiding them in attics or in basements, Albanians provided Jews with fresh clothes, gave them Albanian names, and incorporated them into their culture to avoid turning them in to be murdered. Pre-war German documents show that the Albanian Jewish population was estimated at 200 people. Because the spirit of besa was so strong, some 2000 Jewish from western Europe sought refuge in Albania. Like Denmark, Albania was able to save its Jewish population from the fate that met millions of other European Jews.
Besa is an important concept to understand, especially at a time of year when bettering yourself is highly discussed and thought about. I charge all those who read this to evaluate yourself and see how besa can fit into your life. Obviously you most likely won’t be saving an unfortunate soul from genocide, but there are many more ways a stringent honor system can make you a better person.