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  • Jerome Kocher

45. Kanun Law

I’m sitting on the second floor balcony of my guesthouse staring across a mountain village towards the second floor of a centuries old stone building called a “kulla.” This particular kulla was known as the “reconciliation tower.” This means that building was a safe house for criminals who could seek sanctuary for their suspected crime

They could stay up to fifteen days on the second floor with a carpet and basic necessities while guards kept watch on the third floor surveying the surroundings through narrow slits.

The time spent there was considered a grace period when a judge of the kanun law could provide an intervention which might result in a reconciliation, or sanction a justified retribution by the victim’s family once the suspect is released back again into the countryside.

The word “kanun” is related to the Latin word “canon” meaning an accepted rule and principle or a body of work. In Albanian history Kanun was a revered set of tribal laws that regulated communities, families or property in a world before nation states and institutionalized law enforcement. Based on a code of honor and accountability it allowed local communities to resolve inevitable conflicts. It may sound primitive to a contemporary mindset, but it’s purpose was to temper unjust overreactions and create a fair set of rules where the punishment was commensurate with the crime. Although unacceptable today, it sought accountability between family feuds by regulating revengeful acts to preserve a family’s honor.

Although it predated the historical conflicts with the Ottoman Empire it can also be seen in the Islamic context as a supplement to Sharia Law. After WWII it mostly disappeared and the Communists banned it. As a social means of self regulation it’s time has past. In 1990 there was a large gathering from diverse communities to reframe the Kanun Law to do away with revenge killings and emphasize forgiveness or reconciliation between family feuds. By contrast in a more positive sense, Kanun also goes deeper by regulating human interaction from the concept of “guests” to regulation of property rights.

There are key Kanun principles that deserve appreciation and may still live in the Albanian mind, like the honored place of a guest. After God, the guest is honored most, then the family. The concept of “bessa” means one’s word of honor, a promise, sometimes granting a period of “grace” until resolution can be resolved. This side of “honor” gets overlooked, while the horrific rule of “honor killing” grabs attention because of its brutality.

There is one story that brothers were looking for a murderer. When they couldn’t find him they returned home only to see the suspect sitting by the hearth with their aged father. The father sternly reminded his sons that this man was a guest who had sought refuge in their house, and as a result was protected and “honored” as a guest.

Even though this set of tribal laws has served its purpose in the past and vigilante justice is no longer the social rule, the special position of a guest is still honored in the Albanian soul today. The respect for a Guest comes after God and before Family. It’s alive and well in the generosity of Albanians today.

This may not always be recognized by the youth today, but to an older and middle generation, one’s word or promise, your “bessa,” still rules supreme!

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Erjon Osmanaj
Erjon Osmanaj
Jul 19, 2023

Hey Jerome , it was nice meeting you today . Have a good time in Kosovo

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