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While the Arnauts have successfully integrated into Arab societies, particularly in terms of language and customs, some challenges persist.
Yousef M. Sharqawi
Writing about the Arnaut, as the Albanians are known in the Arab world, requires a thorough study covering their history, presence and integration into Arab societies. Whether in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, or other Arab countries to which they migrated, each Arnaut group is distinct.
Although the Arnaut managed to integrate significantly into the Arab societies, they have preserved their identity and distinctiveness. Arguably, this minority still faces some integration obstacles in certain Arab countries, particularly in Jordan.
On the other hand, recent decades have seen numerous attempts to strengthen Arab-Balkan relations, particularly with the Albanians and Arnaut. In 2014, the Qatari capital, Doha, hosted the inaugural international symposium on Arab-Balkan relations, discussing ties between Arabs and Albanians and ways to improve them.
Origins and Etymology
In an interview with Fanack, Muhannad al-Arnaut, the general supervisor of the boards of directors of al-Arnaut International Organisations, discussed the origins of the Arnaut, their etymology and the stages of their presence in Arab countries.
He initially highlighted that the Arnauts are an ethnic minority of Albanian origin that spread throughout the Arab world in two stages: during the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the renowned Albanian viceroy of Egypt, and the period of the Ottoman Empire’s decline when the Serbs took control of Albania.
The first stage of the Arnauts’ migration to the Arab world occurred when Muhammad Ali Pasha assumed the governorship of Egypt. In 1801, the Ottoman Sultan Selim III dispatched forces to counter Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The forces included an Albanian battalion of 300 fighters, with Muhammad Ali as its deputy commander.
By 1805, Muhammad Ali took charge of Egypt, and his dynasty continued up until the reign of King Farouk and the overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952 during his tenure. Notably, during the campaign of Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s son, in the Levant, another wave of Albanians migrated to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where they remained and took on the name Arnaut.
The second stage of the Arnauts’ migration to Arab countries occurred in the early twentieth century. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Serbian forces occupied Albanian lands, aiming for demographic change. The Serbs attempted to eradicate the Albanians through brutal massacres, prompting a mass migration of families trying to escape persecution. Since the Albanians were Muslims, most opted to migrate to Turkey. A smaller segment headed to the Levant, known as “Sham Sharif,” where they settled.
In the book al-Kashkul, Dr. Mahmoud Abdul Qadir Arnaut refered to a study indicating that the Arnaut belong to the Aryan race, signifying European descent. Albanians refer to themselves as “Shqiptar.” According to the study, this term combines two Albanian words: “Shqip” and “ar.” In the Albanian language, “shqip” means “eagle or bird,” while “ar” means “gold.”
Thus, the Albanians adopted the eagle as their symbol, as can be seen in Albania’s current flag, known for its red colour and the double-headed eagle in the centre.
During the Ottoman Empire’s rule over their country for over four centuries, Albanians were called “Arnaut.” The Byzantines referred to the Albanians as “Arvanito.” The German historian Carl Brockelmann (1868 – 1956) mentioned the Albanians in his book History of The Islamic Peoples, describing their presence in Turkey and Arab countries. There, the term evolved to “Arvanid.” Over time, it transformed into “Arnavud” and then to “Arnaut.”
Some articles attribute the name “Arnaut” to Jabala ibn al-Ayham’s famous saying, “Shame on us to go back.” As Muhannad Arnaut told Fanack, there is, however, no documentation supporting this claim.
Integration into Arab societies
According to Muhannad al-Arnaut, an accurate census is best conducted through governments, particularly since many Arnauts have changed their surnames, especially in Egypt. According to an unofficial census by the International Voice of Arnaut Foundation for Culture and Arts in 2018, the Arnaut population in Arab countries ranges between an estimated 5 and 6 million.
He emphasised that the Arnaut stand out from other minorities due to their rapid integration into the societies they joined, particularly the Arab Muslim community. He explained that this community was considered a significant reference for receiving religious knowledge.
Faced with language barriers, the Arnaut immigrants were keen on learning Arabic and passing it on to their second-generation children. Al-Arnaut told Fanack about the three generations of al-Arnaut, “The elderly didn’t master the Arabic language, while my father mastered both Arabic and Albanian. As for us, we are proficient in Arabic, but our mother tongue, Albanian, is weak.”
Discussing customs and traditions, he adds, “Today, as Arnaut in Arab countries, we adhere to Arab customs and traditions. We can affirm that the Arnaut are an ethnic minority blending into the fabric of Arab society in form and substance. At the same time, the Arnaut are eager to connect through global Arnaut institutions. These institutions aim to maintain cultural communication links with the homeland.”
In Jordan, there is no Arnaut association, preventing them from securing a seat in the Jordanian House of Representatives, something the Circassians and Chechens do have. Some Arnauts attribute this to the “lack of distinctiveness of the Arnaut’s identity” in Jordan. They believe that “most of the Arnaut in Jordan are not connected to one another. There is no bond that connects and unites to guarantee parliamentary representation.”
Mustafa Arnaut, the representative of the International Voice of Arnaut Foundation for Culture and Arts in Jordan, noted, “A series of successive political, religious and intellectual events led the Albanians to settle in the Levant, and their involvement in the societies of these countries naturally affected their original identity.”
Regarding the integration of ancestors, he added, “The Arnaut in Jordan preferred to assimilate into the fabric of Jordanian society. This resulted in the Arnaut not presenting as a minority with its distinctive culture, rituals and customs. Consequently, the new generation of Arnaut in Jordan bears the task of reviving what our ancestors should have.”
In an interview, Adham Arnaut told Fanack that the Arnaut rapidly integrated into Egyptian society. This, however, did not interfere with their maintaining distinctiveness.
Adham Arnaut believes that the historical participation of Albanians in governance in Egypt enhanced their position within Egyptian society. However, it is important to note that some opted for complete assimilation into Egyptian society, even changing their surnames, unlike those who maintained their connection to their original homeland.
Customs and Traditions
Most of the Arnaut have integrated into the Arab societies where they reside. However, they have retained some customs, including the preparation of specific meals during family gatherings. A notable dish is the “pite“, comprising 14 layers of dough arranged on a tray and filled with meat, cheese or eggs, accompanied by “speca,” a mixture of yoghurt, garlic and fried peppers.
Regarding other traditional foods, journalist Lana Arnaut wrote, “Zupa is one of our signature desserts. It is assembled by alternating layers of biscuit or sponge cake with pastry cream alongside a dairy custard dessert called caramel cream.
The latter is made with milk, cream, egg yolks, and sugar and flavoured with vanilla, orange or lemon peel, and cinnamon. Another popular dish in Albania (and the rest of the Balkans) is a savoury pie filled with spinach, found in various sizes and types throughout the country.”
Muhannad al-Arnaut listed a number of notable figures who left an imprint on the political sphere in the Arab world, among them Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt, and his descendants, the most prominent of whom was Ibrahim Pasha. Numerous organisational works and buildings in Lebanon and Palestine are accredited to him. Muhannad al-Arnaut also mentioned Pashko Vasa (Wassa Pasha), the Ottoman governor of the Mount Lebanon governorate, a historically controversial figure.
More contemporary figures include Omar Arnaut, a revolutionary from Damascus who stood against the French mandate over Syria. After independence, he served as a member of the People’s Assembly of Syria for decades.
Prominent names in Arabic literature include the novelist Marouf Arnaut, one of his major novels being Sayyid Quraysh. The writer Abdul Latif Arnaut translated many Albanian novels into Arabic, acting as a cultural bridge between Albanian and Arab cultures. The renowned painter Abdul Qader Arnaut is famous for the Damascene Sword monument that stands in the middle of Damascus’ Umayyad Square.
Sheikh Nasser al-Din al-Albani, also known as al-Albani, Sheikh Abdul Qadir al-Arnaut and Sheikh Shuaib al-Arnaut, were notable religious scholars who left a significant legacy in the Arab and Islamic world.