Nervous Talk and Magic

“I get nervoz a lot.” Shkurta tells me, looking out the window onto the snowy farmyard.

I had meant to start small talk by asking her how she was doing; but, a reference to “nerves” doesn’t allow the space for this. Instead, it creates an opportunity for women to describe their pain and suffering as well as their dissatisfaction and frustration with the wider context of their experience within the family, the community, and the state.

So, I asked: “What happens when you feel that way?”

“I have headaches, I have low blood pressure, I have nervoz. Sometimes, something sour comes up and I feel heat. The heat moves up. I can’t describe it.” She pauses briefly. “After that I have headaches and everything.”

“When do you usually feel like this?” My question hangs suspended in the large wood panelled room. Only the sound of burning wood can be heard as it crackles in the metal stove warming us on this cold winter day. Sitting on a worn out shilte[1], I watch the steam rise from my teacup to the ceiling, which still bears the marks of fire – a reminder of the war’s destructive force.

Shkurta sighs and clasps her hands together in her lap before telling me: “I’m ashamed when I have to write something in front of others.  I close the door and then I write in printed letters. I was never at school.” Instead of sitting in class learning how to read and write, her parents had demanded that she raise her younger siblings. “When my mother gave birth to twins, I had to take care of them, to feed them, to clean them and to wash them.”

Shkurta married young. Whilst only a minor, she moved to her husband’s family home and struggled with adjusting to a bustling farm life amidst the vineyards. Household chores were plenty, shared between four sisters-in-law and overseen by the strict regime of her husband’s ageing parents. Idling was frowned upon and visits to her family permitted only on rare occasions. Shkurta was lonely, in the midst of the busy compound with no one to turn to or lean on.

She is still lonely, her husband is rarely around. He works abroad, sometimes with and sometimes without papers, to boost the family income. She suffers when he is gone. It is at times like this that her thoughts spill over. Thoughts about her limited life choices, being trapped in a small village, the infidelities of her husband, the war and the destruction it has caused. “The thoughts are too much. I don’t have a will to do anything.  I just want to stay in bed, but then it is worse since I start thinking about things.  Then, I have to try to get out of bed and out of the room.  It would be better to go outside, to visit friends – but I can’t. Çka me bo?![2]

I ask her if she can remember when she felt like this for the first time. Shkurta says she can, vividly. “During the war. I had found refuge in a village while my family had managed to flee to Albania.” Tucking her feet under her long dark blue skirt, she says, “For three weeks I didn’t know anything about them.  I was constantly hearing that men were separated from women and that they were all killed.  Once, I lost consciousness and I was holding my little daughter.  This was on the balcony and I dropped her.  I was out of consciousness.  The others tried to sprinkle water on me to wake me up.  Since then I’m not feeling well.”

In times of racing thoughts and pains, she calms herself by walking or working in the yard. When the pains are too strong, she asks her in-laws to be taken to the doctor where she receives an injection, sometimes pills.

“What does the doctor say that you have?”

Nervoz, nervoz. He tells me, ‘you have problems with your stomach that’s why you get nervoz’

“Because of your stomach ache?” I ask sceptically.

“Yes. A little.” Shkurta nods and reflects, “Most of it is from the war. I tell myself, ‘You’re very tensed, that’s why.  You have to calm down. But then you hear that somebody’s body is found and then somebody else’s. They continue finding these mass graves, you know.  So, the circle starts all over again and I swallow medication.”

“Does the medication work?” I wonder.

“I don’t know what to say. They help and they don’t. They help a little, but you have to push yourself to feel better, to feel strong.”

“Is there anything else that helps you?” I inquire. Her answer surprises me as it leads us away from the medical into the spiritual realm. “When you feel pain and you pray, it seems that it helps.  But when it hurts a lot, there doesn’t seem to be help from God.  Then you have to go to the doctor.” She lowers her voice, leans towards me, and adds, “I have heard about magic and these evil things.  I heard about those.  But I never experienced any of this.  I think that when you are nervoz, you get weak and you fall.  People say it was magic; but it was not magic, it was nervoz!  I have heard a lot about these things, but have not experienced it.  I don’t believe in these things.”

Pain, weakness, falling – signs of nervousness, signs of magic. I am curious and contemplate, “This is interesting. Lots of traditional healers work around here, writing amulets.” Enthusiastically, she responds, “Po de![3]” and follows the exclamation with an example, “I once went to a Sheh[4] and he said ‘Look here sister, it doesn’t do you good to walk through breadcrumbs, but, it is even worse if you walk through urine. When you do that, you will never have a good day in your life.’ I was astonished by what he had said. I asked him, ‘How is it possible that it is nothing when you walk through breadcrumbs but that things happen when you walk through urine?’ He replied, ‘This is how it is.’”

The Sheh had given her blessed water to drink and to wash her face with in addition to an amulet, a piece of folded paper containing a message, which she is supposed to wear close to her body – until it gets lost, by itself, somehow. Wearing it helps her sleep better and faint less often. She explains, “After the war, I was losing consciousness often.  The reason was that I was so afraid.  Now, I don’t lose my consciousness as often as before.  I only lose my consciousness if I hear something very bad or experience something very bad.”

Shkurta visits the Sheh often, lies down in the teqe for a while to find calm or goes to the adjacent tyrbe where she leaves coins to push fate a little. Sometimes, she walks through chains of wooden beads and receives water on which the Sheh has blown. “I wash my face with it,” she states. “It is said that your body feels better.”

After a moment of silence, she asks me, “Have you ever been to a stronger place in your country?” I have to think for a while and then remember a chapel somewhere in the Black Forest where I had felt the silence, the calm and some comfort. I had been a child hoping that there would be a parallel universe. That hope has since vanished, but not my search for ways to calm myself when feeling overwhelmed. Shkurta looks like she had hoped for a more profound answer from me, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she pours us more tea as we watch the snow blowing across the yard. Sipping tentatively from our steaming cups, we relax, leaning side by side against the paneled wall, we stretch our legs out and chat about this and that – the weather, the frequent electricity cuts, the New Year’s gifts she would like to buy for her children, money permitting. The nervousness seems to have left us – at least for now.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] Thin foam mattress

[2] What to do?!

[3] Isn’t it so

[4] Shehs are Sufi spiritual leaders in the teqe, a building designed specifically for gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood. A tyrbe is a tomb – a relatively small mausoleum where Sheh’s or other charismatic persons are buried.

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