This is nominally a Muslim country – 80% of the population are believers in Islam with the rest split between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. But most surveys show that the vast majority of Albanians, including Miss Albania pictured above, do not really care. But you cannot avoid the symbols of Islam, even if its effect is hard to see. As I arrived at Sarandra the building that stood out among the 6-8 story blocks that make up the City was the minaret of the Mosque. And, however many times a day it is, the Imam calls the faithful to prayer over loudspeakers. Not with much effect.
The behaviour of the folk here would shock any resident of Tehran or Whitechapel. In three days I have seen one woman wearing a Hajib. But I have also seen one shop selling the sort of ladies underwear that leaves very little to the imagination and which, I imagine, will not be opening up a second outlet in Cairo, Bagdhad or Gaza City any time soon.
On the beach women go topless although that tends to be when lying face down on a sun lounger, in the sea modesty is preserved. But the young ladies wander around in the sort of short skirts you associate with Geordie lasses on a night on the town. Dare I say it, but not living on a Western diet, they are rather more suited to the attire than many back home. In the restaurants you can eat what you want: pig, cow, sheep, shell fish (I know that is naughty in Judaism, I wonder if it is in Islam too?). The Albanians eat anything. I have become rather hooked on the liver and heart grill, not knowing from which beast it derives. As for drinking alcohol? Yes, of course, they drink like fish.
Yes the folks are called to prayer. As I visited the Mosque (a modern building) there were a dozen or so pairs of shoes outside and two men inside. I cannot quite get my head around that one. The two young men were wearing jeans and T-shirts, no attempt was made to cover the body.
There is a respect for the Muslin tradition here. But there is also a respect for other faiths. The Churches (that were not destroyed by Hoxha who hated all religions and banned the lot for a while) are in good nick. And here is the killer. There is a 5th century synagogue here, destroyed 1700 years ago by earthquake or invasion. But it is well preserved, fenced off and respected. Somehow I cannot imagine the same respect being shown to the Jewish faith in many places in the Middle East or indeed in parts of Britain.
This is easy going Islam. That, dare I say it, is the point about all religions. How they are practiced depends on how they are interpreted. And here Islam is a very relaxed and gentle force. The Islamofascists of the Middle East or one sometimes sees at those ugly protests in London, just seem a world away.
I have not tested how far that tolerance goes by wearing a nice big Israel T-shirt with a Star of David on it or by seeking to see if there is a thriving gay culture here. My commitment to bringing you, dear readers, the full facts based on thorough personal research does not extend that far. But as I wander around bothering no-one, there is no attempt by those holding different religious views to stop me doing as I please. It is as it should be that’s a big thumbs up for Islam, Albanian style.