They arrived linked in an e-mail from a friend, with a tagline that read: Amazing.They were color portraits, shot recently, seemingly of old men who’d lived a little. At least that’s what the evidence suggested: They were dressed as old men, and the camera seemed to regard them as old men, if from another time, like the ’40s or ’50s. But there was something in the eyes, and sometimes the hands, even the carriage of bones—a softness that made me wonder.
The more I gazed upon the photographs, the more I noticed something else. In image after image, the faces possessed an otherworldly quality. That’s as close as I can come to it: Their eyes seemed to look steadily, unabashedly at the camera—or up at the sky, as if they might float away.
These were burrneshas, the text read, or women who dressed and lived as men, in isolated regions of northern Albania, a land of ultraconservative mores. There were strict rules and reasons for this transformation, ones that had been established some 500 years earlier, as part of a medieval canon of laws known as the Kanun. Today possibly only a few dozen burrneshas still exist—and the tribe is fast dwindling.
In the pictures, the burrneshas posed and gazed dreamily, disappeared behind clouds of cigarette smoke or sat erect in a chair, surrounded by family, smiling beneficently. Their vulnerability seemed a strength. And it occurred to me that perhaps I was looking upon the rarest thing of all, complete actualization. Or transcendence. If so, how had they pulled it off?
I stared at the photographs for so long, pondering these questions, that I lost track of time. Until I heard a cow moo. And then, standing before me was Haki.
It was a mild November afternoon, and Haki stood in the bright light of his garden, smoking like the Penguin, with a cane and a cigarette holder, the embers of his Karelia butt burning angrily. He wore a leather jacket, slacks hiked high, and a plaid shirt. He possessed a gray mop of hair, and his eyes resembled those of Charles Bronson. Even though he was 71 years old, he seemed boyish and lithe, if a little humped. Uncurled, he still would have stood only five feet tall.
Haki’s house was made of stone, as was the barn with the calf inside, all set in a lost valley. There was no straight road to reach this place. So along with my translator—a husky bear of a young man named Ermal, who, though a fine navigator, drove with all the subtlety of Beethoven’s Ninth—I’d traveled north on Albania’s recently completed highway from the capital of Tirana into Kosovo, where we were stopped at a midnight checkpoint by bored soldiers bearing AK-47’s, then looped back into a northerly, mountainous pocket of Albania.
As it turned out, it was damn hard to find these burrneshas. We’d driven up switchbacks and down dirt tracks.
“What is it?” Ermal had demanded. “You’re disappointed?” He’d proven to be an intuitive companion.
“It’s like searching for unicorns,” I’d said.
“Yes,” he’d said, accelerating until he almost rammed a car in front of us, then jammed the brake. “But burrneshas are real,” he’d said, our heads whiplashing in unison, “and unicorns are not.”
Now here was the real thing himself, spitting venom. Other journalists had visited Haki in the past, sometimes asking questions that he viewed as impertinent. A number had wanted to know if he was really just a lesbian in disguise—and this had triggered a deep hurt.
“It breaks my heart that anyone would ask such questions,” he said, picking a tobacco leaf from the tip of his tongue. “I hate to be used. God has given me what I am, and I’ve made do. Being lesbian—this isn’t even what being a burrnesha is about.
“Don’t confuse who I am with being a lesbian,” he said, “or I’ll kick you in the shins.”
The word burrnesha translates as “he-she.” And like most burrneshas, Haki was a virgin who had taken a vow of celibacy that elevated him to a time-honored position in the community, the in-between person. The origins of the tradition weren’t clear, but historically, when the male heirs of a family died or had been killed and property could no longer be passed in patrilineal fashion, an allowance was made: If a virgin daughter remained, she could assume the role of patriarch by swearing in front of a dozen village elders that she would remain celibate for the rest of her life. By this declaration, the burrnesha secured the family estate—and honor. It was, as one observer told me, “a choice of force, not happiness,” a social construct and selfless act to protect the family.
Haki’s case was a little different. He’d almost been born to his burrnesha-hood. His parents had thirteen children, he said, and he came third in line. When his mother was pregnant with him, an old traveling dervish from Kosovo had passed through the village, and knowing his head was being sought in a blood feud, he asked for a plot on the family land to be buried in. Haki’s father consented, as a good Albanian and Muslim. And before the dervish was killed eleven days later, he predicted that Haki, while born female, would live like a male. And that’s exactly what happened.
Haki had mastered the gestures and stance of manhood until all of it was muscle memory, or rather, just who he was. He spit and smoked and milked the cows, just as he put each leg through his pants in the morning. He cursed, then acted as he pleased, living here entirely alone as he did, collecting honey from his bees. Someburrneshas had such a flexible sense of their gender that you might refer to them as a he or a she, or use the pronouns interchangeably. Not Haki.
Even if one’s life as a burrnesha wasn’t foretold as Haki’s had been, or if male heirs were still alive, there were other reasons why a girl in Albania might want to become a boy, or a woman a man. Imagine, as when Haki was young, marrying at the age of 15, 16, 17 years old, conceivably to a husband who might be 40, 50, 60. On your wedding night, your father might slip a bullet into your suitcase, for your husband’s use in case you’re not a virgin.