Skip to main content
May 1, 2012

His name was Abdyl. Everybody I knew called him Dyli. The only other Dyli in our small town worked as a porter, who rode his horse-led carriage in dirty clothes and an unshaved face. On the other hand Abdyl was an elegant teacher, his clothes pressed and spotless, and his face always shaved. We, his students, called him Presor Dyli. Presor was a shortened version of professor. He taught literature to seventh graders.

People spoke of him mockingly. They said he behaved strangely, obeyed his wife to the letter. He didn't hang out with other men after work in the coffee shop. He liked to read, a good-for-nothing sport. He didn't speak the local accent although he had breathed the air of this town all his life. Presor Dyli didn't curse or spit on the ground. He was unusually polite and mild, almost like-God forbid-a woman. He was weird, they said. People made fun of his wandering eyes, but that's too cruel, and I am going to skip it.

I didn't think of him as weird. He was different yes, but far from weird, if you know what I mean.

When Presor Dyli decided to start the first afterschool club ever in the history of our school, he ensured that he would become the laughingstock of the town for a hundred more years. Nobody knew what the club was about or even what an afterschool club was supposed to be.

Somehow he managed to secure a small room in the municipality building, five old typing machines, and a considerable supply of index cards and pencils.

Presor Dyli asked all his students to enroll in the club. Anything that could be an excuse to get out of the house, away from the never-ending chores, was welcome, so I was happy to oblige.

I remember the first meeting of the club quite clearly. My best friend, Lindita was sitting by my side, and she would giggle every time Presor Dyli looked at us, his wandering eye extremely lapsed in the wrong direction. I became annoyed with her since what Presor Dyli was saying kindled my curiosity. I turned to her sternly and scolded, "Oh, hush for a moment, won't you?"

She looked at me like I had gone crazy. Little did I care if I had.

His soft voice spoke in unfamiliar words such as noble cause, great service, our language sweeter than honey. I felt like I was transported to a strange new planet.

"My dear children," Presor Dyli said, "our mother tongue, Albanian, is an old and rich language. Unfortunately, many words used by older generations are about to vanish because they never saw the light of print on the pages of dictionaries. These old words are called archaisms; most of them originate from Ottoman language as a legacy of 500 years of Ottoman rule in Albania."

"It is our mission to save these words from dying. While listening carefully to adults talking, if you catch a word you have never heard before, write it down on the index cards I will provide for you. At our club meetings we will compare notes, consult the dictionary, and type the words we don't find in it. Okay? Later, we will mail those words with their meaning and usage to the National Committee for Albanian Language, so that they may be added to the dictionary. I know it sounds complicated but it is easy, you will see. Any questions?"

All twelve of us stood there dumbfounded. My brain felt fuzzy, like a TV which has lost its signal.

Nevertheless, Presor Dyli went on with a new subject--the methodology of our work. After explaining step-by-step the instructions on word hunting, he relaxed our overstretched minds with a story of a smart linguist on an archaism hunt.

"This linguist on an ancient-word hunt went to the farmer's market. Immediately he spotted his prey-a toothless white-haired lady selling eggs, and he approached her. He asked her how much one egg cost.

She looked at this well-dressed, prospective buyer and smiled. "10 leke," she said.

Then the linguist did the most unimaginable thing. In a frenzy, he snatched the egg basket and started throwing eggs to the ground, one by one. The old woman, cursing with contempt in her heavy mountainous dialect, fought back with this crazy man. To the surprise of everyone watching, the linguist, delighting in every curse as if receiving blessings from heaven, took out his notebook and excitedly recorded the lingual pearls.

The old woman, making no sense of what had happened, squatted over the broken eggs and cried over the ill fate that had befallen her. Right then, the linguist told her that he would pay for all the eggs he broke, 10 leke each. She did not believe him at first, but when he took out his purse and pulled out the money, she opened up like the sky after a storm. She thanked him effusively and upon hearing that he was willing to pay 15 leke for each, she let flow from her old mouth a string of benedictions. Again, the crazy linguist wrote down whatever she said, as if his own life depended on it.

"Well, children, this is the story of the linguist who dearly loved our language and did everything in hand to preserve it, even wasted eggs and paid for them" Presor Dyli smiled. "Don't try this yourself though, all right?"

Later he dismissed us with the air of a commander sending his troops on an expedition.

I hugged the pack of index cards he had given me, and on my way home I made a mental list of suspects. I put my grandmother at the top. She was over eighty. She was bound to spill some ancient word from her mouth. Second, came our next-door neighbor, an old lady. "She loves to chat for hours. She gossips a lot too, but if breaking eggs is okay, then I will put up with that." I decided.

I went to sleep that night, my chest filled with great aspirations for the remarkable service I would render to our mother tongue, which was sweeter than honey.

The next day I lay in ambush for my neighbor on her way to the farmer's market. She started into her favorite sport-gossip-immediately.

"Did you see how the so and so's wife was dressed in the so and so's wedding?" she asked.

I shook my head, but that only invigorated her.

"Her outfit was for hakaret. How could she come in a dress that was so revealing? She should have..."

"Wait, wait a second," I interrupted. A bulb started blinking in my brain.

"What is hakaret?" I asked, feeling for my pencil and the index card pack in my pocket.

She looked pretty annoyed to deal with words when greater scandals regarding the wife of so and so were involved. She answered anyway, maybe for fear of losing my interest.

"Hakaret means something discreditable, something that people will point their fingers at.

I started scribbling industriously on my index card as she spoke. My neighbor eyed me suspiciously.

"What are you doing?"

"Taking notes."

"You aren't going to tell the wife of so and so about what I said, are you?" She looked worried.

"Oh no, no. This is something related to my language club assignment." I assured her.

Unconvinced, she decided to take no further risks and bade me good-bye, murmuring something about not wanting to miss the fresh eggs in the market.

As I watched her hurry away looking flabbergasted, I wondered if she would tell someone in the market about her neighbor's so and so daughter doing strange things with a pencil and some what-you-call-them cards.

That evening I listened all ears, pencil in hand to my grandma complain to Mom about one of her grandchildren, my uncle's only son among three daughters.

"The child is spoiled rotten and if something isn't done to bring him to his senses, he will bring shame to all of us. It is as clear as that. As they say, you don't need a kilavuz to the village for what you can see."

"What is a kilavuz, Grandma?" I asked curiously.

Grandma froze, unprepared for this all-out assault. Soon enough she came to her senses and replied, "Kilavuz is someone who leads the way."

"A guide?" I said, coming to her assistance.

"Yeah, something of the sort. Now why don't you go and pick some grapes from the vine, wash them thoroughly, and bring us some to eat."

I went out, sat on the front steps and wrote down with indescribable delight, kilavuz, my second victory. My heart beat with glory.

At the third club meeting I brought three hard-to-find words. You know the first two already. Why, the third came from a street argument among two drunks shouting at each other at the top of their lungs. I just wrote down the word because, as you can figure out, I couldn't ask them, drunk as they were, about its meaning. I asked my mom instead. She blushed and threatened to make me bite on red hot pepper if I ever spoke that word again. Just as Professor Dyli asked us to hand him our index cards, I erased the third word. I reasoned that our language might do better with one less bad word.

Week by week, month by month, the about-to-be-lost words accumulated, like little streams in a pond. When we finally correctly typed thirty of them, Presor Dyli put the list in an envelope and mailed it with an accompanying letter, explaining our humble service to the National Committee for Albanian Language.

We continued on our word pursuit the rest of the school year, although we didn't hear back from the NCFAL. Presor Dyli's matchless enthusiasm fueled our little engines.

During that year, our country was undergoing great changes, although we, young club-goers, took little notice. On the radio, television, the coffee shop, the street, everyone talked about the big transition from over forty years of communism, to democracy. The land and the factories were being privatized and words such as private property and business were articulated boldly for the first time in many years. We brought them over to club--that's how I remember. Presor Dyli told us that they were new words, therefore of no use to our mission.

My parents talked over dinner each night of how some of our neighbors or their friends had come up with amazing ideas to start a trade, and how courageous it was to take such a risk in the collapsing economy. Some of them had turned their patios into little shops, selling anything they could lay a hand on and stock in such a little space. My parents wished we were living in the walk-in level apartment, so we could try our luck in business. Why, it was such a convenient thing to work so close to your living quarters. I understood nothing of their talk. Nonetheless I listened carefully, my pencil and cards nearby.

At one of our meetings, which I learned later would sadly be the last, Presor Dyli told us apologetically that he had to quit the language club. He had to dedicate his time to something really important.

"I am sorry, children. I tried to find a substitute to keep the club going but to no avail. You kids did a great job. I am proud of you. I am sorry to quit but I have to," he said in a sad tone. He did not look at us.

We left in silence, wondering what could be so important and so sorrowful at the same time.

Had he come down with a bad disease and he needed to go for treatments? Was he moving to another city? Had he received a disheartening letter from NCFAL? What could it be?

Weeks went by. Presor Dyli still taught us language arts during regular school hours but as soon as the last bell rang, he would hurry in the direction of his apartment. I had been taught to never pry. That's why, tempted as I was, I never followed him.

One day, I took another way home after school because I had to take a make-up assignment to a sick classmate. I was entertaining myself with my shadow sliding ahead of me on the pavement, when his voice startled me.

"One kilogram tomatoes, two dozen eggs, one box of matches. Anything else I can get for you, sir?"

Yes, it was him. In his apartment's patio which had been converted into a shop. I couldn't believe it! He still had on his morning attire-white shirt and black pants. A black apron hung loosely about him and his shirt sleeves were rolled up. He had tomato stains on his shirt.

"No thanks," replied the customer as he handed him the money.

As Presor Dyli rummaged in the big front pocket of his apron for change, a passerby who was the age of my father, stopped at the door of the shop and shouted.

"Hey Abdyl, how is it going? You've got a pretty good-sized shop here. Hang in there, buddy and before you know it, you will own a big market, just like Naim. He started small like you but look at him now. Has money to cover himself standing. I am happy for you, man."

He made his point and patted Presor Dyli on the shoulder.

"Finally the cat caught a mouse, eh, Abdyl? "

I was about to cry. This little business was his really important something. What's worse, he didn't even mind being compared to the ill-famed Naim, a mafioso who was known to sell anything illegal.

Presor Dyli looked up. He saw me standing on the pavement across the street, like a statue of salt. He tried a genuine smile and waved at me, a bit hesitantly.

I was waking up from the dream.

He had lost his charm. I had lost my aspirations. He wasn't weird anymore by the town's standards. He was Abdyl now.

I didn't wave back. I moved on and let my tears flow.