‘Bread, salt and heart’ through the eyes of a Kuwaiti lens

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 28, 2019 18:30

‘Bread, salt and heart’ through the eyes of a Kuwaiti lens

Story Highlights

  • It was perhaps this mixture of the love to travel and the desire to explore and understand the culture of all the countries she visits that gave birth to the exhibition’s unique character. Titled “Albania, hospitality’s bright smile,” Al-Houti’s pictures capture one of the most trademark, yet hardly understood, traits of Albanian custom - that of hospitality.

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By Sidonja Manushi  

On February 19, the National History Museum hosted for three days a special photo exhibition from a far-away artist who might have managed to capture the essence of being Albanian much better than some of the local ones.

Ebtisam Al-Houti is a Kuwaiti artist who got introduced to Albania due to her husband’s position as the Ambassador of Kuwait to Tirana, but who fell in love with the country, its nature and its traditions completely on her own.

“Albania is a unique country that you will not get bored to visit and live due to its diverse cities with rich history, culture, art, museums, archeology and ancient architecture. It is a rare example of the cities whose heritage and architecture have been preserved through the ages. Albania has charming nature, magnificent natural resources, beautiful mountains, plains, rivers and lakes, which fascinated me by nature and environmental tourism. In which I have memories that will not be forgotten,” she said, painting the country through the eyes of a wanderer, as much as a photographer.

Born in Kuwait in 1958, Ebtisam Al-Houti is an artist mainly fond of photography. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Kuwait University. Soon thereafter, Al-Houti was assigned to the position of senior psychologist and deputy head of the Psychological Counseling Unit at the Faculty of Education at Kuwait University from 1995 to date.

Al-Houti’s connection to the art of photography began in the Republic of Benin in 2011. It was during this time that she was drawn to the picturesque nature and splendor of the arts, as well as to the beauty of expression of the people of Benin. Since that time, Al-Houti has focused on developing her photography and enhancing her skills.

It was perhaps this mixture of the love to travel and the desire to explore and understand the culture of all the countries she visits that gave birth to the exhibition’s unique character. Titled “Albania, hospitality’s bright smile,” Al-Houti’s pictures capture one of the most trademark, yet hardly understood, traits of Albanian custom - that of hospitality.

Albanian hospitality is one of those things tourists mention the most when asked about what they found remarkable in the country. Despite the country’s small size and big - sometimes bad - reputation, the average Albanian is friendly and peaceful. With family and communal ties strongly preserved, Albanians remain giving and hospitable, in a world fast-changing to individualism and ties based on interest.

“Most of the people of Albania, regardless of the different cities, religions and social levels, and despite the existence of cultural and ethnic differences among its members, are peaceful and friendly, and maintains the strength of family ties. It is a nation that coexists with different groups of society in natural harmony,” Al-Houti said.

Her exhibition did not escape the attention of high-rank officials either, the most noteworthy among whom was Albania’s President Ilir Meta, who posted pictures with the artist in his official Instagram page.

“A warm meeting with Kuwaiti artist Ebtisam Al Houti, engaged over the last years with promoting one of the biggest and most important Albanian characteristic and value, hospitality,” Meta wrote, adding he “appreciates Al Houti’s efforts to strengthen brotherly ties with the Kuwaiti people and to create a guide for foreign tourists, an indication of Albania’s humane values and fairytale beauty.”

“Bread, salt and heart” is one of the most used Albanian expressions and probably the motto to remember this exhibition by. Used by Albanians when they invite someone into their houses even if they have nothing to offer other than bread, salt and an open heart, Al-Houti took this expression and manifested it with images.

The exhibition includes photographs taken in six Albanian cities, embodying the spirit of hospitality through a series of cultural discoveries and exchanges between the people of Albania and the artist.

Among them was Tirana, the country’s capital, Shkodra, the cradle of Albanian culture, Korca, the city of arts and museums, Berat, with its ancient architecture, Mirdita, with its magical nature and Gjirokastra, the city of leaders.

“I honestly enjoyed all the cities that I visited in this work, which contains so many beautiful memories, that I have lived and enjoyed from the warm welcoming ... and the wealth of meeting the wonderful families and wonderful friends ... along with valuable historical information,” Al-Houti said, describing her travels.

While in Tirana, the artist was invited to a house that was built in 1927 and was greeted by most of the women of the extended family “who showered me with love, generosity, welcome and a flood of warm emotions.”

The photographs show a variety of treats traditionally offered in the capital, from home-cooked food and thana juice, hasude dessert and the flavorful Turkish coffee, especially prepared on a wooden fireplace. Similarly, in Shkodra she visited a home that was built 200 years ago; during that visit, Al-Houti engaged in an interesting discussion about the ancient city over Turkish coffee and a local dessert known in Shkodra as “hajimakula.”

In Korca, she was hosted at a house which was built over 100 years ago. As the artist describes in her photography book, “discussion covered a variety of topics, with a great deal of ease and spontaneity, coupled with a beautiful spirit of people who were proud to display their love and pride in their city and the abundance it envelopes.”

There, she was offered fragrant apples that make Korca famous all over Albania, as well as homemade peach jam and juice. The hosts’ own honey, decorated with almonds, made an excellent addition to the aesthetic selection of Korca’s photographs.

Reminiscing on her experience traveling through the country, Al-Houti said the hospitality found in Albania is incomparable with any other country she’s visited.

“Frankly, I did not find the level and beauty of Albanian hospitality except in the Gulf countries to which I belong and some Arab Islamic countries that have the same cultures and traditions,” she said concerning the subject of her art.

In Berat - which has made it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its magnificent architecture - she was hosted in another old, carefully preserved, house. As a traditional treat, she was offered homemade quince jam and Turkish coffee.

Mirdita might have been the most unique of locations Al-Houti visited, despite her saying she was not able to pick a favorite one. Mirdita is known as the city of valleys, long-distance tours, waterfalls, ecotourism and natural resources.

The 200-year old house she visited in Miredita was located on an ancient travel path, and contained no modifications that would cause its original splendor to diminish. Among the stories told in that house, Al-Houti learned that years ago, the current residents’ great grandfather would host travellers who passed through searching for a place to stay. He would take anyone in need in, offering them food and a place to stay for free.

In Miredite, she took pictures of freshly-squeezed grape juice, grilled chestnuts, seasonal fruit, lacnor for dessert and Turkish coffee. Interestingly, the area’s chestnuts are some of the country’s best.

Gjirokastra is the last of cities, but definitely not the least one - if anything, it is the cherry on top. In Gjirokaster, a rare example of preserved architectural wonder, Al-Houti visited a house built 400 years ago - what she called “a truly beautiful architectural masterpiece.”

Extending their hospitality, the hosts offered her homemade fig and cherry jam, fresh pomegranate juice and saltines.

If there is one thing that Al-Houti’s photographs depict is that hospitality offered with sincere love will always be accompanied with abundance. It was also the thing that made her feel more at home, among the nature, history and culture.

“Is there anything more important than the strength of family bonds among members of one family, and the strength of social relations between members of society of all sects and religions and acceptance of the other opinion? That is the basis of building and the strength of the community accompanied by the whiteness of the heart and spirit and the nature with which God created man. I hope that Albanian people will adhere to the blessings that God has given and not neglect them,” she asked, drawing parallels between Albanian custom and the practices and core values represented in the teachings of Islam that she was raised by.

Ultimately, it is the graciousness that remains throughout the visit of a guest and the way Albanian hosts bid farewell at the door with the hopes of seeing them again that made “Albania: Hospitality’s bright smile” one of the most interesting exhibitions to grace the National History Museum and which will give the artist, and other visiting after her, a reason to return to Albania.



Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 28, 2019 18:30