You can leave your qeleshe on!
The Maghrebis have the tarboosh, the Mashreqis have the keffiyeh, the Spanish have the montera, the French have the beret, and we have the… qeleshe (“tche-leh-sheh”)! Or plis, whichever comes easiest to you. The qeleshe is the traditional headgear of Albania. It is a white wool felt cap, that quite resembles an egg (and consequently makes its wearer look like one as well). By the 18th century it had become an integral part of an Albanian gentleman’s attire (by gentleman I mean shepherd, shopkeeper, doctor, lawyer – any male), though popular thought has it that the qeleshe has been around now for about 2000 years. The name comes from the word lesh, Albanian for wool.
There are multiple versions of a qeleshe depending on the different regions of the country. In certain parts it is an almost perfect hemisphere, in others it is slightly more cylindrical, in others higher and in others lower. But a qeleshe is always the unmistakable white cap that nowadays you see only on the heads of the most elderly, and is becoming increasingly rarer in urban centres.
Legends have it that a qeleshe is supposed to symbolise the egg of the eagle, according to the popular claim that Albanians are the sons of eagles (more on that another time). I guess that in a way that makes us all birds, but also a people that have found a way to express the connection they feel to their land, like the eagle to its nest. Others simply claim that the egg is a symbol for genesis and life, and a reminder for gratitude towards nature.
While you can purchase a qeleshe really anywhere, very few of the original qeleshe makers remain. The craft of making a qeleshe by hand has died out almost entirely. It is unfortunately of no surprise: to make a real qeleshe you would need to go through the process of collecting the wool from your sheep, rubbing it in soapy water and kneading it with your hands like a piece of dough before starting to mould it into a cap – this is repeated multiple times for one plis only, and the entire process takes a full hour. In the 20th century, wearing a qeleshe was a sign of maturity which meant that boys would hurry to finally be able to wear one. Today, barely anyone under 50 would wear one without there being a very particular occassion. Afrim Kika, a plis maker in Gjakova claims that twenty years ago he would sell more than 500 every month, whereas now he barely sells 100, mostly to fascinated tourists and diasporas.
However the importance of the qeleshe as a piece of cultural heritage still holds strong. The younger generations still solidly identify with it and it is one of the first references that come to mind when thinking about a traditional Albanian costume. Like with much other that is still old culture, modernity and rapidity seem to be taking over the plis, but let us every now and then slow down a little and think about what we appreciate in these little instances of tradition. Boys, you can leave your qeleshe on.