Two or three things about Albania

Travel notes

8 September 2014
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Two-thirds of Albanians had invested in the pyramid investment funds that collapsed in 1997, causing violent social unrest. Many fled to Italy and 83 perished en route in the sinking of the "Kateri I Rades". But the memory of all this has been suppressed, writes Alessandro Leogrande.

Reading Böll in Tirana

“The austere charm of Tirana in the old days”, says Artan Puto, a young Albanian historian and editor of the magazine PËrpjekja, “is a thing of the past”. Burgeoning, incoherent construction seems to have engulfed the city. The terrace of the Coin department store skyscraper is one of those places where – beneath the still-warm sun of late November – the new Albanian “high society” likes to sit and sip cappuccino. It offers a clear view of the capital’s tumultuous transformation. Puto goes on to tell me that it would take a great film, such as Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, to describe the rites of this singular upper class sitting around us: its codes, its clothes, its status symbols, its homes and holidays… There is a whole universe between this, and images of the chaos of the early nineties.

The Italian Navy vessel Sibilia, which collided with the Albanian ship Kateri i Rades after it left from the Albanian port city of Vlore with 142 people on board. Photo: Eugenio Castillo. Source: Wikipedia

“Who are the new rich?” I ask him. How was the new wealth created? “With the influx of money from international organizations, firstly. And then with construction. Twenty years ago, Tirana had a population of 250,000. Now it is nearly a million.” The men behind this radical transformation of the city’s landscape are the true masters of contemporary Albania. But now, after a prosperous fifteen years, their little empire is beginning to crack beneath the property crisis. Many go under, while the most agile and rapacious manage to reinvest elsewhere. For example, in the major publishing groups (notorious for paying journalists a pittance) or in the very Albanian business of private schools and universities. There are at least twenty private universities in Tirana, charging monthly fees of around 200 or 300 euros (more or less the salary of a public employee). Many simply hand out pieces of paper (we Italians know something of this, through the lamentable incident featuring Renzo Bossi and the Northern League entourage). Some of these institutions, the most respectable ones, train the new middle class. Meanwhile, the children of the elite head straight for London or the US for their higher education.

I am in Tirana for the publishing fair. Il naufragio (“The shipwreck”), my book about the Kater I Rades, which sank off the coast of Puglia in 1997, has just been translated into Albanian. Although it has been well received by the liberal press, I get the impression that a long operation to erase the events of the 1990s (and particularly the disaster of 1997) has struck the new Albania. This is confirmed when I chat to the writer Ardian Vehbiu, the author of short stories about the totalitarian era, and of an essay entitled KundËr purizmit (“Against purism”, Botimet Dudaj, 2012) on the spread of identity-based nationalism. “Only a small minority of intellectuals are interested in the terrible events of the past”. Everyone else wants to forget certain episodes, because they are associated with poverty, misery, chaos. Not just the nouveaux-riches: even the very small middle class, or the suburban population which is encroaching on the centre and can barely make ends meet. Even the students who crowd around the stands at the publishing fair want to forget: they look ahead, they dream of other things.

This eradication has two consequences. The first is that the presence of Italy (though still evident in the names of banks, restaurants or products on supermarket shelves) seems to have evaporated. We are no longer the promised land, and one is hard-pushed to find an Albanian under the age of twenty-five who understands Italian – something that was unthinkable until a decade ago. Now, young people speak perfect English, much better than their peers across the Adriatic. (Naturally, the fact that we are incapable of establishing a true transnational dialogue, and of understanding the radical changes to our neighbouring country, is the main reason for this evaporation).

The second consequence is that, with the erasure of a critical memory of the 1990s, the possibility of an objective analysis of political responsibilities has also been cancelled out. Today, Albania seems one of the freest countries in the world; yet those in power are the same people who were already in power in the first half of the 1990s, taken from the ranks of the old Communist Party (the third or fourth ranks). Vehbiu tells me, “The structure of public language, the syntactic construction of the sentences uttered by ministers or political leaders, is the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. The subjects of the sentences change (instead of communism they talk about Europe, for example), but the way they talk is identical”.

Almost as though to conceal this continuism, and the problems that afflict nine-tenths of society, the capital is swathed in an incredible number of national flags. Celebrations of the centenary of Albanian independence in 1912 are underway. But the official flags draped on governmental buildings along the Boulevard aren’t the only ones; six or seven hang from every apartment building, almost as though it were the eve of a World Cup Final.

The book fair is held in the Palace of Congresses, in a part of the city where the urban layout has remained the same as it was under the Fascist occupation. It’s like being in a small-scale reproduction of Rome’s EUR quarter. Wide open spaces, imposing rationalist colonnades. There are many Italian authors among the titles on sale. These include both twentieth-century classics (Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati, Ignazio Silone, Primo Levi…) and more recent authors (Umberto Eco, Antonio Tabucchi, Niccolò Ammaniti, Roberto Saviano, Carmine Abate, Michela Murgia…). In general though, what jumps out is that the Albanians are a people of great translators. There is no more or less well-known European or American author who has not been translated. And yet, as a journalist points out, the quality of the translations often leaves much to be desired: “Many have managed to ruin even Nobel prizewinning works…”

My publisher, Arlinda Dudaj (a key figure for Italian publishers, from Mondadori to Feltrinelli) informs me that the effects of the publishing crisis are beginning to be felt here too, in the same ways and with the same merciless figures as in Italy. Many report losses of between 20 and 30 per cent. It is likely that few will survive the next few years, in a country whose financial crisis seems dependent above all on the financial crisis of its two largest neighbours, Italy and Greece.

Among the books I buy there, the one which grabs my attention the most is the Albanian translation of The Clown by Heinrich Böll. The translator is Ardian Klosi, a cosmopolitan writer, journalist, refined publisher, ecologist, one of the most interesting and loudest voices in post-totalitarian Albania. Last spring, Klosi committed suicide. Due to the profound shock that it caused among a wide circle of friends, intellectuals, contemporaries and political militants, his suicide reminded me of that of Alex Langer. I was struck by his translation of Böll, published three years ago, because one in five pages in the book is printed on a grey background. When I asked his niece why this was, she told me that the “grey pages” (about fifty in total) are those that had been censored by the regime in the first edition in 1985. They are about sex, religion, love… (“topics that were forbidden in those days”). Klosi wanted to publish the new edition in this format. There could hardly be a more ruthless depiction of the madness of the dictatorship: one of the most ferocious books written against the painfully slow process of the denazification of Germany, censored out of obtuse moralism.

In the evening, I walk alone through the streets of the Blok. This was once a forbidden citadel in which the dictator, the members of the Politburo and their families lived, surrounded by soldiers. Now just a few of its buildings are still standing, in particular the residence of Enver Hoxha, which is now empty. The Blok is at the heart of the construction makeover of the capital. It is where the new upper class lives. By night, its clubs, discos and lounge bars (which have mushroomed, outdoing even Trastevere) are packed with people who pull up in their SUVs or Mercedes. This is the heart of the socio-economic, and above all aesthetic, power of the new Albania: the storming of the Winter Palace, fuelled by cocktails and thumping music.

Travelling southwards

Pasolini once said more or less that the Third World began in the suburban housing estates of Rome. I thought the same, walking around Tirana. You don’t need to go far out into the suburbs. It is enough to wander about one hundred metres from the grid of central streets: even just behind the American embassy a new world begins, completely different to that of the Blok and the Boulevard. It is a jumbled maze of narrow lanes, demolished buildings, crumbling asphalt, puddles… as well as a multitude of small shops selling all kinds of things, street hawkers, working-class cafés crowded at all hours of the day and night: a bustle of Levantine life.

Albania is a layering of different temporal and architectural planes. It might be excessive to use the term Third World (as it was for the suburbs of Rome, really). However, what is certain is that there’s another world clamouring at the s of the distorted development that sometimes seems to have taken over the country. A world made up of men and women who are struggling.

Fatos Lubonja is a writer who was condemned to forced labour by the regime and spent seventeen long years in a gulag. He is now editor of a magazine called PËrpjekja. I discussed the latest issue with him at length: a monograph which examines the national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who in the fifteenth century resisted the oppressive forces of the Ottoman Empire for more than two decades. The issue came out just when the Albanian independence centenary celebrations were building up (the anniversary falls on 28 November); its strongly anti-nationalistic viewpoint could hardly fail to jar in the midst of all this patriotic euphoria. Lubonja’s theory is an interesting one. Skanderbeg, he says, was the main hero around whom Albanian national-communism was constructed. That regime-led ideology proved increasingly asphyxiating, yet necessary, as Enver Hoxha gradually broke away from all of the other states in the Marxist-Stalinist-Leninist universe, one by one, and locked the country inside its own borders. Nowadays, Lubonja continues, that iconography has not been rejected. Instead, in a remarkable form of continuity, it is used for other purposes. The country has shifted from national-communism to national-Europeism. The myth of Skanderbeg (whose anti-western features are played up) is now being instrumentalized in Albania’s request for EU membership. A truly paradoxical mirror trick.

Yet I get the impression that, in addition to masking the nation’s social crisis, the new Albanian nationalism artificially conceals other regional differences. “The political struggle is becoming regionalized”, many people tell me. The country’s previous prime minister Sali Berisha is increasingly perceived as a man of the north, and it is in fact in the rural north, on the border with Kosovo, where he has his stronghold. Vice versa, the Socialist Party, historically strong in the south, is giving its vision of Albania an ever more southern-leaning flavour. The country’s political map is increasingly split in half, and these divisions seem also to underline linguistic differences. Tirana, the tumultuously transformed capital, the ultimate object of the political tussle, is in the middle.

The fact that nationalism vies with a strong regionalism can be grasped simply by touring the country. In Vlor, for example, the city where the independence process was set in motion in 1912, remembering those events means remembering almost exclusively Ismail Qemali, a kind of Albanian equivalent of Mazzini. This was his birthplace, and giant portraits of him are everywhere in this seaside city. In the capital, on the other hand, it seems to me that he is commemorated much less. I went to Vlor for another presentation of my book. With the young staff from Dudaj publishing house, I crossed the whole country by car: a long, toll-free motorway now links Albania from north to south. Whizzing by to our right and left, among countless Taçi Oil petrol stations (Rezart Taçi is the Albanian oil baron who wanted to buy Bologna football club), is a country that is very different to Tirana. Durrs is a city that has ruined its coastline with an endless stretch of hotels and tower blocks that go right down to the water’s edge. One of the greatest blights on contemporary Albania is the way its coast has been smothered in concrete, often resulting in shining examples of unfinished monstrosities. The other is that of waste disposal. In a nation in which half the population still lives in villages, the vast majority of refuse is simple burnt in the open air. That might still have been sustainable thirty years ago. But today, with a country invaded by plastic wherever you look, the foundations are being laid for an environmental disaster.

In Fier, many traces of the old Albania can still be seen. Small, dimly lit kiosks, market stalls proudly displaying live turkeys, shabby bars where people drink raki or Turkish coffee… “You like exoticism”, my publisher Arlinda Dudaj reproaches me, unmasking in a few words what Edward Said would have branded “bad orientalism”. And yet, just a few kilometres out of the city, I cannot help but be amazed by an old glass greenhouse, a few hectares long. The greenhouse is no longer in use, but the glass remains: a cathedral of engineering in the middle of the fields. Southern Albania is a vast stretch of olive groves, not that different to the Salento coast across the sea, in Puglia.

At the last Turin Film Festival, a film by Roland Sejko was presented, entitled Anija (“The Ship”). It recounts the last thirty years of Albanian history through the “journeys of hope” made by migrants to Italy: they used to set off from the same coastline we are driving down now. A wealth of footage and interviews recall, for example, the first Albanian landings in Brindisi in March 1991, five months before the Vlora docked in the port of Bari. Sejko’s is a wonderful film, especially because it uses so much old footage from Albanian television: materials that give us insight into a world (life beneath the stifling shroud of totalitarianism, the desire to escape) that has now disappeared. There are also some chilling black and white images. Footage of a people’s trial held at Berat in January 1978. Several young people (“individuals who are degenerates in their private and social lives”) are condemned to death merely because they are fans of Italian music and have planned (according to the prosecution) a journey to escape the country.

As we cross the outskirts of Vlor I think back to their expressions, frozen in fear, at the moment that the sentence is announced. Here, Italy and the Italian language still seems to have a strong presence, stronger than in any other city in Albania. And yet, even here, as I observe the disfigured coastline, the buildings on the rocks, the resorts for tourists who flock each summer from the north of the country or from the other side of the Adriatic, it occurs to me that those terrorized expressions are an archaeological remnant.

After the book presentation, we don’t have time to go any further south; we need to be back in Tirana the same evening. It’s a shame… Made curious by what Artan Puto had told me in the car, I would have liked to see Ksamil, the southernmost tip of Albania, ten kilometres beyond Saranda, and right opposite the island of Corfu. “Before”, Puto had said, meaning “during the regime”, there had been a beautiful orange grove, a spectacle of nature and of the human hand at work. It is no longer there: it was torn up by the tourist industry, like so many things in the new Albania.

I think to myself, it is better not to have seen it after all. Somewhere I once read that the destruction of a citrus grove is one of the worst crimes against civilization. But try as I might, along the road back towards the capital decked out for the national independence celebrations, I cannot remember where.

More on the repression of 1997

I would like to be more specific. Of all the things that have struck me on this latest trip to Albania, the repression of the 1997 revolt (a bloody explosion of violence that caused three thousand deaths in just a few months) is the thing that astounded me the most. On all the Albanian television channels, both public and private, I often happened to see during this trip a propaganda message produced by the Berisha government. In a few short seconds, it commemorates a hundred years of Albanian history, from the independence in 1912 to the celebrations then taking place in 2012. All the main players of national history are there: even Enver Hoxha seems to have been reinstated among the pantheon (it as if we Italians, on the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, would have commemorated Cavour, Manzoni and Mussolini all in the same way). There are plenty of images of the fights against the regime (when Berisha was leader of the opposition) and of the ship Vlora’s voyage to the coast of Puglia. The film then jumps to significant dates in the new century. In the middle, there seems to be a massive hole surrounding the events of 1997 and the question of who carries political responsibility for them. Almost as though we were in a Philip K. Dick novel, part of the national past has been sucked into a void.

Now it is the best part of two decades since the collapse of the financial pyramid schemes and the ensuing chaos, a chaos that we perceived solely as the danger of a new wave of migrant landings. In actual fact, those months are a pivotal moment for understanding contemporary Albanian history. A nation that had emerged from the most rigid of Stalinist systems seemed suddenly to collapse beneath the illusions of easy finance. A coincidence? No, far from it. The political responsibility for what happened can be linked specifically to deep-seated factors. There was a government and a president of the Republic (Sali Berisha himself) who, backed by many western embassies, had urged the general public to invest in financial companies. When increasingly vast demonstrations demanded that the government resign, it defended its position of power. Meanwhile, the opposition parties proved incapable of dealing with the situation. This is where the 1997 Albanian crisis began, with the entanglement of political Byzantinism and economic disarray. Following the violent repression of a fully justifiable social and political revolt, Albania was plunged into chaos. In the south, especially, armed gangs seized control for several months.

Those months are in fact the subject of a novel by Fatos Lubonja, 1997: Apokalipsi i rremË (Marin Barleti, 2010),1 one of those books I took with me to Albania almost as though it were a historical map. It is not an essay, nor a compilation of memoirs, but a historical novel based around the author’s alter ego Fatos Qorri: a novel in which pages from the main character’s diary are interspersed with a third-person narrative about the turmoil throughout the country. What is described in the book is tragically true: the apocalypse of the title refers to an increasingly traumatic series of events. It proves “false”, because the protests got out of hand. The revolt became anarchic and, in the end, the lid was clamped down again, without anything changing – in a way reminiscent of Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Lubonja played an active role in civic society at the time. Along with Kurt Kola and Daut Gumeni, he was one of the main figures leading the Forum for Democracy: a varied collection of associations, people who had been politically persecuted, simple dissenters who wanted a change. In the new guard that had established itself around Sali Berisha (who later returned to power in the new century too), there was in actual fact plenty that was old.

In an interview he gave recently to the Albanian magazine Mapo, which has been translated into Italian on the “Albanianews” website, Lubonja admitted, “Perhaps my viewpoint was rather too idealistic: to complete in 1997 what we had been unable to do in 1991, to crush the remnants of the dictatorship by ourselves, and not just through the fall of the Berlin Wall”. He continues, “I consider that dismantling to be the foundation of everything that came subsequently: of the fact we have a political class which thinks only of itself, which wants to get rich, does anything it wants, where there are murders, destruction, reconstruction, and in the end nobody gets punished”.

Aside from its harsh political judgments, which indeed are fully understandable, 1997 is a book which succeeds in portraying an era, and in explaining how much of that forgotten past is still encysted in the viscera of Albania as it races towards an uncertain future. At one point Lubonja writes about the bloodiest days of Vlor: “Everybody was shooting into the sky. The greatest danger was the madness and panic of people who didn’t know what was happening, and what would happen to them the next day. It seemed to be an apocalyptic event, but it was a false apocalypse. It would not bring anything new. It would simply leave things the way they were.”

One question keeps buzzing around my head: is it possible to lay the foundations for a shared history between the two sides of the Adriatic? Can it really be done? Novels, stories and enquiries which seek to rise above the smallest ego, to look beyond their own side, seem to be going in that direction. There might not be many, but there are some. And sometimes, they are the only weapons we have against the troops of repression.

Afterword: The victory of Edi Rama

The victory of the centre-left coalition led by Edi Rama in the latest Albanian elections probably marks the end of Sali Berisha’s long rise to power: he had been prime minister for the past eight years, but above all the President of the Republic in the first few years of post-communism, which included the terrible crisis of 1997. Berisha, at the helm of the Democratic Party, was the strong man of the much-debated post-totalitarian transition phase, during a period when the Byzantine workings of politics played counterpart to society’s rapid transformations.

The last elections tell us a lot about the “country opposite”: what kind of dialogue can be established over the next few years? The Democratic Party did badly, that much was clear. Despite the large percentage of abstainers, the anti-Berisha vote reveals that the majority of Albanians who did go and vote, many returning from Italy and Greece to do so, want a new direction. Albania now finds itself at a crossroads: it can draw a line under the long transition period and proceed towards European integration, which everybody seems to want; or it can embrace the worst vices of its past. The socialist candidate Edi Rama, who was Mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011, embodied the spirit of change. However, he has two main stumbling blocks in front of him. The first: the profound renewal of the Socialist Party, post-Fatos Nano, has only been half completed. The second: his main ally, Ilir Meta (who is strong with 16 members of parliament out of the 84 in the new majority) was also an ally of Berisha until six months prior to the elections. To his critics, Meta (himself a former member of the Socialist Party) is the symbol of Albanian transformism. In January 2011, the opposition organized a huge demonstration against a case of extreme corruption in which the then-deputy prime minister Meta was implicated. The police fired shots into the crowd, killing four people. Rama has now been forced to affiliate himself with him in order to beat Berisha. How will his government be conditioned by this?

Nevertheless, a new wind seems to be blowing in Albania. Rama was not just voted in by young people and by the urban middle classes. His party won in almost every province: not just in the south, but even in some former Democratic Party strongholds in the north of the country.

To understand what the guiding principles of his new government might be, one should read his last book, Kurban, a mixture of autobiographical memoir and political essay. In Albania it has sold more than twenty-thousand copies, as many as a bestseller. Kurban is first and foremost a harsh accusation of the corruption of politics and the servile attitude of intellectuals and journalists, who often behave as though the regime had never collapsed – two themes that have been extremely topical in recent years.

Rama also seems very aware of the risk of Albania being overturned by an unhealthy urbanization (a scourge which has so far been endorsed by both the left- and the right-wing, even during Rama’s stint as mayor of the capital). This, along with the overhaul of institutions, will be one of the bench tests for his coalition government: these are the issues on which the Rama government will have to prove it is truly up to tackling the issues proclaimed by the author of Kurban. If it is not, but one hopes this is not the case, the disappointment will be immense.

  1. Due to be published in English by Istros Books in 2014 as The False Apocalypse: From Stalinism to Capitalism.

Published 8 September 2014

Original in Italian
Translation by Catherine Salbashian
First published in Lettera internazionale 114 (2012) (original Italian version excluding "Afterword"); Wespennest 166 (2014) (German version); Alessandro Leogrande, Adriatiku, (Botimet Dudaj, 2013) (Albanian version); Eurozine (English version)

© Alessandro Leogrande / Eurozine

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