The Third International after Lenin

Monday, October 17, 2011

Journey to Albania


“ALBANIA – 1984″ BY BILL BLAND

Some weeks ago I received, through the Albanian Embassy in Paris, an invitation to visit the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania as the guest of the Committee for Cultural and Friendly Relations with Foreign Countries, and I set out from London on June 18th.

Perhaps as punishment for going to Albania, the weekly plane from Belgrade has a check-in time of 5.40 a.m. The night porter at the hotel where I passed the night in Belgrade told me that he was really a priest, but worked during the week to augment his meagre income. When he handed me my passport at four o’clock in the morning, he asked me where I was bound so early. When I told him, he shook his head sadly and said: “An ungodly hour for an ungodly country!” “Maybe”, I said, “but the only country I know where you can leave your wallet lying around and know that it will be there when you go back!”

I was greeted warmly at Rinas by Theofan Nishku, in charge of relations with friendship societies abroad. Later in the day I met the Committee’s new President, Jorgo Melica, who spoke highly of the Society’s work and arranged a programme for my visit which met my every request. I visited Korça, Shkodra, Gjirokastra and Saranda, while Mr. Nishku himself was good enough to spend the whole of my last weekend with me at Durrës. My interpreter was a pleasant young school teacher named Viktor Ristani, while my driver, Hodo Meçe steered carefully past every child and chicken. He was extremely proud of his new Volvo, which he polished at every opportunity and was outraged when, visiting the construction site of the new power-station at Koman on the River Drin, it became spattered with mud.

Albania is changing rapidly, and I noticed many new constructions since my last visit two years ago – from the new ornamental pond with its fountains opposite the Hotel Dajti in Tirana to the impressive Skanderbeg Museum in Kruja, which tells the story of Albania’s national hero in a vivid and artistic way.

In the Greek Minority Area

One of the most interesting experiences of my tour was a visit to the Greek minority in the south. Our first stop here was the village of Goranxi, which lies in the shadow of Mali i Gjere (Wide Mountain). It forms part of the higher-type cooperative farms of Lower Dropull, which embraces 17 villages with a total population of 10,500. I was entertained with raki and llokume (the latter being Albanian “Turkish Delight”) in the comfortable, beautifully-furnished home of Pano Tashi, a retired cooperative farmer, and his family. I recorded a long interview with Mr. Tashi. He asserted that the numbers of the Greek minority in Albania were nothing like the figure of 400,000 put forward by the Greek government, although – at 50,000 – it was in fact somewhat larger than the figure given to me on an earlier visit to the country. He ridiculed the stories being put forward by the Greek government to the effect that the Greek minority was “oppressed”. He showed me copies of the Greek-language daily newspaper, “Llajko Vima” (The People’s Voice); this is a specially prepared edition of the country’s leading newspaper of the same name “Zëri i Popullit,” it has a weekly literary supplement devoted entirely to poems and short stories by Greek-speaking writers. He also presented me with several books for adults and children published in the Greek language, and told me with evident pride of the Greek amateur dramatic societies and folk ensembles which flourished in the district, and described some of the films from Greece which he had seen in the past few months.

I asked him about the educational system in the minority area, and he told me of the Greek teachers’ training college in Gjirokastra from which his daughter-in-law had graduated before becoming a teacher in the village eight-year school. Here for the first three years education was conducted entirely in the Greek language; in the fourth year the child was taught the elements of Albanian grammar, and from the fifth year onwards education was carried out principally in Albanian, but with periods devoted to Greek language and literature. In this way the child became bilingual and was able to proceed to secondary or higher education (which is conducted in Albanian) and could undertake any occupation. In fact, I had already discovered in Tirana that members of the minority occupied some of the highest positions in the land – as, for example, the woman Vice-President of the People’s Assembly, Vitori Çurri.

As for the alleged “poverty” of the Greek community, he pointed out that Dropull was one of the richest areas of Albania, and said that out of the 190 families in the village, 122 had TV sets and 110 had washing-machines.

Thus, he said, there was not the slightest discrimination against the minority, whose culture was encouraged in every way, and members of the Greek community had equal rights in every way with the majority. Asked to say a few final words, he declared that he would never forget that the British people were allies of the Albanian people in the war and he hoped that the two peoples would always remain friends.

I was told that I was welcome to visit any other house in the village where someone was at home (all but pensioners and recent mothers being at work) to confirm what Mr. Nashi had told me, but I was completely satisfied with his sincerity and did not take advantage of the offer.

In the next village – Dervician – I was shown over the new Palace of Culture with an art gallery, library, restaurant – not to mention a theatre, equipped with a revolving stage, seating 470. And this was in a village with a population of just under 2,000!

The Penal System

I had asked particularly for detailed information concerning the operation of the penal system in the PSR of Albania, which is the subject of much misinformation in the British press. In this connection Paskal Haxhi, a judge of the Supreme Court, was good enough to accord me two long interviews in which he answered all my questions fully and presented me with several books on the subject. When translated, these and all that Mr. Haxhi (himself, incidentally, a member of the Greek minority) told me will be the subject of an article on the subject in ALBANIAN LIFE.

Among the most interesting facts which emerged was that the police in Albania have the duty of preventing or checking the commission of a crime, but have no power of arrest or of investigation. In the case of a suspected crime, they have power only to establish the identity of any persons they believe to be involved (including possible witnesses) and to report to an investigating magistrate, who alone may investigate and order an arrest.

The amount of crime in Albania, particularly serious crime, is very small as a result, said Mr. Haxhi, of the elimination of many of the social causes of criminality and most cases of petty crime are dealt with outside the courts by public criticism, etc. During the whole of 1982, for example, only 111 people in the whole of Albania (7% of them women) were sentenced to some penalty for criminal offences, and the great majority of these penalties did not involve deprivation of liberty. Of sentences of detention, the majority were of re-education (which is the kernel of the penal system) in labour camps, and only very serious or repeated crimes were the subject of a prison sentence, for which Albania has two small prisons. He was adamant that there was no truth whatsoever in stories, largely circulated by politically hostile émigrés, that detainees were subject to inadequate diet or ill-treatment, which would obviously defeat the fundamental aim of re-education. Prisoners had the right of complaint to the Attorney-General’s Office, and all complaints had to be investigated. Further, he – like other judges – visited labour camps and prisons regularly to investigate the progress of his “patients” and could order the cancellation of a remaining sentence where he was satisfied that re-education had been accomplished. It was interesting to discover that detainees in labour camps (but not in prisons) had the right to sexual relations with their wives or husbands during the two-monthly family visits, special accommodation being provided for this.

The death sentence, Mr. Haxhi stated, was a temporary and extraordinary measure applied only in the case of extremely serious crimes such as treason and where it was considered that re-education was unlikely to be successful. No death sentences had been passed in Albania so far during 1984.

Other Interviews

Shortly after my arrival in the country, I was privileged to meet Ali Xhiku, the Dean of the Faculty of History and Linguistics at the University of Tirana, and Professor Shaban Demiraj, who holds the Chair in Albanian Language and Literature. They were delighted to hear from me that the University of London had been granted funds to open an Albanian Department and asked me to convey to Dr. Deletant the offer to help with the provision of books or in any other way. I had been working for some time on a biographical sketch of an Englishman, John Newport, who fought with Skanderbeg, and they arranged a further interview with specialists in this field to help me track down the source of a quotation from him which is cited in the “History of Albania”. As a result it is now clear that the original source is not to be found in Albania and I have to search elsewhere.

I met Vaso Pano, the Director of ALBTURIST, and discussed ways and means of finding a less expensive route for British tourists to reach Albania than by air via Yugoslavia, and one less exhausting than the long journey by coach. Of course, when the Yugoslavs have completed their section of the railway which will link the Albanian rail network with the rest of Europe, this will provide one possibility. The main stumbling block to a quick and relatively inexpensive tourist route from Britain to Albania (via Corfu, for example) is that the Greek government (which regards itself as still in a state of war with Albania) will not, as yet, permit travel to that country other than by air. Nevertheless, Mr. Pano welcomed the first tour to his country organised by the Albanian Society and assured me that he would do everything possible to make this visit an interesting one.

I met two leaders of the Trade Unions of Albania -Qirjako Mino and Islam Bashari – and obtained from them much information on the trade union movement which is the subject of a separate article in this issue of ALBANIAN LIFE. They were also good enough to give me material, including badges, requested by the Museum of Labour History in London. They were extremely well-informed about the miners’ strike in Britain, which has been fully reported in the Albanian media.

Another interesting meeting was with Fuad Dushku, the Director of the Gallery of Arts in Tirana, with whom I had a long discussion on the principles of socialist realist art. He is arranging to send to the Society a set of specially-taken colour slides of representative paintings and sculptures exhibited in the gallery.

My final meetings were with Hiqmet Arapi, Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and with Estref Bega, Director of the Book Enterprise. With them I discussed ways and means of improving trade between our two countries. I had brought with me several suggestions from Ramsey Margolis of the Albania-General Trading Co. Ltd., (who, I discovered, is remembered throughout Albania as “the vegetarian”) on ways of making Albanian products (especially books) more acceptable to the British market. They expressed pleasure at receiving these constructive suggestions and promised to pass them on to the appropriate quarters. I came away loaded with catalogues, and samples of most products – from chrome ore and postage stamps to jam and wine – will shortly be on their way to Mr. Margolis.

Diversions

My trip was by no means all work, however. I visited numerous art exhibitions, saw the visiting Greek folk song and dance ensemble on television and, on one free evening in Tirana, went to the cinema. I found all seats booked for the latest Albanian film “The Judgement”, even though it was being screened simultaneously at several cinemas. I took myself off, therefore, to the little Agimi (Dawn) Cinema nearby, and saw an Italian film of Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor”. It was screened without subtitles, but with a synopsis in Albanian before each act. My ticket (there was only one price) cost 1 lek 50 qindarke – the equivalent of 15 English pence, and I could not but compare this with the £2.50 it would have cost me to see the same film in London.

My ever-solicitous guide and mentor Viktor Ristani insisted that in view of my great age I should rest for four hours each afternoon. I pleaded that this was a waste of time. I reminded him that, because of our atrocious climate, the siesta was not an English custom. I quoted the old Lancashire proverb: “There’s time enough to rest when you’re under the sod”. I told him that I was really only twenty-six and that my decrepit appearance was simply the result of a dissolute life. But all in vain! All this, he replied, made a siesta even more necessary! In consequence, I was free in the afternoons to wander around wherever we happened to be, searching for books, music, etc. to add to the Society’s collection. On one of these trips I discovered a manual of names of Albanian and Illyrian origin and, finding that the name of “Viktor” was not among them, I informed him gravely that he was required to change this by December 1st to “Jaseminë”. He seemed to find this shaka angleze (English joke) amusing.

One of the great personal pleasures of my trip was to meet in person the sports commentator and novelist Skifter Këlliçi, whose novel “The Last Days of a Prime Minister” I had just finished translating into English. Another was to meet again Faik Zeneli, who had been my interpreter on my first visit to Albania in 1962, since when he has been Counsellor in Rome and later Ambassador to Tanzania; he is now a Party functionary in his beloved home town of Shkodra, from where he was good enough to escort me to the Perlat Rexhepi State Farm, the Koman dam and several museums.

Reading back over what I have written, I realise that I shall be chided by my old Orkney friend John Broom for not having mentioned any negative features of life in Albania. The fact that I have to think hard to recall any such features of which I became aware is no doubt evidence that my overall impression was extremely favourable. But yes! Although food is plentiful and its distribution seems wholly adequate (there are food shops in almost every block open, on a shift system, from early morning till late at night) I found it difficult in the towns to buy soap powder. This may have been due to my not knowing precisely which type of shop sold it (a kinkaleri, which sells much more than trinkets, a “household goods” shop, a “various goods” shop, etc.). There seems to be no actual shortage of soap powder (at least, Albanian clothes appear spotlessly clean) and I eventually obtained a packet at one of those village stores which sell everything.

Conclusion

On my last evening in Albania I was the guest at a huge seven-course banquet kindly given in my honour by Mr. Melica, which even my capacious stomach could not accommodate.

My final act before catching the plane back to “Christian civilisation” was to be interviewed by radio and television on my impressions of Albania. I replied:

“My impressions are so many and varied that it is hard to summarise them in a few words.

But long after I have left your shores some things will remain vividly in my mind:

  • the huge dam under construction at Koman;
  • the breathtaking beauty of the Albanian landscape;
  • the gaily-painted playgrounds and the beautiful, healthy children playing in them;
  • the warm friendliness and hospitality of the Albanian people to those who come to their country as friends and not as enemies;
  • the blend of the aromas of linden trees and roasting coffee which for me will always symbolise Shkodra at six o’ clock in the morning.

But long after all these memories have begun to fade with the passage of time, I shall recall the party I had the privilege of attending in the south. It was given by young people and their teachers to celebrate the former’s graduation. They were from Ksamil, where they and their parents have made the wilderness blossom with oranges and lemons. I noted that the girls would invite the boys to dance on equal terms with them – a little thing, but one which for me symbolises the liberation of women which has made such giant strides in Albania. I observed that their toasts to the Party of Labour and its leadership were spontaneous and sincere, and this should not surprise people who are aware of the doors now open to these young people which in the past stood firmly closed. For several hours after I was supposed to leave I stayed on to listen to the throb of Albania’s over-powering folk music and to watch with the greatest pleasure as these young people laughed, sang and danced together. It seemed to me that here was embodied in real life the slogan which stands off the beach at Durrës:

‘Beautiful is the life we have created,

but brighter still will be the future’”

(reprinted from Albanian Life, n. 29, 2/1984)

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