Issue 35, Final Fringe

Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood: Lessons from Albania

There’s a popular joke in the Balkan region that goes something like this:

“Why do Albanian border patrols consist of three men?

“Well, there’s the one who can read, and then there’s the one who can write.  The third is a political commissar to keep an eye on those two intellectuals.”

While not terribly witty (or encouraging), the joke does reflect a certain assumption some have about this small Mediterranean country—that Albania’s long history of occupation by both the Turkish and Russian empires has created a community of illiterate and politically shell-shocked individuals.  Although neither is terribly accurate, the stereotypes do have some historical basis.  Centuries of Big Brother watching and economic disparity have made being an intellectual in Albania both dangerous and difficult.  But as the country nears fifteen years of independence from communist rule, survivors of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime are finding their voices—and those of us in the West would do well to listen very closely.

Historically, literature has functioned not only as a form of entertainment, but as a reflection of life and society at a given time: a barometer by which we can gauge the world’s humanity.  By reading Jane Austen or George Elliott, we get a clear sense of the propriety and place of women in 19th Century Britain; Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright will forever testify to the struggles of African Americans during the early-to-mid 20th Century; Elvira Dones, Ylljet Aliçka and others like them now continue in that tradition, bearing witness to the history and current culture of Albania.

For six-hundred years, Albania survived under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire.  This rule began to collapse during the First Balkan War in 1912, and by 1913 Albania was recognized as a separate country (minus Kosovo) from the rest of the region.  Its sovereignty was forgotten (ignored?) by all leaders during World Wars I and II, enduring repeated invasions by neighboring Italy, Greece and Germany.  In the years following, Communism established a stronghold and the country’s intellectuals found their safety in spouting government propaganda.  As Dr. Robert Elsie (a Canadian born author, translator, and interpreter) notes in his essay “Albanian Literature, an Overview of Its History and Development,”1 the 1930s saw a change in literature: “an influx of new ideas from abroad and a higher level of formal education among intellectuals flung open the gates to cultural advancement.”  But that advancement would come to a shocking halt in the 1940s when Enver Hoxha assumed control.  Hoxha and his entourage saw the country’s intellectuals as threats, and “the immediate post-war period [became] an Apocalypse for Albanian writers and intellectuals.”  Those suspected of dissention were arrested, and often put to death—the list of the talent lost during this time is disturbing.  But in 1991, Albania’s communist system finally disintegrated, opening it up to the rest of the world.  What was discovered when that finally happened was that Albania’s culture, which can trace its roots back to the Illyrians (pre-dating both the Greek and Roman) has managed to maintain an integrity and uniqueness throughout it all.  It has now become a culture that, without the constraints of communism, is finally free to express itself.

We know that artists create from what they know; from their experience in the world.  Their work bears witness to the lives they have lived and to the histories that have shaped them.  And that witnessing, in turn, gives the work praxis—serving to not only act as a mirror of a culture, but to suggest action as well.  Jane C. Sugarman, in her article “Imagining the Homeland: Poetry, Songs, and the Discourses of Albanian Nationalism,”2 nicely documents the interplay between Albanian poetry and action.  Sugarman states, “it is clear that in most cases the intelligentsia’s linguistic and folkloric pursuits led directly to the development of nationalist aspirations, and that their literary activities became inseparable from the formulation of political strategies.”  The praxis came about “in part when nationalist poems…were transformed into men’s narrative songs,” thereby making the work available not only to the bourgeoisie, but to the lower classes as well. Since it is true that the educational system in Albania is not good (over 90 percent of Albanian girls, for instance, never receive a high school education),3 the transformation of poetry into melody functioned much like the call-and-response songs of African slaves in the US; it allowed the masses to access the radical political messages of the poetry, politically activating them without alarming those who kept a tight reign.  As we embark on the 21st Century, the need for this type of poetry/song in Albania has begun to evaporate, being replaced with poetry and prose that suggests possible futures and documents an atrocious past.

Because of the oppressive constraints Albanians have had to survive in, most of the literature created in the country proper has taken on the form of poetry—the predominant prose coming from Ismail Kadare, self-exiled in France.  But that is beginning to change.  Dr. Elsie (one of the few Albanian-literature translators in the world) and Northwestern University Press are about to release the first collection of modern Albanian short stories translated into English, entitled Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood.  The compilation features writers from all over the country, embracing themes of war, love, death and oppression.

From the opening piece, a selection from Elvira Dones’ Stars Don’t Dress Up Like That, Elsie manages not only to capture the rhythm of speech and diction of the country, but the tone as well.  “If I were not so depressed,” Dones’ character Leila begins, “I might even be happy.”  As readers, we are sucked into the first person narration immediately, wanting to know why Leila is in “insidious pain” and unable to see what is happening around her.  She shares bits of her story, giving only enough to keep us engaged.  It isn’t until two pages later, when the perspective in narration switches, that we find out she is lying in a coffin, stab wounds riddling her body, on her way back home to Albania.  Elsie’s translation of Dones keeps intact the chilling and disturbing conveyance of reality for so many young women in the region—a lack of education and employment opportunity sends them abroad, often unwittingly into the hands of slave traffickers, and eventually to their death.  It is a cautionary tale, one whose message begs for attention—particularly “when there may be as many as 30,000 young Albanian women working as prostitutes in Western Europe” (unwillingly), and undoubtedly a good number, as well, here in the States.4

Likewise, Ylljet Aliçka’s “The Slogans in Stone,” takes on an Orwellian tone that for readers in the States might seem speculative, but rings true to the Balkans’ experience.  Andrea, a new schoolteacher “in an isolated mountain village in the North,” finds himself at the discretion of a regimented town bearing striking resemblance to communist society.  Andrea soon finds that, in addition to his teaching duties, he is to maintain a “slogan” out in the nearby pasture.  “If you want to be respected by the Party and the authorities,” another teacher cautions, “roll up your sleeves and take good care of your slogans.”  Aliçka’s slogans are poingnant: “The Most Dangerous Foe Is A Foe Forgotten;” “Long Live The Dictatorship Of The Proletariat;” “Yankees, Hands Off Vietnam;” and “Let Us Think, Let Us Work, Let Us Live Like Revolutionaries”—the last a slogan, the principal declares, that “Comrade Enver Hoxha used himself during the Seventh Party Congress.”  The slogans create the axis around which all else must function—the propaganda to live by, upon pain of death.  It is both a reminder of the recent past, and a warning to those who may be living in societies where the control of language by the government is increasing, and public dissention frowned upon.  Aliçka’s message prompts us to remember that when we get caught up in maintaining propaganda, we lose ourselves.

Each of the stories Elsie translates in this compilation offers something worth remembering, whether it addresses politics, social condition, or simply cultural practice.  They are well-needed documents of life—not just life in this small country, but life around the globe.  It calls to our humanity, draws attention to flaws in our own systems of government, and begs us to do something.  As is so often the case, we overlook what we can’t see.  As soon as the newspaper is shut, or the television station changed, we forgeth the genocide in Kosova.  We feel sympathy for a bit, then our daily lives pull our thoughts away.  But those who are living—just trying to survive—in those challenging environments don’t have that luxury.  And their stories require telling: if not to warn, then to testify.

Those of us that have grown up in the West often take for granted our relative safety.  We don’t think twice about walking down the street alone or speaking out against the President’s latest choices.  We don’t live in fear of soldiers showing up on our doorstep one morning and hauling our loved ones away, or the neighbor down the street initiating a blood feud because of an accidental insult.  But some of these tales remind us that those actions are not a far hop, skip or jump away from Guantanamo Bay, Gulf War censorship, or even the assault on a woman’s right to choose.  “There is still much to be learned behind the headlines of war and destruction,” Elsie recently said in an email.  Lessons those who cherish freedom and humanity should heed carefully.

Balkan Blood, Balkan Beauty should be available through Northwestern University Press during Summer 2006.

Works Cited

1. Elsie, Robert, PhD.  “Albanian Literature, an Overview of Its History and Development”  Österreichische Osthefte, Vienna, 45.1-2 (2003)

2. Sugarman, Jane C.  “Imagining the Homeland: Poetry, Songs, and the Discourses of Albanian Nationalism.” Ethnomusicology.  43.3 (1999).  The Society for Ethnomusicology.

3. Vullaimy, Ed.  “Streets of Despair.”  Amnesty International Magazine.  4 February 2006.

4. Ramet (Trondheim), Sabrina P.  “SLIDING BACKWARDS: The Fate of Women in Post-1989 East-Central Europe.”  Presentation at the 7th International Seminar Democracy and Human Rights in Multiethnic Societies, Introductory Lecture.  6 January 2005.