Before I went to Albania, I wondered about what I would find there.
I had vivid – and starkly contrasting – impressions of the country, acquired during different periods of my life.
During the Cold War, Albania was a part of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, but it was quite different to the other communist nations. Lying in a remote corner of the Balkan, it was bordered in the east by a high chain of mountains and the west, by the Adriatic Sea. In the south, a range of hills separated it from northern Greece.
But even more formidable than its physical seclusion, was its political seclusion. For 40 years, Albania was ruled by a perverse, eccentric tyrant named Enver Hoxha, who isolated his country from the rest of the world with the help of a savage security service. During his manic reign, Hoxha managed to generate a national income by manipulating one major communist power after the other. He wheedled huge sums of money out of them in exchange for his ideological alignment. It became almost like a game of musical chairs.
First he aligned Albania with neighbouring Yugoslavia and received assistance running into millions; later he turned against the Yugoslavs and embraced the Soviets and received more millions; then he turned against the Soviets and embraced the Chinese – and got more millions. In the meantime he had enormous statues of himself built all over the country. He turned Albania into his own personal fiefdom, a European version of North Korea. He was the Great Leader and the Great Genius and anyone unwise enough to question that was quickly silenced.
How much of the old communist system was still around?
Change had come swiftly to the other former communist bloc countries in Europe, but maybe it was different in Albania because it had been isolated for so long from the rest of the world, was economically poor, and despite several attempts, had not been accepted into the EU. There was a good chance that much of the old system had still been preserved, like an ancient insect caught in amber.
Then there was Islam…..I only became aware of the connection between Islam and Albania during the late 1990’s as a result of the catastrophic events which took place when the former communist regime in Yugoslavia imploded and the area known as The Balkan turned into an orgy of ethnic and religious violence. For most of the 1990’s, the European media was filled with tales of savagery which beggared belief. The Serbians, Orthodox Christians, murdered Croatians, who were Catholics and vice versa. Both of these supposedly Christian nations hated the Moslems and murdered them. There was layer upon layer of grievance and hate, which had been repressed by the communist Yugoslav regime.
In Kosovo, the southern-most region of the former Yugoslavia, there was a large number of ethnic Albanians who were Moslems; there were moderates and extremists. The moderates were democrats, who wanted a normal, westernised, democratic system. The extremists gathered together under the banner of the so called the ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ (the K.L.A.) were funded and armed by the Saudis: they wanted an Islamic state.
Would I encounter this situation in Albania?……….
What ever I found in Albania, it promised to be different.
And for a traveller, that was the main thing.
But initially, on first impressions, I was disappointed.
Albania didn’t seem different at all.
The cities were surprisingly modern, with a skyline defined by new apartment towers and in the centre, trendy boutiques and shops, supermarkets and advertising, bars and restaurants and casinos. There was a highly visible younger generation dressed to the modern times, with jeans and short dresses, smart phones and tablets and the pretence of super cool.
And the motor cars!
This was the most surprising of all.
There were more people driving around in luxury German cars than I had seen anywhere else in the world, including Germany.
The longer I stayed however, the more I began to see beyond the surface appearances.
As modern and European as Albania appeared to be, there was another country behind that urban façade.
Walking around the lower socio-economic areas of the cities, I found myself amidst rough, multi-story blocks of small apartments and run down streets and parks and statues and little cafes. It was here where the mass of ordinary people lived. In those places, I found a world which had been banished from the central areas of the big cities.
In time, the questions began.
Questions such as:
Where did money being used to buy all the trappings of modernity – the cars, the apartments, the consumer goods and so on, come from?
Albania was one of the poorest nations in Europe.
Was there was an Albanian middle class?
But there was no perceptible kind of economy capable of generating such a class.
Asking around, I didn’t seem to get any closer to any kind of a satisfactory answer.
The story that one man, running a mini-van, told me, was more the standard:
‘When the communism fell, we suddenly had all this fantastic freedom. Under the communists this country was like a big gaol. Everything was going to be better. I had plans. We all did. It didn’t work out. Under the communists, we were all poor and equal…now… there are some very rich and most of us work for nothing. You see the kids of the well-off few walking around with apple-Macs and designer clothes, whilst most people are battling to survive. The whole country is corrupt. The corruption is everywhere. We want to be in the EU because we hope that the EU will sort this country out, make it fairer, better, but the EU doesn’t want us, not until we have sorted things out ourselves first. I don’t think it will happen. Corruption is a way of life here. ‘
It seemed like a Catch 22 situation; Albanians saw Europe as the only antidote to the endemic corruption; but Europe was reluctant to add yet another corrupt nation to its bulging portfolio of corrupt regimes including: Italy, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.
And outside the cities with their conspicuous veneer of prosperity, especially in the central areas, there was rural Albania – the most primitive in Europe.
Instead of allocating the money he had conned out the world’s major communist powers to agriculture, a logical thing to do in a small country with a small population and large reserves of land and a sunny climate, the dictator Hoxha he insisted on allocating it to developing industry.
Albania was crippled by this absurd set of priorities. It never succeeded in developing any kind of industrial base and its agriculture was one of the most primitive in Europe; the scythe, the sickle and the hay-fork were often seen implements in the countryside. There were no system of roads worth the name and no infrastructure. The crops in the fields were small and often worked by hand.
No wonder the EU wasn’t breaking its neck to admit Albania to the EU: it would cost billions to modernise the agricultural sector and in the meantime of course much of that money would ‘evaporate’.
If evidence of communism was not easy to find in Albania, then Islam proved to be even more elusive.
The statistics said that over 70% of the Albanian people were Moslems. Problem was, I didn’t see any Moslems; no women wearing headscarves or niqabs or burkas or long cloaks; no men with beards; no big gleaming mosques with the call to prayer. I could see more ‘real Moslems’ in South Rotterdam. I wondered what was going on. On the basis of the coverage by the international mass media of events in Kosovo, I had concluded that in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, Islam was staging a major come back in Albania. The Saudis’ move into Balkan during the 1990’s seemed like an ominous portent of things to come. Considering that they devoted billions in the other nations of Europe – including Rotterdam – on building mosques, schools, boarding houses, media outlets and so on – then it seemed more than likely that they would have done the same in a country which had Islamic roots going back 400 years.
From what I saw, if they were keen on helping the Albanians to see the Light, then they had an awful lot of work in front of them.
Where were these Moslem hordes, these ‘Turks’, which the Serbs had wanted to drive off and kill in order to defend civilisation?
Measured by the standards of any other Moslem country in the world the Albanians were infidel.
In one city after the other (e.g,, Berat, Durres and Skonder), I saw mosques right next to churches. In Skonder, there was a mosque opposite two big churches (one orthodox and the other Catholic); in between them was a busy mall full of shops and boutiques and cafes – and a gay bar where I noticed that the local gays did not feel in any way inhibited in expressing their desires.
This was a tolerant country. I was impressed.
As one man told me: ‘I’m a Moslem, my wife is a Christian and our kids, well they can decide it for themselves. There’s a lot of intermarriage here…., it’s in the mountainous areas in the east where people are still trying to control their daughters…they’re more traditional, not so well-educated…’ .
I left Albania with a lot of questions with no answers.
In the dining room of a small hotel in Skonder I had an interesting conversation one morning with a middle-aged Albanian woman – an academic, living in Canada and visiting her native country.
It was the kind of conversation which occurs rarely.
Afterwards I almost had the feeling that it was a conversation which was meant to happen (not that I believe in fate or anything like that). What I mean is, I had all these thoughts roaming around inside my head, the result of weeks of travelling in a strange land, and now near the end of my trip I got the chance to discuss them with someone.
And there she was sitting at another table, a woman who knew this country better than just about anyone else around, sitting on her own with a book in front of her.
I was typing in my notebook with a cup of coffee in front of me.
How did we start talking?
It was something silly; the cook appeared out of a door wielding a huge knife and she joked with him in Albanian, they both laughed and she turned to me and said something like: ‘Nothing like a man carrying a huge knife to help you enjoy your breakfast huh?’
We laughed, made small talk – and then began really talking.
Long talk I guess you might call it.
‘Albania is a country which vanished off the map for half a century. It had no contact with the outside world. It was plunged into an ice age. It’s a country which has in some ways made progress and in other ways, has no hope. What you said about the tolerance between the religions here, that’s true. It came about because the dictator banned religion. The men of god were driven out of politics and public life. The churches and mosques were closed. Religion was restricted to being a purely personal affair. Albania was declared to be an atheist republic….’
‘An atheist republic?’
I had never heard of such a thing. It sounded strange. I was an atheist and for me atheism did not go together with tyranny. Then again, like any ‘-ism’, atheism might mean many things.
She spoke fluent English but sometimes I had to question her a bit in order to understand what she was saying. Not only did she have a rather complex view of events, she was also describing a complex situation.
The remnants of communism had seemed difficult to find in Albania, but she was telling me that the most obvious remnant of that perverse system was the absence of religious fundamentalism, in the modernity and tolerance of the Albanians; in the very fact that a gay bar could coexist along two churches and a mosque. This was a new and odd idea for me: that something very modern, very progressive, had come out of a brutal, hermit regime.
I said: ‘So in the long-term Albanian communism wasn’t such a bad thing. It managed to break the hold of religion on the people, something which communism failed to achieve in the former Yugoslavia or for that matter the other Eastern European nations such as Poland and Hungary…..’
‘I’m saying that the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha was terrible yet history is not a simple matter….in this case, yes, there were some positives that came out of a very negative time. Often you know history is relative, it’s not bright light and darkness doing battle, but rather two bad alternatives. Communism appeared in Europe because of all the negative forces, the great depression, fascism and also religion…religious extremism…
The world’s major religions are successful because most of their followers are poor, illiterate, gullible – brainwashed with backward, traditional ideas especially about women. They’re poor and have got big families and so they’re going to stay poor; they live in ghettos and shack towns…..they live in villages still run by feudal lords and bosses and the men of God, they work low-paid seasonal jobs or in dirty factories….these are the people who support the great belief systems of the world with their promises of Paradise. The reward comes after the grave, it’s only after you have died that you get the big pay-out…
In Albania religion has been put in its place….we lived under a dictatorship but we were freed from the men of God – and they’re always men aren’t they? – but now the communist dictators have been replaced by Mafia bosses. Crime is the only industry this country excels at…’
Yes, we talked a lot about that.
‘Hoxha wasn’t only a dictator, he was also a master criminal. ‘
We talked about how Hoxha had managed to con huge sums of money out of three different communist powers.
‘He was talented; a talented liar and a double dealer, a cynic. Today everyone hates him but his spirit is alive and well…our country is democratic, free elections and so on, but what does it all mean when corruption and crime is so widespread? The ghost of Hoxha stalks this country’
At some point our conversation turned to luxury motor cars.
I observed that in no other country in Europe had I seen so many luxury cars, sparkling new Mercedes, BMW’s, Audis…I described arriving in Albania, supposedly the poorest country in Europe, and seeing the streets crammed with elite German cars.
‘All of them are stolen! Want to buy a new Mercedes SUV? No problem.’
Stolen cars: the way she described it, it was an industry in itself: the stealing, the transporting, the fabrication of documents and so on.
‘I’m so surprised that the rest of Europe hasn’t done something about it…..it’s so blatant. Albania is the stolen car capital of Europe. The chain of corruption runs through the entire society and into the government bureaucracy. The Albanian criminals are second to none in stealing cars…its what we really excel at. ‘
In a reflective tone, I said: ‘If the Albanians could turn their criminal talents to legitimate business, they could rebuild their country…’
‘Rebuild their country?…’
‘That’s a nice idea!
It’s not applicable here though. It would need another revolution to achieve that, perhaps another occupation by a foreign power….the E.U. for example…but it isn’t going to happen…..’
More photos of Albania see Serious Travel Images: Albania-Part 2
Other blogs about former communist regimes: