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. Albania was ruled by a perverse, eccentric tyrant named Enver Hoxha, who isolated his country from the rest of the world – including the other communist nations in Eastern Europe – with the help of a savage security service. During his manic reign, Hoxha managed to generate a national income – a good deal of which went into his pocket – 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. No one, absolutely no one, ever went in or out of Albania: it was the forbidden land. On Corfu, the Greeks rented out binoculars to the tourists so that they could peer over at the shores of Hoxha’s enigmatic republic.
One of my motivations for going to Albania was to see 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 closed-off 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.
I had visions of the lingering remnants of 45 years of a communism: grey Soviet apartment blocks; wide roads and pavements; big parks dotted with statues of revolutionary heroes; antiquated, smoking factories and gloomy warehouses and drab apartment blocks – and the strange feeling of being in a place where there was no advertising, no hard-sell, no hype.
Then there was Islam.
I only became aware of the connection between Islam and Albania during the late 1990’s – this 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.
They were bad years in Europe, the 1990’s. There we were, with every reason in the world to be optimistic – after 45 years of Russian servitude, Eastern Europe was free – and then came Yugoslavia.
Back to square one. Back to the middle ages. For most of the 1990’s, the European media was filled with tales of savagery which beggared belief. I was dismayed that such barbarism could occur in the heart of Europe and even more dismayed by the refusal of European politicians to do something about it. They talked – and talked – whilst genocide, torture, rape and war raged on, day in, day out. The spirit of Neville Chamberlain loomed large.
The Serbians, Orthodox Christians, murdered Croatians, who were Catholics – and vice versa (during the Second World War, the Croatians had cooperated with the Nazis and exterminated over half a million Serbians). 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. When that regime collapsed, all hell broke loose.
The Grand Finale to the years of horror finally came with a region called Kosovo. I had never heard of Kosovo. By this time I had certainly heard a lot about a place called Srebrenica. Kosovo grabbed the headlines and for the first time, Albania appeared in the news. Suddenly journalists began writing up Albania – and the Islam factor in the Kosovo imbroglio.
Kosovo: like so much in the Balkan, there was a history to the place and an ugly history at that.
Kosovo was special for the Serbs. It was here during the 14th century that a Serbian army, led by a Prince Lazar, was defeated by the Turks, led by Sultan Murad. The Serbians lost and what followed was five centuries of savage enslavement. The battle of Kosovo occupied a position in Serbian religion, folklore and literature – in the development of the Serbian national consciousness – which is difficult for a non-Serb to appreciate. As far as the Serbs were concerned, Kosovo was a part of their nation. The only problem was: a majority of the people living in Kosovo were Albanians, not Serbs (the Albanians had migrated to Kosovo during the early 20th century and now outnumbered the Serbs). And the Albanians were Moslems, people who had in the past cooperated with the Turks and participated in the oppression of the Christians.
I can remember the first time I read about the Albanians being Moslems; it was news to me. Until then, I had connected the Albanians with Enver Hoxha and big statues and decades of seclusion; a silent and mysterious people.
Amongst the Kosovo Albanians, 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. The K.L.A. also attracted a lot of voluntary recruits and for the first time ever we heard about westerners who had converted to Islam and were ready to die for the cause. One of these was an Australian named David Hicks (after Kosovo, he went to fight Jihad in Afghanistan and later ended up incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay).
In 1999, the Serbian leader Milosevic launched a massive invasion into Kosovo. The aim was to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the region of Albanians. It was then that the US President Bill Clinton decided to take military action – i.e. to do what the Europeans should have done much earlier but true to form, preferred to talk about instead. Serbia was bombed for 3 months and the Serbians forced to withdraw from Kosovo. Thanks to the Americans, the Balkan was finally returned to a situation of stability.
However in the wake of events in Kosovo, there was a lot of speculation in the international media about Kosovo becoming a part of a ‘Greater Albania’ and by implication, an Islamic fundamentalist one.
When I went to Albania in the spring of 2012, it was with a sense of expectation: communism and Islam was bound to be an interesting combination.
I didn’t know what I would find there, but it promised to be different.
And for a traveller, that was the main thing.
Initially, on first impressions, I was disappointed.
Albania didn’t seem different at all.
To the contrary!
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 cars!
That really got me.
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 beneath it and there, I came face to face with the past. I didn’t need to go too far to find it. I walked around the lower socio-economic areas of the cities, where there were rough, multi-story blocks of small apartments and run down streets and parks and statues and little cafes; 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.
The development was going on in the cities. In the countryside it was a different story. The dictator Hoxha had wasted much of the money he had conned out of the communist powers. Instead of allocating it to agriculture, a logical thing to do in a small country with a small population with large reserves of land and a sunny climate, he insisted on allocating it to developing industry. To this day, Albania pays the price for this absurd set of priorities. It never succeeded in developing any kind of industrial base. Today, its agriculture is one of the most primitive in Europe; the scythe, the sickle and the hay-fork remain often seen implements in the countryside. There is no system of roads worth the name and no infrastructure. The crops in the fields are small and often worked by hand.
No wonder the EU wasn’t breaking its neck to admit Albania: 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 niquabs 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…., its 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 communism wasn’t such a bad thing. Dictatorship weakened the hold of religion on the people…..’
‘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…’
‘Though in fact communism was just like a religion anyway’ I said ‘a secular religion, a belief without a god….’
‘Yes too true, it collapsed though, unlike the other religions. Communism’s ambition was to become the world’s major belief system, to replace all the others including the traditional religions and liberal democracy. You know it made a mistake though…’
‘It’s ideal of liberating the masses through universal literacy, education and raising basic living standards, of providing everyone with a job and emancipating women, meant that sooner or later, it undermined itself…’
This was an unusual point of view coming from a highly intelligent woman who had obviously thought a lot about the fate of the communist idea.
She challenged my view of events and I challenged hers. That was a part of good conversations. They forced you to rethink your ideas, to confront the prospect of being wrong. In that way they were a part of a learning experience.
‘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…’
‘So communism was a necessary Evil…’
She smiled. She repeated the term ‘necessary Evil’. She turned it over and studied it like it was some kind of strange relic. She had given me the expression ‘atheist republic’ and I returned the favour with ‘necessary evil.’
‘How much Evil is necessary? Will there be no time when there is ….less Evil? Look at Albania, look at the other former communist countries, 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 has, the only thing it excels at…’
Talk about a change of subject.
Yes, another coffee please!
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. Even poor farmers drive around in a five year old Mercedes!’
Stolen cars: she knew something about this. 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.’
It didn’t surprise me. After witnessing the events in the Balkan during the 1990’s, I knew that Europe was capable of anything except doing something.
‘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…it 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?…’
She was sceptical.
‘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. The only hope for the young people is to leave.’
More photos of Albania see Serious Travel Images: Albania-Part 2
Other blogs about former communist regimes: