Reactions to Tirana (and Albania)

It has taken me a while to feel I can post something about my trip to Albania.  Well strictly my trip wasn’t really to Albania, it was to Tirana: there is much more to Albania than Tirana, for all that Tirana is undoubtedly Albania’s “primate city”.

Honestly, I didn’t make that term up nor does it mean a city full of apes, hm, though perhaps it does mean that really.  I write of course as a ape who resides very fondly most of the time in London, England’s primate city, the UK’s primate city!

But back to Albania.  Tirana has between 600,000 and 900,000 of Albania’s 2.9M population.  That huge interval estimate of Tirana’s population is because one of my hosts was adamant that the official population for Tirana, of 610k, is way low and misses a continuing and explosive growth.   To be a primate city it has to be more than twice as populous and more than twice as important as the next largest city and Tirana ticks those boxes.  Though this is the situation now, Tirana was only a small town in the late 19th Century when Albania was a collection of Vilayets and Sanjaks: provincial divisions within a faltering Ottoman empire.

Ah, and I’m already into the problem: history, more particularly, Albania’s history.   It’s not that I usually ignore history.  In fact, whenever I go to a new country, or even a large town or area that is new to me, I try to understand a bit of its history.  Everywhere that has been populated by the dodgy human apes has history.  Or, if it has no written history, it will have archeologically inferred history.  Even the very few parts of the world that have never been populated by us have geology and geography that I like to check out.  My mind has a strange collage of rather skimpy, cartoon like, ideas of the geology, geography, prehistory of the many places I’ve been lucky enough to visit.  It also has and a very thin history there for each of them.   All that is there in rather unreliable stored mix in my head and I have no illusions that any places that have been populated by humans have had untroubled histories.  However, Albania has impressed me with something of the stark severity of its history.  That was in my mind during and since my visit more than for any of my previous visits anywhere.  The only close competitor is Vienna: the first time I went to Vienna I walked around on my free day feeling oppressed with a sense of the waves of horror it has hosted.  I’ve been back to Vienna several times since, all on work trips, and the sense of oppression has never been as severe and I’ve even developed quite a fondness for Vienna.  Neither for Vienna nor for Albania was it really fair of me to experience them in this way, but I did. Arguably, so many places, take York or Norwich for example, have arguably as severe historical stains on them as Vienna and Albania.  Humans, surely the least sociably competent primate species, seem to soak so many places in horror, blood, death and oppression as we strive to define our identities.  (Ugh, rereading this I realise I have left out visiting the concentration camp at Buchenwald while at a lovely conference in Weimar as I’m omitting places created purely for the purposes of horror from my comparisons, I’m interested at the moment in how “ordinary places of human occupation” affect me.)

Years ago, when I started working with an Albanian (Arlinda Cerga: thanks again Arlinda!) on the translation into Albanian of the CORE-OM I read up a bit about Albania as I always try to.  I read Ismail Kadare’s “The Successor” and felt it caught brilliantly some sense of what it is like to try to live, and to try to keep thinking, in an extreme and crass totalitarian regime.  Kadare is one of Albania’s considerable number of outstanding human beings and I thought the book stood up well in the comparisons that are made between him and Kafka, Gogol, Orwell and other great writers.  I’m about to read some more Kadare when I’m feeling strong enough.

After Arlinda, Blerta (Bodinaku) has been my main Albanian colleague and collaborator and we, with input from others, finished the Albanian CORE-OM and Blerta has gone on to do an impressive PhD using it and other measures.  Over the last eight years she and I have met a number of times, but never in Albania itself.  (Twice oddly enough, in Vienna.)  This trip to Tirana was my first trip to Albania and the reason was to sit in on the focus group for the Albanian translation of the YP-CORE (Young Persons’ CORE: for 11 to 17 year olds).  I was also doing a workshop and a plenary talk at an international conference which Blerta, with others, and with other collaborating institutions as well as Tirana University, were hosting in Tirana.

In my reading before flying out this time I discovered Edith Durham and started reading her High Albania (1909).  Durham was a remarkable woman, and though she’s no literary stylist, High Albania struck me as a very remarkable book.  There’s a rather thin and perhaps not very sympathetic wikipedia page about her at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Durham and the whole of High Albania is online here.  I  was reading a convenient Kindle edition you can check out here(1), despite my continuing love of “real books”.  I also managed to read Robert Elsie’s Albania in a nutshell while I was out there and, since returning, Marcus Tanner’s Albania’s Mountain Queen: Edith Durham and the Balkans.  That’s quite a lot of reading (I did also read more about Albania and Tirana on wikipedia and a guide to Tirana!), it’s probably twice as much as I’ve done for any other translation trip and it reflects something that developed as the trip approached and through it: a fascination with Albania and its history and also with this amazing woman Edith Durham and with why I’d never heard of her.

I don’t want to get caught up in clichés about Albania: it has undoubtedly had a warred over and at times horrifying history.  It is part of the Balkans and therefore part of an area that it has, as I see it, suited more western, northern and eastern parts of Europe, and suited Russia and the Ottoman empire, to have as a barrier zone into which to locate much of the worst of our territorial warring over some 500 years or more, a phase we’re hardly reliably out of now.  It has a history of blood feuding which, from talking to someone involved in refugee care in London is not completely over yet.  It has had perhaps the worst denigration of women in European history though hardly any of the world can look proudly at our histories there can we?  My refugee service leader said that the men who come to them from Albania are mostly fleeing death threats and the women are mostly moderately feminist, moderately modern and feisty young women from rural Albania who can’t face the options available for them in their home towns.  The most recent challenge Albania has had, under Enver Hoxha, was a particular “socialist” dictatorship and totalitarian regime only outdone by the regime in North Korea for its grip on its population.  Hoxha probably purged more religion and cultural/religious history and architecture out of the country than has happened anywhere in the world.  (IS in parts of the “middle East” and northern Africa and the worst the Taliban did in Afghanistan seem to me to be the only comparable planned destructions of art and ideas.)

Albania is emerging from all of those things and at pretty dramatic speed.  Tirana, this very recently created capital city has grown dramatically.  It’s acquired recent fame for its paint and it felt a friendly and busy place to be.  It shocked me to find I was in the oldest university in Albania but to find that that university is exactly as old as I am (Tirana university was created under Hoxha in 1957).  Tirana has a generally rather unappealing to me mess of a very few early 20th and pre-20th century buildings, many Hoxha era buildings, and a rapidly growing number of generally rather repellant and grandiose post-Hoxha office buildings.  There’s another fascinating juxtaposition of most of the obligatory shops that you see in any major city anywhere in the world now, against street vendors selling vegetables, collected essentials (tights seemed to be particularly common) from a sheet laid on the pavement or a few boxes. Another juxtaposition is generational: younger and youngest in bright colours, particularly technicolour faux fur trim jackets and coats, alongside parents and grandparents in black and very basic, hard wearing clothing. The older people often have a look of years of tough living in their skin, eyes and generally complete absence of any obesity. By contrast the younger and youngest look well nourished, clean and healthy (though nearly everyone seems to smoke and often heavily).

Pehaps oddly, the most similar experience I’ve had was of visiting Shanghai earlier this year where there are similar juxtapositions, particular by generations though Shanghai is so much build in internal migration that I remember few of the adult parent with child couples walking the streets that I saw in Tirana.  I can see that it’s odd to compare a city of 27M people with one of say 900k, in a country of under 3M: you would need nine Albanias to fill Shanghai.  Blerta thought the comparison hugely amusing.  Clearly Albania and Shanghai China come out of different ethnicities, different religions, radically different languages but they do share emergence from communism.

I knolw that I’m still digesting what I made of Albania.  I am keen to build work links there and fairly confident that that will be possible and supported by most people I met. Albania has a long, if sometimes oppressed (Hoxha again) tradition of speaking a number of languages. I found a real mix of people who speak next to no English with many who speak it so well that conversation was no problem at all.  Traditionally people have also spoken Serbian, Italian, Greek, Macedonia, Bulgarian, Turkish, German and French depending on the era and on the part of Albania in which they lived.  That’s great fo me as I’m no linguist.  I will try to add to my “faleminderit” (“Thanks/thank you”), “po” (“yes”) and “jo” (“no”) but I have no illusions that I’m going to learn even enough Albanian to do more than cope in shops without lucking on an interpreter.

People were pretty much all very welcoming and I had a great time in my six days there, culminating in one particularly splendid meal in a small restaurant where the chef is an artist by day and the food he served up was wonderfully diverse, fresh and tasty.  Through that meal the conversation with my hosts was full of laughter but we covered a huge range of topics that were often grim.  We talked about the challenges to art, creativity and empirical exploration of our world.  We shared worries about Trump in the States, Putin in Russia, Brexit in the UK and grim prospects of the rise of the right in Europe and about the the seeming total control of neoliberal profiteering everywhere.  We talked about how in Albania they are in many ways building research and academic work pretty much from scratch.  That was a state of affairs that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. That was not my experience in Croatia or Slovenian, the only other parts of the Balkans I know a bit, nor in former “Iron Curtain” countries I have visited like Slovakia, Lithuania, Poland or the Czech Republic, nor was it true in China.  Of course, no academic community is ever immune from pressures from its political surroundings.  What is happening the UK frightens me as I think it challenges independence of thinking and freedom to investigate things empirically and seeks to make sure that as little as possible in research, teaching and academia could challenge neoliberal ideas. However, in the UK and in many countries there are traditions of research and thinking located in a set of buildings, in jobs, in teaching and researching opportunities and these go back far more than 60 years in most countries I have visited. It’s easy to underestimate how such longevity has helped nurture moderately resilient traditions of survival, often perhaps more impressively than in the UK. I felt what I saw in Tirana and more generally in the delegates at the conference, suggests the growth will be good if having to grow on penuriously little funding.  It would be great to be alongside that in some small way.

More selfishly perhaps, I hope I will also get a chance to go back with some holiday time as well, get on a bike perhaps and see more of the country.  It’s clearly geographically diverse and beautiful, with a wealth of mountains, lakes and bird life to keep me very happy.  Ah, a cycle ride through the Balkans, Albania and down into Greece before I’m too old?!

Afterthought (19.xii.16): if you are Albanian or work with Albanian speakers and want to know more about the CORE-OM and YP-CORE in Albanian, go to the Albanian translation page on the CST web site.  It was work around that which took me to Tirana.  

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