In Albania, time folds, though the marching chronology of the country’s last 130 years appears stark with fundamental change: The Ottoman Empire, Nationalist Monarchy, Italian Fascism, Enver Hoxha’s Stalinism, Enver Hoxha’s Maoism, Enver’s Hoxha’s Enverism— a kind of nationalist socialism, with collective enterprises, science and Marixist-based education, fear, distrust, and violent “re-education” camps.
When Enverism fell in 1990, Albania went from frying pan to fire, with political pluralism accompanied by the most corrupt version of neo-liberalism, leading to the “Catastrophe of 1997”—when Ponzi schemes collapsed, Albanians lost everything they had, the government was overthrown, armed gangs ruled the streets, and 2,000 people lost their lives.
Today a kind of democratic socialist party dominates, with parties that span the political spectrum vying for power. The economy is dependent on the vagaries of tourism, remittances, and a still large agriculture sector suffering from NAFTA-like Italian cheap-product dumping.
It is no wonder that author Kapka Kassabova hears people here say over and over that they “hate politics.”
I am fascinated with this political history. Lucky for me, the public TV station plays history documentaries all day, and old films from the Enver Hoxha era in the evening. I can’t understand most of what is said, but the historical footage tells its own story, and the histrionics in the old films speak loudly. I can imagine, however, that for Albanians this public TV station with its constant reminder of the past, whether painful or nostalgic, does little to ease the pain of the present. I wonder how many watch the channel. Unlike Hoxha’s time, they now have endless media options.
It is funny. The public station we watched in Cádiz Spain was 24/7 nature documentaries and cooking shows. We used them for language practice. In Spain, there is a pact to forget. In Albania, is there a pact to remember and never let go?
‘No!’ is what it appeared to me the Tirana Booster in the Scanderbeg Square was saying a few days ago, speaking to a crowd in front of the State office building —an event celebrating the fact that Tirana, and Alexandria, Egypt, will be recognized by the Union for the Mediterranean in 2025, receiving major grants from the Anna Lindh Foundation.
No, he said. Tirana and Albania are NOT about the past. We are all about the future, new buildings, art, culture, and infrastructure. We believe, “If we build it they will come.”
I don’t know who the Booster was, but he was preceded by the Prime Minister, so he was someone official. According to him, Albania has a future not chained to its history of Empire, Monarchy, Fascism, Stalinism, and the worst of Neo-Liberalism.
The Socialist Party in power believes entry into the European Union is key. Albania has been trying to get accepted into the EU since 2009. The European powers have been dragging out the process for 15 years, leading Albania on.
It feels, being here, as though one way everyday people are rebelling against this oppressive political history and current reality, is some form of anarchism. Just the way things work in the streets. It seems haphazard, but people make it work. Some of it is beautiful. The way people bring goods to market, against all odds. The way cars and walkers and scooters and bikes share space when necessary.
Can anarchism fix the sewer system so the people have potable water? Can it fix the garbage system so people are not breathing in the burning of their waste? I’m truly asking the question, not being rhetorical. Perhaps it can, if people get together and figure it out. But that is surely politics.
Structurally, there are some very good things about how Albania works. The Socialist Party in power kept the best parts of Enverism: universal health care, an emphasis on literacy, and building higher education from the ground up. (The first University in Albania opened in 1957 in Tirana, and literacy went from 15% to 85% during Hoxha’s time and today it is nearly 100%. Over 90% of Albanians own their own homes. This is in part due to the mass emigration in the 1990s, post-Hoxha. People got free houses then.
So I wonder, who will live in all these new fancy apartment buildings going up all over Tirana?
I asked myself the same question when I walked around my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, during the last few years. Unlike Tirana, Minneapolis has a horrendous problem with homelessness. The new construction only raised rents and exacerbated the problem. People in my home town live in parks and parking lots. They build tent cities along highways, that are periodically demolished by police, forcing people to move on to another place.
I think about Minneapolis as I walk around Tirana where poverty is more apparent, but basics are more universally distributed. Minneapolis and Tirana are both trying to attract young wealth to their cities. In both places the question is two-fold:
If we build it, will they come? If they come, will life be better for those who are already there?
A few days ago we took a day trip up to Kruja and the 15th century, taking the city bus to the regional station and a tiny van up the mountain. At the top, we had lunch all by ourselves at a restaurant and Inn with a view of the whole valley and the mountain top with its castle that draws tourists here during the summer. On a Monday in February, the two of us had the castle to ourselves, with its museum honoring the Albanian nationalist hero, Scanderbeg, who united warring tribes in a 25-year fight for freedom from the Ottoman Empire ending with his death in 1468, Skanderbeg is the Albanian hero tor all political eras and ideologies.
Yesterday we took a slow walk and climbed the pyramid that in 1988 was a museum to honor Hoxha (designed by his daughter, an architect). Now it is hoping to be a tourist draw, filled and surrounded by room-sized colorful post-modern, box-buildings standing at crazy angles, promising commerce is coming soon.
We ended up at Tirana’s Park, a Hoxha project, with its acres of forest, its playgrounds, its concrete public ping-pong tables, and a three-mile walk around a human-made lake, that reminds me of the lakes in Minneapolis. We commandeered a bench by the lake. Dave laid down on my lap. I read the first chapter of Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, and watched people take selfies of themselves with a white swan, one of a dozen bird species gracing the lake. The birds don’t care if the lake is natural or human-made. They say, If you build it, we will come. And life will be so much better when we do,
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