Dec 27, 2015

Albania 1927-2015 | The paradox of the missing years

I am currently reading Joseph Roth's The Hotel Years, a small collection of feuilletons from his extensive travels in Europe between the two wars. A wanderer but not lost, he is a journalist that doesn't investigate, and a novelist that doesn't romanticize. He considers himself a “hotel citizen” and describes his writings as “saying true things on half a page.” Such are his daily dispatches from Albania in 1927.

I mention this, because as we approach the end of yet another year, full of hope in wishing, even anticipating a better one ahead, Roth's portrayal of Albania in the verge of unknowingly becoming a monarchy a year later, reminds me of the phrase: “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.”

Now, I don't want to be the ever nagging critic, nor the bitter cynic, and there's plenty of proof that the country has been through many a change (monarchy, war, 50 years of communism, democracy, capitalism..), but there is a certain paradoxical quality inherent lingering in the Albanian identity. Something that has always bothered me and one that I couldn't quite put my finger on before - that uncertain progress from “national culture” to “autonomous republic.” A transition I find quite problematic and increasingly complicated. A transformation that hasn't fully happened yet, just reduced to a stalling paradox. A contradiction often dismissed or judged as a complexity, which we have grown proud of, and fanatically preserve.

As Roth recalls, the country feels “like a locked courtyard, ringed by the walls of a natural prison,” - its mountains. Everything and everyone “should be judged with an unprejudiced eye as an expression” of this surrounding. A land so peaceful that one “refuses to credit its reputation for murder.” “Freedom is a relative concept,” he states, and we seem to have cast its definition and practice in stone. “Stone buildings in stone courtyards in stone grounds have the monumentality of death and at the same time its idyllic grief.” Although, the architecture of stone and its painful history of human sacrifice in Albania is not the point here (only my projection), it identifies another paradox of hospitality vs. vendetta, which is definitely worth pursuing further.

Roth's observations start with the most powerful Albanian of the time, president Ahmed Zogu. Interesting enough, similar things can be said of any public servant and/or man of influence succeeding him. Another observation, which I find especially curious, probably because of my own projection again, is the high visibility of the exercising soldiers in the army as compared to that of the musicians in the band, both deeply ritualized in the Albanian identity. (Another paradoxical relationship to be further explored/exploited for sure.) The author then ends the series (at least in this book) by giving us a wider glimpse of the country written on a hot day, a glimpse that looks a lot like an identity struggle between the Oriental state (primitivism), Western capitalism (fascism), national patriotism and democratic freedom (true independence).

Thusly, the more we have changed, the more we remain the same. I come to this conclusion as a wanderer myself, one that doesn't have an agenda other than an immediate, even a far-fetched wonder that is curiously expressed here. It seems that all roads lead to the puzzle that makes up Albania. What is Albania? Who is Albanian? Has Albania ever been Albanian? What has remained? From time to time, this blog has taken on a personal and (semi) professional quest to better understand my Albanian identity through the small details of its paradoxical be(com)ing. What started as a shot in the dark, has turned out to be and feel more Quixotian than anything else I've done, but it has clarified many things for me and it continues to do so, even though I increasingly feel the weariness of taking on such a complex black hole. I guess the challenge consists in figuring it out by removing myself from it, geographically (through physical absence/virtual presence) and temporally (by studying historical patterns of presence/absence of place, events in it) in order to better understand myself as a product of it, a wandering one at that. The more we change, the more it can change, right?! Here's to finding out and failing in the new year!

 *As always the reading and emphasis is mine. I strongly recommend you read the book to draw your own conclusions.

Albania 1927. by Joseph Roth

A meeting with president Ahmed Zogu
I had no particular questions from him - I could answer them all for myself. Interviews are an alibi for a journalist's lack of ideas.
Ahmed Zogu looks harmless enough, tall, as representative as he needs to be, and oddly, blond. The blondness overlies the Oriental features like a mistake. The posture he adopts when giving audiences is more the result of caution than any personal confidence. The sparseness of his speech, the slowness of his tongue, the empty politeness of his questions, all are the expression of an insufficiently practised and therefore all the more rigidly adhered-to diplomacy. He strives - for no good reason - for a crown-prince-like banality. 
His military abilities are said to be small. [...] He is said to be a ruthless dictator. But in Albania, where every warlord has aspirations to be a dictator, every landowner his vassal, and anyone who can read and write his secretary, there is probably no other dictatorship going than the ruthless kind. Ahmed seems if anything less dictatorial than the people around him, who are more experienced, clever, and ruthless than he is, and many of whom have undergone a thorough education in these qualities under the Turks. [...] Ahmed has "conquered" Albania with the help of South Slav bands before shortly afterwards concluding the familiar pact with Italy. But for more than 800 years most of the influential men in the Balkans have not refused money, especially when offered by two opposing sides - and why should Ahmed be the exception here? [...]
But, even if I (rightly) question the selfless patriotism of Ahmed, in many points the selfish ambition of the president tallies with the true needs of his country, which, faced with the choice between putting itself in the care of a more cultivated country or one still fighting with its unresolved internal difficulties, chooses the former.
Another paradoxical quality we can't seem to shake off still.
In any case, it is impossible to judge the circumstances of an Oriental state, whose history is oppression, whose ethics are corruption, and whose culture is a mixture of native bucolic and archaic-romantic naivete and the recent importation of intrigue, by the criteria of a Western democracy. If one suddenly found oneself back in the Middle Ages, it would be similarly fatuous to be exercised about the burning of witches.
One should try to judge Ahmed with an unprejudiced eye  as an expression of his surroundings. One should bear in mind that he is the scion of an Albanian noble family that was in power in the seventeenth century and before - and presumably not with democratic methods then. One should bear in mind that a parliament in Albania can only be convoked in one way, the way that it is presently convoked. It will be a "parliament in name only" for at least another twenty years.

Today even his ties to Italy make him nervous. He is no longer able to play off Italy and the South Slavs against each other.
[O]ne doesn't take exception to the loss of life he is said to have been responsible for, so much as the sums of money he has obtained. Tomorrow may see Ahmed Zogu still in power, and the day after gone, and someone else in his place, who would be almost indistinguishable from him. 
 ~ Frankfurter Zeitung, 29 May 1927 

Tirana, the Capital City
A section of the populace has devoted itself to brass instruments. Brass players - horns for the fatherland - have been recruited into the Albanian army. The soldiers' days begin with reveille and end with taps. Music keeps the swing in their stride.
The president has his very own personal band.
At seven in the morning, just as the soldiers are tooting and parping away, the musicians get up like so many larks, and rehearse passages of marches and overtures in the middle of the high street. The local inhabitants have petitioned the courts on six separate occasions to have the practice moved to a meadow outside the city. But on six separate occasions they have forgotten to attach arguments to their petition. Nothing works without arguments. 
An interesting observation, where music and band musicians are strongly connected and compared to the soldiers in the army. Both, highly disciplined rituals, visible and loud, practiced in the middle of a city otherwise tranquil. A very public gesture. A marking of territory. One that reminds me of today's policed state. By being so visible and occupying such public presence, these two paradoxical categories seem to have been accepted into the Albanian identity. Otherwise, why put them front and center? Furthermore, the author places the mild mandolin players in a separate group, off-center from such a public sight. Neither soldiers, nor musicians, these men consist of a different public, the emigrants, those who left then longed for their country, and that have now returned and long for the world they've seen. A public, whose existence is rooted in longing, without quite belonging, now reduced to and profited by only their wares. A group whose identity still needs to be proven. Their belongings mark and make up their only territory. A materialistic third. One that lacks a place. A place-less consumerism. A capitalist democracy. A progress from the ‘national culture’ that the army and the band dictate to an ‘autonomous republic’ of the consuming kind.
But barracks are erected in the interests of progress.
Not for an instant is one safe from a vendetta. 
The veiled women, the hundreds of ownerless dogs led on the wind's leash, the fezzes on fat heads and turbans on bearded faces, the colour-postcard vendetta-artists with revolvers for bellies, and rifles for umbrellas - all these money-earning, business-conducting, official-bribing exotic philistines are in the majority and beyond time. There is nothing so arid as an ethnicity that has been dissected in the mausoleums of ethnology and in books and seminar rooms for thirty years, but is still paraded, as though it were in any sense alive.
This passage sums up the “transition from so-called ‘national culture’ to the demand for an ‘autonomous republic,’” a paradox that is felt even today, one that continues to baffle and bother me in equal amounts, because I'm afraid it is deeply rooted in the Albanian identity, remaining unresolved, unstable, and at the root of all our contradictions and unproductive attempts at change.

~ Frankfurter Zeitung, 15 June 1927
The Albanian Army
The Albanian army exercises from five to twelve in the morning and from three to seven in the afternoon. It exercises during its lunch-break. It exercises before bedtime, and at night, when the soldiers are asleep, many hundreds of trumpets may be heard blowing in the mosques (in which the army likes to camp). From this I conclude that the Albanian army surely exercises in its sleep. I am forced to wonder, is there any time when the Albanian army is not exercising?
Nor do I know why it exercises. [...]
Further, to what end do Albanian soldiers exercise?
Now the Albanian army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can't be clicked in, British knapsacks that can't be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don't know commands in Albanian, Austrian officers who are blackballed by their Italian comrades, White Russian officers who don't exercise at all, but have only come so as to be able to stay in uniform while they wait for Soviet Russia to collapse, British officers who know neither Albanian nor Italian nor German nor Russian, and like to walk around with their swizzle sticks just so that Britain is represented too. It's the oddest army in the world. 
This passage might read as a joke, but I am not laughing. I find this strategy, crippling and with tragic consequences. One that clearly shows an identity struggle between peoples freedom (true independence) and patriotism, the primitive Oriental culture from centuries of ottoman occupation and exploitative Western promises of democracy. Definitely set up to fail. A move that promotes patriotism through military exercising, while the country is at the mercy of the highest bidder. I say crippling, because this misguided practice doesn't guarantee protection, and ultimately renders the peoples republic a spectacle. In a similar move, Enver Hoxha kept the army exercising for an enemy that never came. A deception rooted in paranoia (among other things) which in turn made for a spectacle of fear and terror.
As I mentioned before, the public visibility of a military exercise is meant to be a fear tactic. One that makes people think they are living in war, no matter if they can't see the enemy. Keep in mind that these are all internal acts happening at vulnerable and unstable times of transition before or after a war, or significant event. This is not about gaining independence from a foreign force. We already did that in 1912. This ‘joke’ is what Albanians are doing to Albanians. It is Zogu who okay-ed military contracts, economic negotiations, diplomatic agreement, etc. What then becomes of the Albanian identity if Albanians don't have the Albanian best interest at heart and practice? It falls into an existential crisis, a constant state of transitioning to nowhere, without quite making the jump from ‘national culture’ to ‘autonomous republic.’
It has no coherent rule book or command structure, all it has is martial music, trumpet signals, drums, and a devotion to drill. 
For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government - for reasons of idealism. Half the rest has been bought by the Serbs, and the remainder is on the payroll of the Italians. And in the middle of it, the soldiers are exercising. Perhaps they are exercising for Ahmed Zogu, their president? He has his personal bodyguard, which if required to, will shoot at the regular soldiers, who, for all their exercising, are thought not to be reliable, and who are deliberately issued with bad ammunition and heavy boots, to keep them from undertaking anything against the president.
~ Frankfurter Zeitung, 29 June 1927

Article about Albania (Written on a Hot Day)
Albania is a beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring. Its mountains are sometimes of an uncertain clear substance, so that you might take them for shards of glass painted green. [...] They have become more massive, implacable, and the whole country feels like a locked courtyard, ringed by the walls of a natural prison. Freedom is a relative concept. [...]
Under such circumstances, I am less receptive to the beauties of nature than those born optimists called tourists. [...]
A few houses, windowless, fortress-like, deaf and blind cubes of stone, coarse, enigmatic and tragic, redolent of destiny and secret curses. On each of these buildings that are so arranged as to offer rest to a murderer, refuge to a pursued man, security to a whole clan, lies the so-called charm of eeriness, which I would sooner not get too close to. Without the permission of the master of the house, one may not set foot in the meanest hut. But with his permission, the hospitality is life-threatening. Hospitality is a fine custom, among the noblest proofs of humanity. But there is every justification for it too in the selfish thought that among people who have instituted blood revenge for justice, a man needs to rest up somewhere, because sooner or later everyone will end up as a fugitive. 
The paradox of carrying on the tradition of vendetta while being proud of one's hospitality. Being a fugitive, yet opening one's home to strangers, is a perplexing and much too real a contradiction that still echoes in lost, abandoned and isolated parts of Albania. Another stone in the transition between 'national culture' and 'autonomous republic.'
May Albanians and others forgive me that I am not sufficiently gifted to admire unproductive conservatism in the way it should be admired. Unfortunately, alongside other habits that I revere, the Albanians have one that I merely understand: they are utterly intent on preserving old habits, not only stressing their Albanianism at the expense of their humanity, but also cultivating their tribalism at the expense of their nation. [...]
I understand that most "national traits" are the consequence of an unhappy history, in this case centuries of bitter struggle against the Turks, But there were also thousands of Albanians who went voluntarily to serve the Turks, were Turkish favorites, generals, officials, helped oppress their country and  - and yet remained Albanians. Such are the whims of national culture. An Albanian major said to me: "It's as well that the Turks oppressed us, and kept us away from their civilization. But for that, the Albanian language might have disappeared without trace." [...] It's a crime to oppress a nation, we both agree about that. But to praise the negative outcome of this oppression, the chance survival of a technically interesting language is false and childish national pride. But as I say, I bit my tongue. 
These comments would probably make most Albanians mad, rightfully so I don't know, maybe, but pride aside, let's for a moment think about the truth of this observation. If we list all occupying forces that have entered our territory, and compare the evolution of the language at these times, can we really say that we came out winners? What are the chances of a language disappearing? I'd like to ask the experts about the ways a language does indeed disappear (by not using it, adding foreign influences, developing into something else, a hybrid of sorts, etc..)? Which one would be the most dangerous? How does disappearance differ from development, and what are the consequences of a static language? What, then, are the consequences of a static identity?
Urban Albanians are strikingly timid. It takes less courage to shoot here than the speak. An Albanian would rather shoot than say what he thinks. He is afraid of the walls' ears. He senses a spy in everyone, and he's half-right. [...] These people's love of intrigue is as great as their fear of expressing an opinion. Over time, they do so little that they seem to have given up all their own opinions, and only listen to those of others. Why have an opinion merely to suppress it? In place of political convictions there is political partisanship, instead of struggle conspiracy, instead of a word a hint, instead of caution fear. In this land no ruler is safe, and no subject either. A publicly expressed view is an impossibility - even if it were allowed. Over the centuries the Albanians have lost all pleasure in the right to an opinion. Even unambiguous circumstances become secret mysteries in their hands. They have no taste for the absence of danger. [...] Their most dangerous quality: love of money. 
The continuous and ever-evolving struggle between free-speech and corruption has been an ongoing war in Albania (and else, for that matter) - one that we now call business, the entertaining business. If one doesn't have or is afraid to have and express an opinion, how does s/he identify? With whom? For whom? To what end?

~ Frankfurter Zeitung, 30 July 1927

Lastly, let's keep in mind another historical fact in play then and now - fascism. We may have just come full circle (without fully realizing it), but our Albanian identity has remained static, stalling, and still a paradoxical struggle between the Oriental state (primitivism), Western capitalism (fascism), national patriotism and democratic freedom (true independence). What gives?


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