Sunday, 21 March 2010

Memories of Albania from the 19th and 20th centuries

From the 1940s

When I spoke to H on the phone, she said that she had decided not to go back to live in Albania. It has all changed too much she says. One hundred years ago it was different – sacrifices were made to reach independence, but today Albanians still have the communist regime. Ramiz Alia was the 'genius' of communism if you like, he's still alive by the way. I went to see Lili Berisha, she is about 90, she was an active communist, though Hoxha put her in jail for a while, but still she defends the communist ideology. Communism is like AIDS she says, it's in your blood, you can't get rid of it. In Austria after the Nazis, the government said that we have nothing to offer you except hard work and difficult times. But the Albanian government does not say that. Some people have so much money it's disgusting, when there are so many very poor people. After I came back from Albania in November I was so disappointed that I just slept, sleeping for me she says, it's like wine you know? It's my way of blotting things out.

H left Albania as a child, her parents fleeing the country, just in time before the communist partisans became the new rulers, as her father would certainly have been imprisoned at the very least, by the communist regime. He was in the other resistance movement, the Balli Kombetar, and once the communists came to power, they rooted out the members of the Balli Kombetar, shot or imprisoned them, while many of their families were sent into internal exile. Her father had wanted to leave on his own, did not want to take his wife and daughter into a dangerous situation. Her mother replied that if he went on his own, she would take the mangall [brazier for holding live coals, used to heat rooms that did not have a fireplace] inside the small room – the inference being that in an enclosed space, the fumes from the smoking coals in the mangall would choke her to death. If we are to die we will die together, her mother said. And so they all left for Italy.

Mangall in Gjirokaster's museum.

As soon as they arrived in Brindisi, her father was interned near Rome. H and her mother stayed in what was called a rest camp and they were allowed to visit him once a month. Because H was a child, she was also allowed to eat with her father. Her mother gave her something special to smuggle in to him while they ate together. It was a phial of poison. This was in case he was sent back to Albania. He knew what his fate would be, there. Rather poison than that.

Edison Gjergo (1939-1989) was arrested in Jan 1974 because his painting - The Epic of the Morning Stars – did not glorify the workers, but showed young partisans listening with rapt attention to an old peasant man singing and playing a musical instrument.

From the 19th century: Byron and Ali Pasha

I'm also working on a talk I'm giving to the Scottish Astrological Association, about Byron and Ali Pasha. In Harry Hodgkinson's wonderful essay, Poet and Pasha [part of a collection of his essays which I'm editing for publication] he points out how inspirational this meeting was, to the young poet:

As to Byron, as in some story of the Thousand and One Nights, Ali possessed the formula which magically opened some unsuspected treasure cave within him, transforming the album scribbling poetaster into the irresistible spontaneous poet who speaks for all mankind and the dilettante philhellene into the self-appointed leader ready to lay down his life at Missolonghi. ........ No sooner had he returned from seeing Ali in Tepeleni to his lodgings in Jannina than Byron sat down to write the first stanzas of the poem that was to make him the cult figure of his generation - Childe Harold.

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