It is Sunday morning, 6 a.m. Jim and I, awake for hours, are sitting in the living room of an upstairs apartment in Tirana. A breeze is filtering through the curtains and there is a temporary cease-fire from the constant honking of horns and traffic noise. But Tirana will soon wake up. Sunday is a day of work. Friday is the Muslim day of rest. Albania is still nominally a Muslim country.
The one tiny open window in our bedroom under the eaves did not allow the room to be ventilated, or even cool off from the daytime temperature of ninety-five degrees. It did allow us to hear transport jets landing and taking off every four minutes at the nearby airport. Supplying the NATO war effort is an around the clock endeavor and has shut the airport down to civilian traffic. At 3 a.m. a nearby mosque’s eerie, echoing call to prayer startled me awake. A short time later, a rooster began crowing his every two minute snooze alarm. Shortly after the rooster started, several bursts of automatic weapons fire further punctured the quiet of the early hours. Whimsical thoughts about the rooster being the intended victim were quickly dashed as he resumed his morning announcements. A roving band of barking dogs made it clear the night was over.
Lying half-awake, I review my first twenty-four hours in Albania. I see a busy canvas mostly painted in bold colors, using the entire palette. Beautifully arranged vibrant reds, greens, purples, and yellows in the vegetable and the adjacent flower market compete for space with the eye-jarring maroon red of skinned rabbits dangling from hooks in the meat market. Attractive large-eyed, dark haired children stare at us, while we stare at the wares in the market.
Attempting to sleep another hour or two, the images of Tirana, the capital, become a kaleidoscope in my mind, twisting and unfolding in fatiguing fashion. People hanging from doors of overcrowded smoke-belching buses, horse and donkey carts klopping along the road reminiscent of a gentler time, beige unfinished stucco houses with rebar fingers jabbing toward the diesel-haze in the sky, white UN Land Rovers, green NATO trucks, and the gaping blackness of missing manhole covers in streets and sidewalks flash their images in my overstimulated mind. Black hooded policemen brandishing steel gray Kalishnokovs, while manning roadblocks, also pop up, as do gray turtle shaped concrete bunkers along the road. What strategic purpose did they possess, I wonder?
Half-sleep turns jumbled images to fragmented dreams. I dream about the big statue in the main square with the victorious rider on a horse. I think you have to have one of these if you wish to be a proper capital city in Europe. On our tour of downtown Tirana I was informed this one celebrated Skanderbeg, a hero for making the region safe for Christianity from the advancing Muslim Ottoman Empire.
“But isn’t Albania predominantly Muslim?” I asked.
“Yes, but he was a hero in the 15th century.” I presumed heroes have been hard to find since. One of the people walking with us nodded, and added,
“And Mother Teresa doesn’t look good on a horse.” Of course.
Later, on the drive to Shkodër, the canvas becomes a video. It is blurred, as in fast forward. The cars move through it at frightening speed. At one point mirrors and fenders collide wrinkling both ours and the other car’s. Steve said to keep going. Everyone had guns here, and they weren’t good at conflict resolution. It is hard to argue with the wisdom, or even the ethics of that from the back seat.
Hollow-eyed factory windows stare at us dumbly, and faded business signs no longer beckoning anyone, fly by us as we drive north. It is a landscape of abandoned dreams and failed ventures. As a captive audience I become acquainted with Skanderbeg and Enver Hoxha.
While five hundred years of history had made Skanderbeg a national hero worthy of an equestrian statue in the capital, the fourteen years since Enver Hoxha’s death had not been sufficient time to remove him as the national villain-in-chief. A Marxist, he had persuaded Albania to dump its monarch Zog and embrace Communism. He anointed himself leader for life in 1941. Benefitting from a leadership style heavy on the use of prisons and armed persuasion, he and Communist Albania were joined in an unholy marriage until his death in 1985. The demise of Communism was not far behind. Breaking with Yugoslavia, then Russia, and even China, while being hostile to the west, Hoxha left the country isolated from the world and destitute, the poorest in Europe.
In a paroxysm of paranoia, anticipating an invasion from the west, Hoxha placed 750,000 turtle shell concrete bunkers throughout the country of three million people, Steve informed me. Each one was large enough for one soldier with his Kalishnikov, some rounds of ammo, and a bottle of Raki, the legendary home-brewed Albanian moonshine, he said. The anticipated invasion from the west never came, making the question of what happens when the ammo and the moonshine run out a moot point.
The incarnation of Albania as a democracy was bumpy. A national get-rich-quick pyramid scheme collapsed two years earlier taking the country’s banking system down. The world did not take notice of this, nor the descent into lawlessness, or the raiding of armories. Weapons flowed into the hands of disillusioned citizens still looking for quick solutions to old problems. Weapons also found their way to Kosovo, into the hands of the KLA resisting the Serbian police state, teacher Steve explains, as my history lesson is almost finished.
An ill-defined civil war, unclear on who the enemies were, or which side the government supported, had ensued in Albania after the raiding of the armories. Gunfire and Balkan-style conflict resolution returned. This, and the scars of Communism, greeted Kosovar refugees seeking shelter with their Albanian cousins. Looking the part of a decaying 1920’s Balkan country, Albania was thrust onto the world stage.