An Albanian Sojourn: A Staffer Recalls an Unusual Odyssey

I was looking for something in my basement the other day. As is so often the case, I did not find what I was looking for. But I did find something better – two photo albums filled with snaps I had taken during a trip to Albania in 1987. This prompted a frantic search for an old diary essay I had written after the trip and which I later published in the Hopkins Spectator, a now defunct conservative student publication at Johns Hopkins. For once, my search was successful. I found the Spectator in question, with its Albanian reminiscences intact.1

Given recent blanket media coverage of the ongoing war in Kosovo between Serbians and ethnic Albanians, we thought to reproduce the essay here. Few Marylanders have ever set foot in Albania; we suspect none did when it was still communist. In 1987, Albania was an entirely closed society, like North Korea.

The essay below is reproduced as it was written at the time, summer 1987. Some of it may appear anachronistic: It was written before the fall of Albanian communism, before the breakup of Yugoslavia and before the outbreak of the war in Kosovo. Nonetheless, the essay makes repeated reference to Albanian/Serbian tension, for it was evident even then. To bring readers up to date on occurrences since 1987, explanatory end notes absent in the Spectator version of this article have been added to this reprint. All names of people with me on the trip have been reduced to initials. At the time, Albanians were very reluctant to let one use their full names, so I complied. I cannot now remember their real names. – Ed.


“Welcome to Albania,” said the Yugoslavian border guard, grin on face, evidently finding even the thought of spending time in this little country unendingly amusing. We left him and our bus behind us.
With some trepidation, we set out on foot – Yugoslavian vehicles are not allowed to set tire in Albania – to cover the hundred-or-so yards to the Albanian frontier. Including Ma and myself, there were 32 of us. It was spring 1987. We had come to see the world’s second most closed society, after North Korea. Americans may not enter Albania; all of us carried British passports. Direct flights from the West are forbidden, too, so we came by way of the Yugoslavian republic of Montenegro – which we were now about to leave for the most fascinating trip of my life.

The weather was glorious. The view reminded me of nothing so much as a tin-horn Balkan scene from one of Herge’s Tintin books. Ahead stood an armed guard, a swing barrier and a dilapidated building. To my left loomed the foothills of the Montenegrin mountains, green and vine-covered initially, but soon giving way to harsh, gray rock face. To my right, Lake Shkoder, shared with the Yugoslavians. Albanians take their insularity seriously, I thought, observing the chain-link fence running the width of the water and demarcating Albania’s territory.

But Albania is not all it seems. The People’s Infantryman looked bored and teen-aged. The famous disinfectant ditch, a shallow sheepdip-like affair through which one once paddled to be rid of Yugoslavian impurities, lay still and rainwater-filled. Unused, I assumed, since the death Comrade Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hojja), founder and general secretary of the Albanian Party of Labor (APL), and absolute ruler of this unique country from 1946 to 1985. We were let through without quibble. A plaque inside the customs house reminded us – in English – of that old Enverism, “Even if we have to go without bread, we Albanians do not betray principles. We do not betray Marxism-Leninism.” Indeed not, I thought, observing the crude surroundings that no bureaucrat would tolerate in the West.

I filled in a rather badly produced form, declaring I had not on my person any “regrigarars” [sic] or washing machines, and listing precisely what I had in the way of “priuted matter and foreign cnrrencies” [sic]. I was ushered by our Albanian “Albturist” guide toward the excise man.

Bunkers litter the countryside like half-buried soccer balls. They traverse the terrain from north to south, placed indiscriminately in fields, towns, gardens. They are unused except for storage and stringing clotheslines between.

Having mentally prepared myself for the most intimate of body searches, I felt let down when not a finger was laid upon me and my suitcase was given merely the most cursory inspection. The only thing confiscated was my western published Albanian travel book. I was later told by S.G., our British group leader, that this particular work, and bibles, are all they are interested in. I could even have gotten away with my Ayn Rand. Probably.

We boarded our new bus. “There are no photographing restrictions,” explained E., our Albanian guide, “except for military buildings and persons in uniform.”

Splendid, I thought to myself, before realizing that this condition, like “anti-Soviet activities” in Russia, is something of a catch-all as at least one in ten Albanians is in uniform of some sort and the country is littered with concrete defense bunkers, like giant, half-buried soccer balls, as often as not facing the home of the hated Serb. (Albania once claimed Yugoslavia’s Kosovo region, populated by ethnic Albanians.)2 There are rows and rows of these things, stretching from the sea, over the central plain and eastwards into the mountains. (See photo 1.) They traverse the terrain from north to south, and are placed indiscriminately in fields, towns, gardens. They are not used, except for storage and for stringing clotheslines between (photo 2).

There are statues all over of Uncles Joe and Cladimir Ilyich, but one wonders how seriously they are taken

For Albania is nothing if not paradoxical. The military presence is everywhere, yet militarism is apparently lacking. The people have been saddled with what is theoretically one of Europe’s most rep-ressive regimes, and yet they are among the most warm, charming, inquisitive, well mannered – I exhaust my supply of superlatives.

Socialist Nationalism

Communism, I always think, suits certain people. It is dour and puritanical, like stony-faced Muscovites and hard-headed Prussians. It is plainly less acceptable to the freedom-loving Poles or the U.S.S.R.’s Jewish intelligentsia. The result is a blending of tradition and textbook dogma. This is nowhere more evident than in Albania. Her people are too easygoing by far to be international revolutionaries. Here, Marxism – or, more correctly, Stalinism – has all but been replaced by the cult of Albanianism. True, there are statues all over of Uncles Joe and Vladimir Ilyich, but one wonders how seriously they are taken (photo 3). The communist-style wheat sheaves that on the current official state emblem surround the pre-Marxist national crest – a rather Hapsburgian black, double-headed eagle on a red background – are generally not to be seen on the flags the peasants sometimes plant in their fields. The older, pre-revolutionary version is generally displayed for all to view.3

In religion, too, the old lives on: Worry-beads are still daily rubbed, and pigs are a rarity, reflecting the country’s Otto-man Muslim past.

Cultured, cain and tyannical, Enver Hoxha was the absolute ruler of Albania from 1946 to 1985.

At every turning there are monuments to the twin national heroes of Gjergj Skenderbeg (1405-68), who fought the Serbs and Turks,4 and Enver Hoxha (1908-85), who snubbed his nose at world (photo 4). History is rewritten – with Albania and Enver at its center. Purposefully isolated. Capitalist-hating. Revisionist-reviling. National socialism.

It is this intense nationalism that is at once the Albanians’ most endearing and infuriating – certainly their most memorable – feature. The Roman amphitheater at the shipping center of Durres was described to us as an Albanian structure – with “Roman influences,” if you please – because the actual bricklaying had been done by Illyrians (the original people of this region). One hardly liked to point out that Rome’s Coliseum could not, simply by dint of having been built by slaves, be described as a Gallo-Nubian edifice (photo 5).

But it is the example of Skenderbeg that is perhaps the most amusing: He is invariably portrayed as having been tall, massive and Aryan (photo 6). When in truth, if he was anything like Albania’s modern citizenry, he would have been short, stocky and swarthy. No Nordic gods here.

The irritating side of this nationalist trait becomes apparent when talking about World War II. One is left with the impression that the Albanian partisans – now nationally revered and with a brand of cigarette named after them – won the war single-handedly, with no thanks to the Allies and despite, rather than with the help of, the dastardly Serbs. Of course, one could not blame the individual museum curators and tour guides; they knew no better. But it annoyed some of us, especially Ma, though the limo-libs loved it.

This is not, contrary to what your first instincts may tell you, a Roman amphitheater: It is an Illyrian ediface – so Albanian nationalism would have you believe – with “Roman influences”!

That said, I thought it unfair to be too harsh on the Albanians’ version of events. Their purpose was manifestly not actively to put others down, but simply to elevate their own beloved country. With no prestige granted them by the outside world, they must manufacture their own. (It also keeps the minds of an impoverished proletariat from its material lackings.) In its relations with other countries, Albania is bellicose but not belligerent. It denounces America, Russia and China with equal enthusiasm. It goes without saying, though, that special venom is reserved for the “Titoites,” after Yugoslavian strongman Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), who endured a standoff with Hoxha for decades.5 (Interestingly, Tito was a Croat.)

Skenderbeg is invariably portrayed as having been tall, massive and Aryan.
With Hoxha now dead, it will be fascinating to see whether Albanian socialist nationalism – simultaneously so quaint and exasperating – will be able to hold its own in a new and less isolationist era.6 The romantic might half wish it well.

Though Hoxha appears to have had less than full sympathy for the notion of democracy (to say the least), there can be small doubt that he is still venerated by many of his countrymen. He was both a good orator and handsome. Having studied law in Paris prewar, he was a linguist and highly cultured. All along, he found the Chinese frustratingly alien and the Russians to be both bores and boorish. Shortcomings he had – he was vain and tyrannical – but many Albanians seem prepared to overlook this. (Just as Stalin still has his fans in Russia.) The bigger hills to this day have emblazoned in them in giant stone letters, “PARTI ENVER” (Enver’s Party). Bulletin boards abound, either singing his praises or enlightening the people of one or other of his many profundities. At one point we saw five bunkers next to each other. Each had painted on its roof a large letter: Together they spelled E-N-V-E-R. By contrast, placards proclaiming, “Rroft

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