#47: Albania: Land of Teletubbie Bunkers; Surviving an Accident and What It Meant, Part I
27 July 2002
Albania, some say, is a dangerous country.
Many remember the period in the late 1990s: the country collapsed into anarchy when fraudulent pyramid schemes bankrupted thousands and the nation burst into uprisings. Parts of Albania became bandit-land at that time.
But Albania has since then returned to normality. Even then, this ancient people, descendants of the Ilirians, a contemporary of Alexander the Great and the Romans, attract illogical negative attention from their neighbours. A few Serbs I have met told me, when they knew about my Albanian plans, “They are barbarians.” or “They will eat you alive!” A Greek taxi driver said, after learning that I had just left Albania, “They do not have God there, and so they will murder even for a dollar!”
This is a misunderstood people. Even in the UK, an Albanian is synonymous with the darker-skin gypsies, thieves and perpetuators of petty crimes. Many Roma beggars here claim that they are Albanians. I have never met an Albanian before, until I went to Skopje (where in the Old City I met many Albanians) at the beginning of my Balkans journey and realised that the Albanians are anything but what I had imagined.
Apart from a few minor instances, I have experienced nothing but warmth and hospitality during my short stay in this beautiful country.
The Albanians are an Indo-European people, as white as their neighbouring Slavic neighbours, and speak an ancient tongue unlike any other in Europe; i.e., they have their own linguistic group with no close cousins. They once lived across what is today the former Yugoslav republics, but have been pushed back by all their neighbours, into the Republic of Albania, western Macedonia, southern Montenegro and Kosovo. Ruled by the Turks for 600 years, 70% of the Albanians converted to Islam. Even then, the Albanians are hardly dogmatic about religion. It has always been said, “The only true religion of the Albanians is Albania.” Someone told me – though I am unsure of its truth, that some Albanians go to the mosque on Fridays, and the church on Sundays.
Two of the greatest heroes of the Albanian people, Skanderbeg and Mother Theresa, all happen to be non-Muslims. Skanderbeg, the national hero, was son of a Christian chieftain who converted to Islam when brought to Istanbul as a Turkish hostage. Subsequently he returned to Albania, returned to Christianity and raised a rebellion against the Turks. Proclaimed “Athlete of Christendom” by the Pope for his persistent resistance against the Turks, he became the eternal hero of his people, even after their conversion to Islam after the Turkish conquest of his land subsequent to his death. Mother Theresa – who was born Christian Albanian, in Skopje, Macedonia – is the greatest living saint of the 20th century and an inspiration to all. The statues of Skanderbeg occupy the centres of Tirana and Pristina, while monuments to Mother Theresa were found in all Albanian lands.
I arrived in Tirana one early morning after a restless overnight journey across rough mountain roads from Kosovo. I walked into Hotel Kalaja, which was highly recommended on a website. A young man at the reception took advantage of my pathetic state and charged me US$40, as against the US$10 mentioned in the site. Later on, when I chatted to the owner at night, I discovered that it should only be between $15 to 20. Thereupon, the receptionist stepped into the hall and heard our conversation. Both had a discussion in Albanian and then told me that $40 was right and it was a misunderstanding earlier in the chat. The next morning, the receptionist rudely woke me up at 6:30am and wanted me out of the hotel, saying that 24 hours is up. It’s probably his revenge on me exposing his pocketing of the additional amount I had paid. Well, be warned. Don’t stay at this pathetic place.
Tirana is a relatively new city, although like most parts of Albania, it has ancient roots. Capital of Albania since 1920, it was built in grand functional style of the 1930s with Italian capital and architects, by King Zog, a monarch whose reign was as short as his name. When the Italians invaded in 1939, King Zog was force to flee to London, together with his shiploads of gold and state treasury, enough for him to rent out whole floors of luxury hotels in the city, which he did. Given the corrupt governments that have been running the country the past decade, some Albanians are becoming nostalgic about their brief period of monarchy and his son, the pretender King Leka – once an arms trader who grew up in South Africa – is once again actively campaigning for the restoration of the monarchy.
A strange marble and glass pyramidal structure rises in the southern fringe of the city centre – this was once the Museum of Enver Hoxha, where the gifts given to this late communist dictator of Albania by obscure “working class organisations” round the world were displayed to impress the Albanians with their leader’s reputation. Now it is an exhibition centre plus disco, with huge banners of “Vodafone” and “Austrian Airlines” hung across its entrance and outdoor bars on the steps of this once-distinguished shrine of the working class. Hoxha must be turning in his grave, where his embalmed remains were dumped after the fall of communism in Albania.
I took a bus to the mountainous town of Kruja, where Skanderbeg once held out against the Turks for many years in its citadel which commands a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. This is Albania’s national shrine, where school children learn about their national hero and struggle for freedom.
I bumped into three cute local kids, all 11 years old, and they brought me around the village contained within Kruja’s citadel. We rested beside the carpet-covered sarcophagus in the airy domed tekke, or shrine, of the local Bektashi Sufi sect, with photos and paintings of their babas and dervishes – mainstream Islam doesn’t allow human images. I was further piled with Albanian hospitality at the bus station, where locals treated me to coffee and I engaged in small talk with the cafe owner and his friends while waiting for the bus to Tirana. And yes, intriguing them with attempts to translate their names into Chinese, and in no time, they were asking about swear words in Mandarin.
Speaking of Mandarin, I was slightly surprised to come across elderly gentlemen in Albania who greeted me in Mandarin. Yes, phrases like “Ni hao” or “Zai Jian” are becoming more common everywhere worldwide, but there seemed to be more people in Albania greeting me than anywhere else in the world. There is a reason for this. After WWII, Albania turned communist, as a result of victory by communist guerillas in its fight against the Italians and the Germans. It became closely allied with the USSR, but not a satellite state, as there were no Soviet troops on its soil.
In 1960, after the Soviets demanded a naval base, Albania broke off relations with the Soviets and made China, under Mao Zhedong, its closest ally. During that period, many Chinese advisors were sent to Albania, and Albanians went to China for education. Albania even had its own Cultural Revolution, during which religion was banned (Albania became the only officially atheistic state in the world) and churches and mosques destroyed. Some old books published in the UK and USA during that era inaccurately described Albania as a Chinese satellite in Europe. It was probably during this period that the elderly gentlemen I came across learned Mandarin. Albania’s special friendship with China ended in 1978, when China began its market-based economic reforms, a move condemned by the Albanian communists as heretical.