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The Burrnesha Archive

Isla Badenoch

The Burrnesha Archive

Isla Badenoch

The Burrnesha Archive

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation

This novel has been published as part of a Master’s Thesis project in Visual Culture and Identity in the School of Design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, Spring 2016 All images and text created or sourced by Isla Badenoch © Isla Badenoch, 2016 All rights reserved Printed in Copenhagen, Denmark at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, bound by Co’libri. Sponsored by the Frøken Marie Månsson’s Legat Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Printed on CyclusOffset 100% recycled paper

For Diana (Lule), Bedri and Shkurtan

Author’s Note This novel is a personal record, a biography and a history of three individual Burrnesha in Northern Albania. It is based on real people, situations and events and is thus entirely factual.

Approaching a small silent mountain village. Dead eagles. A prison camp. Washing strung up across the barbed wire. Men’s clothes.

The crumbling walls of an old socialist tower-block. The bottom floor of the building is barred. A broken opening in the coppercoloured metal, climb through. A shadow casts across the strong-

smell of cigarette smoke as the floor is littered with cigarette butts. A fire has broken out here, the walls streaked with smoke. Take the

cigarette from the crumpled packet and light it. A dirty mattress behind the broken wall. Between charred sheets lie several objects. Dead eagles, women with rifles, the shouts of military commands

and the sound of folk pipes. A male voice clears his throat, you cough. In the village, surrounded by beautiful snow-tops of the

Accursed Mountains sat above vivid green lakes, the landscape is hard and life here is tough. The buildings are run down. They

seem abandoned but then someone appears, it is inhabited after all. Women stay inside during the day like nuns, hidden in secrecy. The men are outside smoking or talking. Many voices, in conversation

in a language that is understood by you and yet it is foreign to me. Lean in, look closer. Rings around your fingers. An old wrist-

watch reaches for the lighter first. Now take the cigarette from behind your ear and light it. Breathe in the sweet familiar rush. The lighter is in your hand. Singing begins to echo again between the burnt-out walls. Colour, scents, characters, family, unfamiliar. I remember, clearly.

A male voice clears his throat. Hands light a cigarette. The year is nineteen fifty-seven. I am six years old, born here in the mountains of Tropojë where the wolves, bears and eagles live. I always feel at home when I see the eagles. I brought my binoculars with me to

spot them. I started smoking this year, just turned six years old. I haven’t stopped since. Only my grandmother knows. I smoke everyday. Women don’t really smoke here. The year is nineteen fifty-seven. Then her husband, co-mayor of Durrës, picked us up in his blacked out Chrysler and took us to his ‘forbidden food’ restaurant. What is that? Well, illegal foods such as shark. He clicks his fingers rudely at

the waiting staff and signals – “turn the volume up”. Upon which he bursts out into singing Adele’s Hello blasting from one of many tv’s playing in solidarity in the background, fixed to the overly decorated walls. The framed photographs of famous Albanians and International guests of the restaurant. Continue to eat your forbidden food politely, if you laugh you won’t be able to stop. My grandmother took me to a wedding and a funeral. I smoke and drink with the men at weddings, funerals and occasional village meetings, but my grandmother’s role at such functions is to serve us food and then to leave. Her place as a woman, when she can’t

roll her own cigarettes. I would have become a Hollywood actress, no doubt, I was beautiful. But I like smoking too much and don’t ever want to marry. I can’t. No need for a husband to tell me what to do. I probably would be shot by him anyway. A woman should be handed over to her husband together with a cartridge, so that

if he is dissatisfied or she tries to flee at any point he is entitled to shoot her. When I was a child I used to get into fights with the boys and girls, I would usually start it, maybe if I hadn’t had a cigarette. The link between smoking and lung cancer is one of direct cause

and effect it has been found. But tobacco firms have rejected the findings saying they are merely a matter of opinion. I have smoked everyday since nineteen fifty-seven. The prohibition of smoking in theatres, cinemas and public transport is not on the agenda. Aged sixty-five and dressed entirely in military attire apart from a tie with a race-horse betting scene. Upon the tie shouting men and women in top-hats and tail-coats waving their handkerchiefs rapidly at their favoured horse to win. We meet in the middle of the road – directing the traffic, shouting, gesturing and smoking in unison. It’s not her job, she just likes being authoritative. I call her he, she calls her she and he depending on how he-she feels. Smoking, always smoking. Noise and traffic. So much pollution its hard to breathe, getting under your skin,

I am Albanian in the making. I would have become a Hollywood actress. No doubt. I was beautiful but I hated the attention I got from men, I was one myself and I don’t believe in that, sorry. We don’t really agree with homosexuality here. Most of us old people are used to things being banned or restricted, all these modern liberties are foreign to me. I am religious and feel that there are two separate parts to our species. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, a man and a woman are two very different things. If a girl refuses to marry the bridegroom chosen by her parents, to whom she may have been betrothed before birth, she must shear her head and turn herself as far as possible into a male. I am sexless as an anchorite. She is expected to take part in tribal wars. Masculine labor is demanded of her. We had one such girl with our caravan, she was an excellent shot, for weeks I thought she was a man. So at seventeen I cut off all my hair and men never looked at me the same way. It was liberating. I am myself.

The prohibition of smoking in theatres, cinemas and public transport is not on the agenda. We don’t have the best public transport even if you could smoke whilst using the buses and trains. You can’t get a bus or train easily here that’s for sure. Unless you get up at five am. They’ve built a railway apparently across the country, the communists and public workers. Only by the time they’ve finished, it’s nineteen ninety-one – communism has fallen.

They turn back round to look at their work, only to find that all the rail track has been stolen. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, a man and a woman are two very different things. Standing to the right next to a doorway, that’s me when I was in the military. There’s so much traffic in the city, now that everyone can have their own car. I prefer to ride my bike. We don’t have the best public transport even if I wanted to use it. Taking the bus isn’t much fun either it can be pretty busy, everyone going to their work who can’t afford their own car, or maybe they’re just old like me. Most of us drive, though not everyone can read so not everyone has a license. There’s not much

work here but everyone wants to live in the city, to be modern. Working in the fields makes me happy, that’s why I wanted to be free, to be with the livestock.

I painted the colour in myself, you can hardly tell I don’t think, that was in nineteen sixty-seven. I boiled up Hoxha’s flowers to make the colour, grind his bones to make my bread. See this photo? It’s a replica from the Marubi Photo Archives, I painted the colour in myself. Every time we went to the photo archives it was shut. A metal gate with one word recognizable – Marubi – down a rundown back alley in Shkodër. An amass of photographs live in a tiny flat inside. Apparently, because it is staterun, they can open and close when they like, not really interested in people seeing the photographs taken by the “Father of Albanian Photography”– who sits to the left with his face resting on his hand. See this photo? This is me before I cut off my hair, I painted the colour in myself, you can hardly tell I don’t think. Sorry about the biscuits I didn’t realise you were diabetic. They have a painting of a Danish castle on. The children when I arrived home rushed to see them, they were so happy, thank you. We don’t get much food up here in the mountains other than what we grow ourselves. Some things imported, now that we can. We sit in the hotel room talking about the new Tirana master plan for the city centre, how every mayor that comes into power doesn’t wish to continue the building work of what the last Mayor started, wanting to have their own name remembered and so knock it down or it remains half-built. Meanwhile I draw, in my slippers and woolly hat, I always wear a hat. I look over to see what it is – a seaside scene, two men fishing. I am going fishing on my friend’s boat. The boardwalk goes on as far as the eye can see, wooden slats and a metal hand rail to stop you falling in. See this photo? I painted the colour myself. Guess how old I am here? Sixty-five or sixteen. See what I mean? I was beautiful, Hollywood would have loved me, but I love Albania, I would never leave and it has

been good to me, I’m happiest here and I represent the family. See this photo? I painted the colour in nineteen sixty-seven. We weren’t allowed to have colour photographs then – the dangers

of colour photographs. So I boiled up the different flowers you had everywhere during the National Labour Day to make my own colour. I’ve never been good at doing what I’m told, fighting the boys and making them cry. Black and white photographs were expensive to produce and considered a luxury item – so instead everyone had black and white. I’ve never been good at doing what I’m told. There would be so many flowers to celebrate Enver Hoxha. They made great pigment so I boiled them up and turned them into colours to paint over all my pictures. I am an artist and photographer so when I go on holiday, which is quite a lot these past years, I take my disposable camera. Digital is a bit expensive,

but now we can have colour. Always taking pictures and making art before I cut my hair and after. We are the world’s first atheist state. The Albanian Constitution stipulates: the state recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people. I believe in God – Adam and Eve and two parts to the human, man and woman, the Garden of Eden. I couldn’t express it for years of my life, but those years I was happy, I had a role in communism and people respected one another. I heated up one cup of water. I didn’t want it too hot, but I figured that warm water would help pull out the color from the flowers. Bind them down. Nobody notices. I dress in a shirt and tie most the time anyway, when

everyone would dress smart. Now it seems less care is put in. Sat at the café with windows everywhere like a Greenhouse or a Garden of Eden in Durrës with metallic furniture and menus with lists of

fruit juices (we have just bought a new juicer machine) but I stick to coffee. Man, camera right, lights the cigarette for Diana. It’s

a sign of true friendship when another man lights your cigarette. I’ve been coming here for years, sitting and drawing, the view is

beautiful, ships coming into harbour – stock and tourists, a busy port – been one for years and years. In fact back in ancient times it

was the road to the Ottoman Empire, Roman Empire, Communist Empire. They built that highway to Kosovo from here so that if there’s another war, the Americans can get to Kosovo quickly. Before it would take you days to get there through the accursed mountains. My accursed mountains. It was just on five-thirty p.m. It has to be that time because the Albanian power supply tends to go on the blink just after six p.m, and broadcasters who want to get their message across only have the erratic period between their listeners’ arrival home and the quiet expiry of the glorious people’s voltage as they all switch on their lights and radios. I live above a kebab shop now in Durrës, they’re good to me there, always happy to see me and sit and talk over coffee. You can’t smoke in there. I guess because they’re cooking. Smoked kebabs would do quite nicely for me. See this photo? These are the sort of

operational facts of life you learn to live with after twenty-six years of broadcasting the voice of London to the one and a half million of your compatriots still locked in one of the tightest dictatorships in Europe. The youngest of the London production team doubles

up on Sunday evenings as the disc jockey and lets young Albanians break away from thoughts of Chairman Mao and Secretary Hoxha and deviate to the neo-colonialist outbursts of Lennon, McCartney and maybe Elvis? But usually hear on the radio Hoxha’s favourite music. The traditional Albanian iso-polyphony it’s called. An Albanian folk music so old it is preserved by unesco as an intangible cultural heritage. I don’t really know how that works when it comes to voices. Probably the only thing we heard on the radio during Hoxha’s reign.

Some called them a sworn virgin in English, I don’t like that term. Apparently there were some in Kosovo who became like me at fifteen. Traditional Albanian polyphonic music can be divided into two major stylistic groups as performed by the Ghegs of

northern Albania and the Tosks and Labs living in the southern part of the country. The term iso is related to the ison of Byzantine church music and refers to the drone accompanying polyphonic singing. Rendered mainly by male singers, the music traditionally accompanies a wide range of social events, such as weddings, funerals, harvest feasts, religious celebrations and festivals. Sorry about the biscuits. When we met in a home for the mentally ill and elderly in Shkodër, I brought Danish biscuits as a gift. I didn’t realise you had diabetes. The nurse says she will see to it that there are no sugar level problems. I have a sweet tooth you see. For me it was as soon as I was born, I felt that I should be the brother out of the twin. From then on I have been free to be myself. She was fifty years old when I met her and had short hair, a man’s shirt and she wore trousers, the one in Kosovo, who became like me at fifteen. She lived with an adopted sister and her short hair was tied up in a man’s handkerchief. He earned his money singing these

Albanian folk songs and beating the drums performing only for women. Playing on the radio whilst we drive in the darkness with car headlights flashing in my eyes, dangerous drivers overtaking on single lanes. The roads badly taken care of with the odd piece

missing entirely as cars swerve at each other narrowly missing, or in a lot of cases, fully colliding. That’s why I ride a bike. I liked that Eurthymics song, Sweet Dreams, as I have a sweet tooth. I dance involuntarily whenever there is any kind of music on. I’ll come with you to the mountains. I am the only one left here – I represent the family. You see these rings? They are for my mother and father, I never take these rings off. You are the first person I have told that. You see these rings? I carved this eagle out of wood for them, I will give you one too if I have time to carve it before we leave. Durrës café on the promenade, where we talked through the translator of her sixteen-year-old son, and where, as a regular, we are treated with the utmost respect. Diana is served coffee first of course, he says to me how women are still served last – traditions ingrained into the minds of the nation. It’s a long drive to Kosovo to get to back to the mountains of Tropojë. Lule constantly pretends to play the pipe nearly the whole way. I would never marry, I would probably be shot because I’m always moving, singing, dancing. That bullet in the dowry would have been used on me by now, that’s for sure. I will take you to where I grew up. Where the wolves, bears and eagles live. Keep looking out the window and you’ll see it. Keep looking. Sweet dreams are made of this. It’s a seasonal beach bar, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. A refined beach-front hotel just six kilometres from Durrës Castle and only seven from the Durrës Amphitheatre. I’m already staying in a hostel, but thanks. I’ve brought everything I need in this bin-bag. It’s got gifts for you in too, but you must wait until we get to the mountains. Patience. A flag, a carved wooden eagle – I made that – crackers and oranges.

These hands can peel the skin of an orange in one, foul, swoop, and my binoculars too, to look for the eagles. Why do you kidnap

my child? cried the eagle. The child is mine because I saved it from the snake which you didn’t kill, answered the youth.

I learnt how to play the pipe and the guitar by teaching myself, oh and also the piano, jazz piano. I was around sixteen. The year is nineteen sixty-seven. The pipe is easiest as at least you can bring it

with you everywhere to practice. It’s also easy to practice without even holding a pipe – just fiddling with your fingers as though a pipe sits between them, like this, see? Albania’s on the blink. I like listening to all kinds of music. Mainly classical but I love to dance. That makes Elvis a hero. A jeni sonte i vetmuar, ju humbas mua sonte? Jeni te keq kemi përvjedhur larg? A humbur kujtesën tuaj për një ditë të ndritshme me diell. Kur ju puthi dhe e quajti you dashur? I don’t know the words in English but I can imagine what they say. And sing along anyway. Albania’s on the blink. Nineteen sixty-seven. The youngest of the London production team doubles up on Sunday evenings as the disc jockey and lets young Albanians break away from thoughts of Chairman Mao and Secretary Hoxha and deviate to the neocolonialist outbursts of Lennon, McCartney and Elvis. Ten years

before I cut my hair, I hear Hoxha’s songs a lot. On the radio or at the celebrations, re-written to celebrate him and sung the traditional way, rewriting tradition. Maybe unesco are preserving him too? Nineteen fifty-seven, I started smoking, I am six years old. I love to dance, hips and all, with my hands. I don’t know what he’s saying but I like the sound of it. This year Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the third and final time. He is shown only from the waist up, even during the gospel segment, singing Peace In The Valley. I didn’t see it but I heard about it. We don’t get much choice on what to watch even if you are lucky enough to have a tv. Ed Sullivan goes on to describe Elvis as a:

real decent, fine boy. We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. You’re thoroughly all right. In the mid nineteen-fifties, rock and roll was increasingly being attacked and there was growing opposition to its supposedly negative influence on America’s youth. I love America. With all the gyrating hips – it was too sexual for the timid fifties. We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you.

Elvis, being the star that he was, became the target for this outrage. Following Elvis’ second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, in which he performed this rousing version of his hit Hound Dog,

angry crowds in St. Louis and Nashville burned the star in effigy. With all the controversy swirling around, cbs censors demanded that for Elvis Presley’s final Ed Sullivan Show appearance he be shot from the waist up. No hips allowed. Seen only from the waist up, Elvis still put on an exciting show. I didn’t see it. Did you see it? I remember, clearly. But it was his rendition of such Presley hits as Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog that stirred up the studio audience. Their screams and applause clued the television viewers as to what Elvis was doing out of camera range, almost subverting the censors’ intent. The wildest explanation was offered by a former director of The Ed Sullivan Show, who said that during his second appearance, Elvis

apparently put a cardboard tube down the front of his trousers and manipulated it to make the studio audience scream. To avoid a repeated occurrence of that behavior, Sullivan supposedly insisted on the above-the-waist coverage for Elvis’ final appearance. None of these explanations offers any real insight but all add to the folklore surrounding this event, thereby enhancing Elvis’ image as a notorious rock ‘n’ roller. Not our folklore. I don’t what he’s saying but I like the sound of it. Are you lonesome tonight,/ A jeni sonte i vetmuar, Do you miss me tonight?/ Ju humbas mua sonte? Kjo asht shpata qe u rrin tek koka,/ This is the sword that hangs above the heads, Are you sorry we drifted apart?/ Jeni te keq kemi përvjedhur larg? Gjithe amriqve o qe ka bota./ Of all enemies around the world. Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day?/ A humbur kujtesën tuaj për një ditë të ndritshme me diell? Enver Hoxha, Tungjatjeta!/ Long live Enver Hoxha! When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?/ Kur ju puthi dhe e quajti you dashur? The hostel was pretty dirty, but friendly too. Arriving alone, it was best to get some sleep. A shared room but no-one else is there yet. A suitcase sat on the floor with a piece of music on it.

He is an Italian-Albanian composer who arrives back from rehearsals at the National Theatre. Working with an iso-polyphonic choir, updating it to modern times. An opinion on the matter of Hoxha’s old songs.* First things first: Anyone dressed like a medieval shepherd should not have the first clue on what a political party is. Having these archaic tribal characters sing about the glories of

Marxism-Leninism is a deliberate anachronism. It’s completely out of place. And what’s with the depiction of Enver Hoxha as a fierce warrior? Sharpening his sword? Could there be a more absurd mental picture than the tame bourgeois old man in the gray suit barbarically threatening the world with a sword? *Enver Hoxha e mprehi shpaten,/ Enver Hoxha sharpened his sword, Edhe nje here o per situaten./ Once again for the situation. Kjo asht shpata qe u rrin tek koka,/ This is the sword that hangs above the heads, Gjithe amriqve o qe ka bota./ Of all enemies around the world. Enver Hoxha, Tungjatjeta!/ Long live Enver Hoxha! They aren’t preserving him./ But communism was good to me. As if the performance were not derogatory in itself, these singers are subjected to another indignity: in the end, everyone in the choir is seen wearing wildly different costumes, which in fact represent the main regions of Albania with their respective micro-cultures. The spontaneous regimentation of these singers from such diverse

musical and thematic traditions into a single choir is just about as natural as a Russian, Chinese, Sub-Saharan African, Italian, and Arab child, respectively, coming together and holding hands to sing Kumbaya My Lord. The same longevity themes are pounded on anew, with greater force with each passing year in order to counter Enver’s growing fear of death. These farcical songs are all

so emotionally flat that they sound virtually interchangeable. The lyrics may have well been all written by the same author or by the same committee. Gone is the finesse, the originality, the pride. This prolonged desecration has delivered a devastating blow to folk music in Albania because people simply don’t respect the medium anymore, after decades of continuous subjection to such

Orwellian performances as the ones you have just seen. Seven Commandments for seven years. All animals are equal. Folk song used to be a means of resistance to oppressors and commemoration of freedom-seeking revolutions. Then, from nineteen forty-five to nineteen eighty-five, it became the jewel on the crown of Albania’s most ruthless dictator. But that’s just my opinion.

Accidents happen they say. It brought people values, brought them together. Hoxha’s daughter built him a pyramid – like an Egyptian – hoping they’d honour him. It was his museum. Now its run down and the National tv use it apparently. Arriving to the airport after a three am flight via Frankfurt, this time not being abused on the plane (still little respect for women it seems, though some things readily translate between cultures), we meet her and are thrown into the truck with National Television of Albania plastered on the side. Like a safari driving wildly around the pot-holed highways to Durrës. Shouting in the back amongst the cameras whilst two large Albanian men talk loudly in front. We can’t watch tv here. We might not be able to heat our homes but we all have a tv and a phone. Mobile phone shops, wedding shops and cafés to smoke in

fill our streets. We put food on the table but don’t have much of it to choose from. I can’t eat the biscuits sorry. Albania’s modern life can be described through it’s cafés. When Albania opened its borders in nineteen ninety-one, the Dajti Hotel was a hub of social life. The café with a parquet floor and high windows offered a tranquil place to talk politics. Tirana’s elite drank coffee in the

pyramid, the former Enver Hoxha museum. I can teach you some Albanian phrases. Upon this stone, I am Burrnesha. They give us everything when we visit. So poor, but they would give us things like walnuts they had grown, coffee and cheese. Always welcoming even though we were trying to stop them from killing. One is in charge of a family, they are all women. The head of the household stands in the foreground, the women behind her.

Women would move to the household of the family she married into. Never again seeing her own. No longer her blood. Serving

to the family. Beautiful brass coffee grinders were made in Tirana until the fall of communism. I always drink coffee – once I think I must have had about forty-five in a day, sat all day in the same café. Nineteen sixty. I’m nine years old and just moved to Durrës. The coffee here is good, Turkish. The Ottoman empire has invaded, but the mountain regions seem to remain unaffected. The accursed mountains – hard to get to, even now, that’s why it is so dangerous up there. I’ll take you to where the bears, wolves and eagles live. My home. Albania’s surprising side. The misconception of Albania as purely full of crime and Mafia-driven. He believes it’s because communism is no longer there to stop organised crime. She saw it as no different to back then. He didn’t want to comment.

I meet with friends a lot. I have lived here since I was nine years old. I happen to keep bumping into them and once ended up staying in this café for the whole day. Around forty coffees I think it was. According to the Kanun – the head of the house belongs to the eldest living under the roof – as long as it’s a man. He can possess his own weapons, a saddle horse, his own mattress, a blanket and coffee utensils. The coffee is good. An espresso, thanks. The coffee here was good, Turkish. I’ve lived through communism and it’s better here now. More choices and opportunities for young people. But most of them leave. I understand that. You have the option to leave now. Back then you couldn’t. I leave to travel but always return. I don’t need to sleep much anyway. I don’t think I slept for a week after that day. The Turkish coffee is strong at the best of times. Sometimes I put some rakı in it. Always an espresso. With several sugars. Good strong coffee. There is really nothing quite like it. Once we were in the mountains – it was hot in the

summer so we needed to get up at three in the morning to make our way across the path and tend to the sheep. I seemed to have scarce laid down when knocks aroused me, and I was told coffee was ready – and the horses. Giddy with sleep, but terrified of waiting

for the sun, I crawled out of half-consciousness. The regulation two nips of black coffee woke me a little. The effect of the coffee wore off before I was half-way down. I reeled with sleep, and fell heavily with a clatter that woke me to the half-dazed chill-grey of the sleeping world. I don’t need much sleep anyway. Nineteen

ninety-one. Beautiful brass coffee grinders. This is odd. I’m sitting in a bar in Tirana, Albania, and there’s not a gangster in sight. We are blamed for Italy’s mafia. A twenty foot-long counter packed with an array of enticing meats, a friendly man who grills them on request. Everyone speaks English, and everyone is unfailingly nice.

Could it be that there’s a mismatch between Albania’s reputation for – how to put this politely? – unconventional economic activity, and the modern-day reality? A narrow-minded view of Albania. I like listening to all kinds of music – mainly classical, but I love

to dance so Elvis is a hero, Elvis is a friend of mine. My daughter made me this cd for the car as a present, knowing that I’m driving across the mountains all the time. Once in New York, filming and lorry driving. We had these stamps with Elvis on recently. I posted

them to my friends. Sixty years of his life. I outlived Elvis. Doesn’t that make me more of a King? Posted them to my friends back in the mountains. Even though we weren’t allowed colour in our photographs. I painted it in anyway. We can find out about that time now they’ve released the files. I wanted to discover how, at the age of twenty-three, he had ended up on communist Albania’s vast register of incarcerated citizenry, a political prisoner reduced to a name and a number. A search for the truth led him from the secret police archives to the local phone directory, where he found another name and a number that held the promise of an answer. Their property had been confiscated when they were imprisoned. Often, their families were also packed off to labour camps. Those relatives who remained behind were usually ostracized. Released into the chaos that followed communism, the prisoners lacked the resources to build new lives. Some have made their homes in abandoned buildings, and still fear eviction. I live above a kebab shop in Durrës. The family home is in the north, in the mountains. I can’t live there on my own.

A brief history of Agony Aunts. In sixteen ninety-one, a thirty-twoyear-old man called John Dunton was having an affair and realised there was no one he could ask for advice about it without revealing his identity. Most of us would have shrugged and struggled on, but in Dunton, a printer and bookseller, the entrepreneurial as well as adulterous spirit was strong. Realising his dilemma could not be unique, he launched the Athenian Gazette and opened its pages to the readers. Thus the first agony column – and interactive magazine – was born. It proved so popular that Dunton had to do what many advice columnists would do after him and hire writers (of both sexes) to help him. One of them was that infamous pen-for-hire Daniel

Defoe, who in seventeen-o-four started up the Review and became its “agony uncle”. More and more publications warmed to this natty device – which attracted readers while getting them to do half the work of filling up pages. By the seventeen-forties, however, female

advisers had come to the fore, and the popularity of Mrs Eliza Haywood, romantic novelist and editor of the Female Spectator,

and Miss Frances Moore, editor of the Old Maid, established the tradition of advice column. In nineteen sixty-eight, at the height of the Cultural Revolution when relations between China and Albania reached their zenith, the Albanian Labour Party undertook an overtly ambitious initiative to celebrate the magnificence of their leader, Enver Hoxha. Hundreds of young people were forced to join the Albanian People’s Army. Put to work. With enormous stones and white paint they spelled out the first name of our dictator on the side of a mountain. The pre-Victorian agony aunts and uncles could be surprisingly liberal and outspoken. Dunton once advised a woman fearing a lonely old age to get herself down to the docks when the fleet was in and hook a sex-starved sailor. Nothing simpler. Others campaigned for better rights for deserted wives and other mistreated women.

The Victorians, of course, were working under a very different regime, and every syllable of their responses to readers’ queries rings with the repressive certainty of the age: You have foolishly lent yourself to a clandestine courtship and must withdraw from it promptly, the anonymous aunt, in the London Journal in eighteen fifty-seven, snaps. The serpent found his way into Eden, and why not into the park adjoining your father’s house? Do not add guilty weakness to your folly. The Garden of Eden. I think the goose is Albanian. The Albanian woman doesn’t smile at it and learns right then how to call out to an animal in order not to let them kill the goose. This family does not seem as much crowded as the postman told, but not sure whether they are troublesome or not. I was a postman for a time. Though your post would have been read. No such thing as “private” anymore. The hunger strike and the self-immolations in central Tirana this autumn swept the former prisoners into the headlines. The preVictorian agony aunts and uncles could be surprisingly liberal and outspoken. I would never leave. These mountains are mine. See

there? That is the mountain pass where you can climb all the way to Thethi. The car is stopped. I picked up the log to carve for later. In nineteen ninety-nine, after the fall of communism, the army attempted to destroy the letters on the mountain using napalm. In twenty-twelve, the inhabitants of the mountain village returned to unearth the letters and rewrite the name. After repeated acts of cleaning, uncovering, and painting, no longer the emblem enver, but returns as the English adverb never. Albania’s parliament has passed a law opening up communist-era secret police files to people who were spied on. Everyone spied on everyone else. It just

depended on who you knew as to how good the quality of your life was. Some people had a great time during communism. The Sigurimi relied on a huge network of civilian informers to muzzle any dissent and maintain the communist regime in power for decades. At least seven thousand opponents of the regime were killed and more than one-hundred thousand deported to labour camps. The harsh conditions there often proved fatal. They used enormous white rocks to spell never. But I never told lies. That didn’t seem to matter though did it? I think the goose is Albanian. We shared the hotel room together. I was with my sister luckily, so I had someone to talk to. But she also had a cold and cough.

He went out and got some food for us. Not that safe if you don’t know where you’re going. The mountains are being blown up to try and get rid of it all. But not these ones. Only some mines have been left behind and they don’t quite know where. We’re near Kosovo too, you see. For now I will show you where the eagles live.

Tropojë district has had a long reputation as one of the wildest and most conservative regions in Albania, virtually out of control of every government whether royalist, communist, or republican. A warning to travelers advising against all travel to the north-east border areas between Albania and Kosovo because of the risk of

unexploded ordnance placed during the Kosovan War and the poor condition of the roads. The Americans have built a road there now.

It’s only half finished as they ran out of money – as you can see the carriageway ends up as a single lane. The traffic driving straight at you from nowhere in the middle of a mountain, with a fivehundred foot drop. Not everyone has a driving license either. It’s more important to drive than to read. But you can’t really take your test if you don’t know how to do that. Education was better in my time. Now I don’t think they care. As long as we can drive.

I work for the Communist regime like everyone else. I’m eighteen and work in the administration for my village. Monitoring

everything. I’m being imprisoned for seven years. Seven years of my life for a crime I did not commit. I don’t understand what I did wrong. It was something to do with money. I stole ten-thousand Lek they said. But I would never do that. It’s brought shame to my whole family but I have to do as they say. What they could do to my family is unthinkable. Ruin their lives forever, but for us the shame of it is worse. Every man’s honour is his personal affair and no-one may interfere with or constrain the defence of that honour in any way. An offence to honour is never forgiven. An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood (or magnanimous pardon). During those times they could easily destroy your whole family. Even those not even born yet. I heard a story of a young doctor couple – very clever. They said something against the regime and were put on a pig farm, made to work and live with the pigs. It was meant to be for ten years, but it turned into twenty-five, turned into forever. Staying in the town’s hotel, we meet in the café over blueberry tea and in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Smoke formed from the tables full of small groups of men who talk in hushed voices, leaning in closely to discuss further. A local chef joins us. Journalists come here a lot, rude and try to exoticize us. As though we are some kind of freak show. But here I’m myself. I’m just myself, nothing more, just like anyone else. Trying to make ends meet – I do it for my family, my poor brother. I hate the sheep and curse every one I see, they killed my brother. The Seven Commandments. One. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Two. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. Three. No animal shall wear clothes. Four. No animal shall sleep in a bed. Five. No animal shall drink alcohol. Six. No animal shall kill any other

animal. Seven. All animals are equal. I was imprisoned for seven years of my life for a crime I did not commit. Luckily, for some reason I was released after two years. But it was for two years that everyday I wanted to die. To make my punishment worse – they put me in the women’s prison. It was humiliating. I am humiliated. I’m an outcast here and nobody knows how to treat me. It made me feel awful. The shame of it. I want to die. But afterwards I vowed I would only work for the good

of my family after dishonouring our name, live for them. Every man’s honour is his personal affair and no-one may interfere with or constrain the defense of that honour in any way. An offence to honour is never forgiven. An offence to honour is not paid for with property. But by the spilling of blood (or magnanimous pardon). The hard rock of the walls. Three brothers began to build a castle high up on the Albanian hilltops. They worked all day but every night the walls would fall down. They met a wise old man who said that someone needed to be sacrificed for the walls to stay upright. They decided after much difficulty the biggest sacrifice would be one of their wives. So they agreed, whichever wife who brought them lunch the next day would be the one and agreed to keep it secret from them. The two eldest brothers warned their wives. The youngest, honest brother, did not. The following day as hunger approached, so too did the youngest brother’s wife. Her name was Rozafa – they explained the situation that she was to be sacrificially buried in the walls of the castle and she agreed but on certain conditions. I plead, when you

wall me, leave my right eye exposed, leave my right hand exposed, leave my right foot exposed for the sake of my newborn son.

When he starts crying, let me see him with one eye. Let me caress him with one hand. Let me feed him with one breast. Let me rock his cradle with one foot. May the castle breast be walled. May the castle rise strong. May my son be happy. Rozafa wanted to be able to look after her newborn son – so asked for her right eye to see him, her right breast to be exposed to feed him, her right hand to caress him and her right foot to rock his cradle. The castle stood. The hard rock of the walls. Nothing to look at than the reflections of clouds on the ground when it rained. I was imprisoned for seven years of my life for a crime I did not commit. I remember the hard rock of the walls. A suitcase of shame. Shame to my family. I am humiliated. Six. No animal shall kill any other animal. Seven. All animals are equal. I am sixty-three. I live in the mountainous region of Tropojë. It would take hours to get to her home so we met in Bajram Curri. A hard life led but powerful energy – with kind eyes, quiet confidence, shadows of the past within the caring hands driving the yellow VW bus towards the ravine, Agony Uncle.

Still struggling to move on from the tyranny of Enver Hoxha. We’re going into a derelict building right in the middle of Tirana. Hidden behind trees. This is where the Sigurimi were housed listening to the everyday lives, listening for descent. Recorders and cassette players. Camera lenses. A switchboard. Double-o-seven. We’re so used to seeing this in movies that its difficult to take in that it’s real. We have to remember what this stuff did. It destroyed people’s lives. The debris of the past is still unsorted. Controlling everything. The width of your trouser legs and the length of your hair. You look old enough to have lived in this time. Correct. How do you feel looking at this stuff? What a horrible life we have had.

I love Albania. I would never leave. Hundreds. Can you imagine? Only through comparisons can you understand what has been going on. These are the albums of the photographs of bugged objects. Finally we have been given access to these secret files. Briefcases, ladies’ handbags, women’s shoes, men’s shoes, a pipe, all pre-fitted with bugs. Like an old spy movie. It was incredible.

My mother is flabbergasted. Tirana in the mid-Eighties had been utterly dead. The only excitement came when an overweight man in brown flares and a garish rainbow-stripe jumper propositioned her in the loo’s of the Tirana International Hotel. She fought him off, and he was arrested in minutes. She has no doubt he was sent to a prison camp, or worse. Amazed by the valiant hunter’s deeds, the people of the land elected him king and called him Shqipëtar, which is to say “Son of the Eagle”, and his kingdom became known as Shqipëria or “Land of the Eagles”. The two heads on the eagle represent the north and the south. The eagle on my head always, see the symbol on my hat? The town itself (when I arrive before four), you have mosques, and bazaars, storks’ nests, and picturesque desolation: it is a poor place, suffered in the latest Albanian rebellion, a mournful

air of decay. A doctor of quarantine in these coasts, lives in a twostoried wooden house overlooking town, plain, and sea; and by means of a walled courtyard has made himself a very comfortable place for such an out-of-the-way part of the world. The difficulty of attaining the usual degree of travelling cleanliness. I will take you to the mountains. The pass consists of mere shelves or ledges, of crumbling earth, don’t look down, perpendicular rocks of fallen masses of stone.

It’s hard to get cigarettes out here in the mountains. When my friends come from the towns or cities to visit they usually bring some with them. I can’t remember when I started smoking but I smoke all day long. It is part of who I am. It helps me think clearly. Sitting with the men in cafés talking, drinking coffee in a cloud of smoke-fog. It’s a social thing to do. No matter where you go in Albania you will find a café to sit and smoke in. There were cafés with dancing bears. Captured bears are still a key part of the business model of a respected restaurant in Tirana. Now many customers only want to continue to visit the restaurant, if no more bears are put on show there. I grew up where the wolves, bears and the eagles live. To travel across the country is tough as the road systems are poor when you get into the valleys. Rock falls and debris from the rivers,

once they unfreeze, find their way onto the roadways. Then there’s no way in or out until the road is cleared. No way in or out.

Looking after my deceased brothers four children means not being able to leave the mountain village for a long time. To travel across

the country is tough as the road systems are poor when you get into the valleys – mainly from the winter. You can almost drive through all the different seasons in the space of about five minutes here. From the bottom of the valley where we are now, then up towards the mountain, a line of trees green and healthy. Drive a little further and the next trees are leafless and lifeless. Finally you approach snow-topped pine trees in the full bloom of winter. We can stop here if you like. I come here with my niece for lunch. They shoot the deer themselves, the deer that we’re eating. There was outrage at one thousand lambs being slaughtered to celebrate Albanian independence – celebrations at which the cooked lamb will be served to guests on two tw0-hundred metre-long tables. King Zog was returned to mark the anniversary – exiled from when Hoxha came. Albania shouldn’t have a King. Maybe Elvis. He died in nineteen-sixty. King Zog, that is.

We aren’t vegetarians here in Albania but the slaughter of so many lambs wasn’t something we wanted to celebrate. We have lots to celebrate. I am proud of my country. Mother Teresa. Belushi – his dad a restaurant owner and an Albanian immigrant – from Qytezë – and his mother was also of Albanian descent. They live in

America now. Americans built the road to Kosovo from Durrës so that if another war broke out they can get straight there, fast. It’s a road we’ve been along before. And have you tried the sheep’s cheese, it’s delicious? But the prime minister’s office could not be contacted for comment. We drive together to the mountains through Kosovo across the border. Rather than waiting in the queue with the rest of the cars, she gets out and walks across, straight past an office full of border police. The police surround her. She lights a cigarette, puffing away on it in response. They all start joking with one another. Masculine bravado saves the day. The id reads one thing, they read it differently. We are a traditional folk, because we have nothing to hold onto but

our traditions. Maybe that makes us old-fashioned. Adam and Eve and two equal parts. But it’s what makes me Albanian. As long as we can put food on the table that’s all I care about. People can live how they want to now, but it’s hard. We have the freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun. I taught five hundred women to shoot a gun. We carry guns because of the wolves too, to scare them from the sheep. The dogs we keep are as big as the wolves, you’ll see them. We let them out at night. Nobody dares mess with another family’s dog. They are as much as part of the family as anyone else. I represent the family here. A woman is a sack made to endure. I know we are all on a mission from God. It’s one hundred and six miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses. She gave her the sunglasses to keep. They looked good, like mirrors. You see this photo? Worn whilst waving on the passing traffic on the ravine bridge, just like Diana when we first met. Scare the crows. Scare the wolves.

Nineteen seventy-nine. My brother was killed in a shepherding accident. I look after his four children now. They have their mother but she cannot provide for them. So I have to work to keep them happy. It’s hard because the work doesn’t come easily. There isn’t

much to do here anymore. Industry has left and now we depend on one another more than ever. I call in a lot of favours, only above board. I live an honest life and always give something in return. Seven years in prison. There always seems to be the wrong impression of Albania. Cash Only.

A struggling Detroit landlord named Elvis who’s in debt to the Albanian mafia. In this gritty Detroit-set thriller, Elvis Martini is a single Albanian father and landlord trying to do the right thing. But since he’s in debt to both bookies and his daughter’s school, Elvis needs to come up with some serious money, fast. His nineyear-old daughter is kidnapped as a result. And where is he going to come up with twenty-five-thousand dollars? I was nine when I moved to Durrës. Those kind of films are not really helping the stereotypical understanding of Albania. Liam Neeson. Taken two. Too violent. We aren’t allowed to watch tv here, but if we do its usually Hoxha. I cannot stand the sight of sheep, they remind me of him. They caused his death. I will never get over that. Maybe they should

slaughter those one thousand lambs after all and use the wool to make our hats? I always wear a hat. Not just my military beret but even at night I’ll change into a different hat. A night cap of rakı. We take cash only. These kind of hats were worn celebrating the traditions of Albanian folk, celebrating Enver Hoxha in those days. Made from wool from the sheep that killed my brother. The qeleshe or plis, is a white brimless felt cap traditionally worn by Albanians. It has spread throughout Albanian-inhabited territories, and is today part of the traditional costume of the Albanians. Dressing remains one of the most powerful manifestations of culture.

I will always dress in my military beret, I will until the day I die and be buried in it too, to remember the work I did. The respect we all had, the respect I get is still there in the older generations. It’s the young people that I worry about. They haven’t experienced it hard like us older ones, they don’t remember. All they want is money and cars. I remember. I am only a teenager and have been accused of theft. Seven years of my life to be taken from me, enforced. I have a traditional folk costume too. I like to dance in the traditional way when I wear it, not many people do it anymore apart from at folk festivals. The wool hat relates back to ancient Greece. Patroclus wears one – the one who fought with Achilles

– that picture on the Greek urns. The Trojan war and horses. The head of the house can possess his own saddle horse. I would prefer to ride my bike. Or a motorbike for further distances. Cash Only. We are poor here in the mountains, looking after the livestock is

very important to me. As we drove in the yellow VW van around the mountains I learned of the hard life he had encountered – particularly losing a very close brother to an accident that was purely bad fortune. Bad timing. Accidents happen, they are saying, but nobody is taking responsibility. We met in a home for the elderly and mentally ill in Shkodër, cats running about the garden chasing three blind mice. Happy with the decision to work in the fields and tend the livestock. Life with the animals. Name changed to the masculine version. Upon first arrival to Albania, he picked me up from the airport and filled me in on a few Albanian facts. I had no money other than the Euro as you can’t get Albanian Lek outside the country. It’s cash only everywhere. They live by a cash economy. Lek most places. Only use what you need, and careful of the Roma they will try to take all of it if you give them even a small amount. But it’s up to you. We eat burek in the café, not forbidden food this time. But traditional food. The owner smokes profusely as he throws the pastry into the oven. The Roma watch.

They sit and sew wedding dresses on the tables. A struggling Detroit landlord named Elvis who’s in debt to the Albanian mafia. America is a place I’ve never been. In this gritty Detroit-set thriller,

Elvis Martini is a single Albanian father and landlord trying to do the right thing. But since he’s in debt to both bookies and his daughter’s school, Elvis needs to come up with some serious money, fast. Elvis is a hero of mine. I don’t know what the words say but I can imagine what they are. Perhaps I can show you one day where I live. In nineteen sixty-three after the break in relations with the ussr, the Albanian navy, in a paranoid fear of enemy attacks, sighted an object that repeatedly appeared and disappeared at the surface of the sea off the coast at Patok. Believing it to be a submarine, they shot it. The object turned out to be a cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus), the Mediterranean sperm whale. Now that Communism has ended we are free to travel. I’m fluent in Italian, too. I go there a lot. We went to that film’s Italian

premiere, written by Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin. I didn’t like it much though, it didn’t feel like reality. Not my reality. Idealistic. Riding horses and my bike, but I mainly walk. The freedom of

it, moving all the time. Freedom has been hard to find but I have lived freely. You might not think so, what do you know? You don’t know me. Look me in the eyes. You see these rings? They are for

my mother and father, I represent the family here. I represent a lot of things. I am myself. Can many people say that? Strength and honour is my life’s work. Cash Only.

We lived well at the beginning of Communism. All of us working on the land producing crops to feed the family. I trained women in the military to shoot a gun. Five hundred women at one point. Don’t point that gun at me. I’m proud of the work I have done

during Communism. Having a place in society, a role and position of respect by all. That’s why the beret remains worn everyday, as a reminder of the life enjoyed everyday. Domestic violence against women in Albania is slowly being tackled. Women can now finally speak out about abuse without fear of bringing shame to the family. I would train them with how to shoot a rifle and training exercises during military service. There’s a theory that we are from the survival of a genetic link to the legendary Amazon warrior-women of a lost matriarchal age in Ancient Greece. When a woman would traditionally get married there would be a bullet in her dowry when handed over to her husband. So that if she were found to not be dutiful to him he could shoot her. I don’t think it happens now. Not much happens here now. Because my little brother died, I could have been chosen to head the family when no other suitable male is available and if the family is small. We had a small family and my brother died at the age of

two. But I have an older brother. I cut my hair because it felt right. You could say I am lucky. An enormous whale’s skeleton, which is both protagonist and silent witness – an incarnation of the giantLeviathan, the Hobbesian principle of sovereignty. Shot down. The purchase of a rifle for each young man would be made at the age when he could be involved in a blood feud. During Communism blood feuds ended. A lid was put over the Kanun. Like a trapped spider, feuds went quiet. Now they’ve started to come back. I’m trying my hardest to get the government to acknowledge it. Because to get into the eu Albania has to solve it. Not permitted otherwise. Instead of sorting it they are denying it exists as the best solution. Letting murder happen all to just join the eu. I heard about how a football match had to be canceled because there was one player who was involved in a feud. Put themselves into self-isolation. The whole family does that – the one who commits the blood let goes into self-isolation, the whole family too, but they would stay in the house together. Deciding who

would commit the next murder. My brother died at two. Nineteen eighty-two. We are all trained how to shoot a rifle. Even in school we are taught. Lessons in taking aim. Hoxha is stockpiling enough ammunition to go to war for a year. Every civilian should be able

to take up arms if needs be. Every small stone should be able to be used as a form of defence. The glass has been lifted and now the spiders run free. Operazione Colomba. I work in the escalating situation of blood feuds in the North of the country. Working with around forty to seventy families to reconcile peace between them. In the hopes that peace overcomes honour and pride. Blood feuds and defending family honour has come back. I’m not sure when it will be stopped as honour is everything to us in Albania. Want some spaghetti? Giacamo made it but she’s having the gluten-free pasta. Keep the food separate. We have to import most of our food from the city if its anything fancy. Coke. I don’t like it, I’ve not got much of a sweet tooth. For dessert we have some biscuits. Sorry about that. I didn’t realise you were diabetic. Biscuits and nutella. A few crackers. This sausage is from Italy – we

aren’t vegetarians here. They slaughtered those lambs in the end to celebrate with King Zog. I go to Italy when I can, I’m fluent. We don’t trust the government so much anymore. We take the law into their own hands. Ancient feuds spiraling all over again. Blood feuds for reasons as small as falling out over a game of dominoes. Carrying the dice always in my bag. Upon this dice I am Burrnesha. Always moving, dancing, playing the pipe with my fingers, fighting the girls. Three dice, three blind mice. See how they run. I would always be fighting with the boys. Now the blood feuds are spiraling and yet I would die for my family too if someone dishonoured them, my brother died when he was two years old. We all would. It’s in our nature, hospitality and honour.

As I walked slowly up the zigzag path to the entrance of the town, I had leisure to examine my numerous new acquaintances, whom I thought by far the most wild and most typical of Albanian character that I had yet seen. The loftiest and most sovereign expression of pride and independence in every gesture. Every small stone should be able to be used as a form of defence. We lived well during the beginning of Communism. Working on the land producing crops to feed the family.

Look here what I found on the floor, it looks like a dice. Or maybe a tooth. My baby brother died when he was only two years old, I keep these dice with me all the time, it’s a long nine-hour journey to the Northern Alps, lets try and get three of them the same. Now put your hands out, that’s it. Three dice, three blind mice. See how they run. See how they run. We don’t know what one another are saying so games and hand

gestures are the best ways to communicate. Trying to get them all on the same number. You have lucky hands. The first arrival in Tirana, capital city of Albania, I met him composing with an iso-polyphonic male choir at the National Theatre. Walking in the rain, mind the puddles the roads here are badly kept. Walls peeling and broken chairs inside the theatre. Crackling speakers. Listen to the voices sing. Haunting, merging into one huge noise like a wailing orchestra. A ritual. A mythical chant. One about a snake-woman as the snake is admired here. Mother of the land. Mother-tongue. I believe in two parts to a person. I mean two separate parts. Man and woman. Adam and Eve, the snake of knowledge. Is the snake a man or a woman?

I can’t remember. He was originally from Northern Albania and had Burrnesha in his family. They were fearsome individuals to him as a child. Strong-willed and serious in keeping up appearances and traditional values. There is a saying Upon this rock, I am Burrnesha. It commands respect. Swearing something sacred. There was respect during communism and everyone had their place. I was very good at numbers in school. I passed every exam with top marks, nineteen eighty-three. I wanted to train as an engineer like everyone else who worked in the factories. I could have been a Hollywood actress. For a time I worked as a maths teacher at the local school. This is my cousin, he is a teacher now, just like I was, teaching maths to the local kids. Please note that in the exams slide rules are allowed, and calculators. In fact I use my wonderful HPThirtytwo-E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation. This is how a nato war game took the world to brink of nuclear disaster.

A mathematical notation, every operator follows all of its operands, in contrast to Polish notation: the operator before its operands. Postfix notation does not need any parentheses as long as each

operator has a fixed number of operands. Then it was the height of the cold war between ussr and usa. HPThirty-two-E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation. By then we had cut ourselves off from

Stalin and from the rest of the world. True Hoxha isolationism. There is paranoia, and then there was Enver Hoxha’s brand of paranoia, the brutal, eccentric, isolationist dictator of Albania

ruled for more than four decades. Mr. Hoxha sealed off our small Southern European nation from the outside world, insisting that Albania faced enemies from every side, on every border. Borders are our language. Nineteen eighty-three. Cabinet memos and briefing papers released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that a major war games exercise, Operation Able Archer it was called, conducted in November nineteen eighty-three by the us and its nato allies was so realistic it made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility. You and your games. Throwing dice the whole way to Kosovo. The height of the cold war and Hoxha’s paranoia. I trained women in the military to shoot a gun. They taught you how to shoot a gun in school too. So everyone could take up arms in case of an invasion. At one point we had enough ammunition in the country to go to war for a year. Against whoever Hoxha felt like. Now they’re blowing up the tops of mountains, trying to get rid of all the leftover old ammunition. There is no magic in these mountains after all.

I was a maths teacher in nineteen eighty-three. I saw a ship in the harbor. Everyone was trying to leave after nineteen ninety-one. I can and shall obey. But if it wasn’t for your misfortunes I’d be a heavenly person today. That New Order song. Nineteen eighty-seven. Factory records. I wanted to work in the factories, I was clever enough as an engineer but had to look after the four children of my brother. They are manufacturing women’s shoes with microphones in them. Blue Monday became a bigger hit than the band had ever imagined.

Consequently not enough singles were made in the first pressing (I never actually smoke, I just keep a cigarette behind my ear as a sign of masculinity). The prohibition of smoking in theatres, cinemas and public transport is not on the agenda. Why was the danger placed so near? The link between smoking and lung cancer is one of direct cause and effect it has been found. But tobacco firms have rejected the findings saying they are merely a: matter of opinion. Why was the danger placed so near? My poor brothers. I saw a ship in the harbour.

It’s the day shift. Why was the danger placed so near? Nineteen sixty-seven. This is me at sixteen, I painted it. I cut my hair so that I could look after the livestock. There is so much ammunition in the country. From nineteen sixty-seven, Enver Hoxha started to build these concrete bunkers, like mushrooms, up until nineteen eightysix, dotted across the country and home to enough ammunition to be able to go to war for a year against usa or whoever else Hoxha disagreed with. “Concrete mushrooms” because they look like small mushroom houses, very sinister mushrooms. We are now re-using Albania’s seven-hundred and fifty thousand abandoned bunkers. I worked in a factory for some of my life. Because I was so good at maths. I trained as an engineer. I was the best in school. They would give you these pin badges where you worked. To pin onto your over-clothes, but now I am a driver. Look out the window – see that? One hundred and sixty people living in the nearby village

of Gerdec took shelter in those concrete bunkers while others fled to the hills. The explosion destroyed this whole landscape and nobody will account for it. Take responsibility. Because control keeps changing hands. Albania is required to dismantle its obsolete

Stalinist-era arsenal and modernise its armed forces in order to qualify it for an invitation to join nato next month. People are employed in those factories to destroy the old outdated mines and ammunition. Elderly women and kids work there. I would never let my brother’s children do that. I work so they can be children. Go to school. Not taught how to shoot a rifle anymore. Accidents happen they say. When my brother was killed I had to look after his four children. A shepherding accident. I need to be near in case they need anything. The factory has inexperienced villagers prying apart thousands of artillery shells a day with metal rods and their bare hands. It is hard to call the deadly catastrophe that follows simply an accident. I worked in a factory for a time. They gave away pin badges as

souvenirs. It felt like you were flying. Thrown sixty feet in the air. I’m a driver now. Driving means I can get to them when I need to. I drive lorries, school runs, anything that needs a driver. Listen to the radio while we drive. Put on what you like. As long as it’s Elvis. There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street. “Accidents” happen they say. Their fancy cars are such a sight to see, oh, yeah, they’re all of your rich friends who knew you in the city, and now they’ve finally brought you home to me.

Elvis was a King, a friend of mine. Bedri is a friend now too. Let me take you to the mountains where I used to live, that’s where he lives. I met you a long time ago, I’d seen you on the tv giving talks about the rights for women and thought you were strong, I must meet you. I wrote to you saying I would be going through Durrës driving a lorry or truck – I can’t remember exactly now – but it was something that I wanted to do, to hear someone I respected.

We met and have been friends since then. We talk over coffee and cigarettes. When you come from the city, bring me cigarettes. You can’t get a bus easily here that’s for sure, unless you get up at five am. If I’d have been a Hollywood actress my life would have looked very differently to how it is now. But that lifestyle is what is wrong with our young people now. They don’t care for looking after the old ways, the old people, the old traditions, the livestock. I understand it but it’s a dangerous road to go down, losing respect and losing things that matter. I hope that things will change. I am optimistic. The road consists of mere shelves or ledges, of crumbling earth, don’t look down, perpendicular rocks of fallen masses of stone.

Ride along or ride alone. I don’t drive a car. I have a motorbike or I cycle. I have a pet cat too. A ginger one. Work hard enough like me

and you can have your own business buying and selling cars. We aren’t allowed to have a private car. Driving doesn’t really happen. It is bikes or on foot, or communal vehicles. Buses and such. I ride a motorbike. And now I ride a bike. When Hoxha’s reign ended, everyone could have their own car. Family is everything to me. The Albanian family. Some say that the Italian mafia took influence from the Kanun, because of the Albanian strong-hold of the family. The strength of blood. She cut her hair to get away from her abusive husband. His son now calls him daddy. Divorced, and now able to run a new business for the repair of gears and road services. He built a house and has a good standard of living. A modest life thanks to the independence of the car. The most popular car in Albania is the Mercedes. It is possible to spot virtually every model of Mercedes produced since the nineteen seventies. From the plushest new S-Class to battered sedans from a bygone era. An issue of blame, Italians blaming Albanians for giving the mafia ideas like vendettas and blood feuds. Revenge is nothing new. They’re robust and powerful, ideal for the awful roads in this country, said the taxi driver. I work as a driver now. You might not drive but I do. I saw you on the tv and I wanted to meet you. Your views on communism and women were interesting to me. So I wrote a letter and drove to Durrës to meet you. Tirana, breaking free from its communist past, is a city transformed. I drive everyday. Almost like a taxi service to those that need it in the mountains. My sister bought me this car. She lives in Munich now. Moved there once Hoxha died knowing that shit would hit the fan once it all ended. And she was right. A mass exodus. I would never leave Albania. Tirana is the most polluted city in Europe – try crossing the street in the middle of an automotive free-form ballet. Nobody sticks to the lanes and roundabouts have their own system

of order. Imagine it in the seventies and eighties when there were no cars. Just people walking everywhere. Or cycling. We weren’t allowed cars during Hoxha’s reign. There were even horse-drawn carts. Imagine it in nineteen eighty-six. Imagine now when you were finally allowed to drive yourself, the freedom. I am completely free. No wonder everyone wanted to drive – and no wonder the roads are bad here. Unfinished skyscrapers mixed with cobblestones. Not in the mountains, in the mountains we are an afterthought. But luckily I drive to get the things we need. Be careful of the roads though the rock falls keep happening now winter is thawing. We live humbly. I would play basketball all the time in the streets with the other kids. I was great at it. The roads here are like a freeform ballet, now that communism is over. I like to dance, they said I had a gift at it, I’m not sure about that. I was imprisoned for seven years of my life for a crime I didn’t commit, the hard rock of the walls, the concrete everywhere. Rock and concrete, they could make you work on the land for years, even though there was nothing left to mine. They forced us to work the land until there was nothing left in it. And work some more. Just the point of being able to make you work, for the country, not for yourself, the individual was not allowed, especially if you had done something they had deemed to be wrong. I can’t say that I was framed. Even complaining about the weather could have been taken the wrong way. I’m optimistic most of the time, I love this country. Home. Albanian illegal immigrants. We are the human cargo. You know sometimes history just repeats itself. There are more Albanians living outside Albania than inside, everyone is trying to escape as there is no hope here. During all of

these feats, the eagle faithfully watched over and guided him. A lot of people left when Communism fell. I have no idea how to cook but luckily I live above a kebab shop.

My sister bought me this car. With the money she makes in Munich. She left when Communism fell. I would never leave – I love Albania. It is who I am. I see a ship in the harbor. Women

can now speak out about abuse without fear of bringing shame to the family. It’s the summer of nineteen ninety-one, I can and shall

obey. I heard of a ship leaving from the port of Durrës – the vlora. I moved to Durrës when I was nine years old. I heard people climbing the ropes to the boat and falling off into the crowd. But if it wasn’t for your misfortunes, I’d be a heavenly person today.

Thousands of us. I would never leave. Nothing more than the clothes on my back trying to leave Albania. But, there was nothing for us there either, so we came back again. Or at least sent money back for the family. You see these rings? I see a ship in the harbour. I can and shall obey. I’m not good at doing what I’m told at the best of times. I think Communism was the best of times. Nobody has any respect anymore. The boat had come from Cuba and was full of sugar – you could go down and take a bit. I have a sweet tooth. I would never leave Albania. Family is everything to me: see, these rings? They are my family. My mother and father died so this ring is for them, inscribed. The other is from my niece. My brothers and sisters left the country when communism fell. I stayed here – I represent my family here. These represent their memory. I will never forget

them. I see a ship in the harbor. The boat was leaving for Italy – people wanted to escape Albania now they were allowed to leave, after fifty years of being confined. The boat was full of sugar – you

could go down and take a bit. I have a sweet tooth, thank you for the biscuits the kids loved them. The Italians blame us for their mafia problem, when we have enough of our own problems. Blame is a shameful thing to do, they aren’t Albanian if they blame. The strength of blood and rakı , made with a lot of sugar and soft fruits. A country of entrenched poverty, Albania is one of the poorest in Europe. That’s why the beret remains worn everyday. She blew her horn, and the sound signaled the beginning of one of the most spectacular exoduses in recent history. Fifty-thousand desperate Albanians descended on the vlora, fleeing their country’s oppressive regime. They say history repeats itself and that we never learn. A youth was hunting in the mountains. An eagle flying above him alighted on top of a crag. The eagle was especially large and

had a snake in its beak. After a while, the eagle flew away from the crag where it had its nest. I then climbed to the top of the crag where I saw, in the nest, an eaglet playing with the dead snake. However, the snake was not dead. Suddenly it stirred, revealed its fangs and was ready to pierce the eaglet with its deadly venom. I took out my bow and arrow and killed the snake. Then I took the eaglet and started for home. That’s why the beret remains worn everyday. Suddenly the youth heard above him the loud whir of the great eagle’s wings. Why do you kidnap my child? cried the eagle. The child is mine because I saved it from the snake which you didn’t kill, answered the youth. Give me back my child, and I will give you as a reward the sharpness of my eyes and the powerful strength of my wings. You will become invincible, and you will be called by my name! Thus the youth handed over the eaglet. After the eaglet grew, it would always fly above the head of the youth, now a grown man, who, with his bow and arrows, killed many wild beasts of the forest, and with his sword slew many enemies of the land.

Blueberry tea please. I always have a lot of sugar. I drink blueberry tea, not just coffee, I’ll have you know. But it needs to have a lot of sugar, the Turkish tea, otherwise it’s like sucking lemons. I’m served first, of course, we must always serve the men first at funerals and weddings, then leave. The boat has come from Cuba and is full of sugar – you can go down and take a bit, especially if you have a sweet tooth. Sorry about the biscuits. Diabetes is a curse. Ride along or ride alone. I don’t drive a car. I have a motorbike or I cycle. I have a pet cat too, a ginger one, it follows me around when I’m home. If I leave, the kebab shop owners look after him, always, when I’m away. We stop in Shkodër to eat something after having driven for hours, making our way towards Kosovo. A small pizza restaurant serves us a greasy slice. Some things translate borders when it comes to

takeaway pizza, especially when you live above a kebab shop. We eat several slices after a long wait. I’m served last. We aren’t vegetarians here that’s for sure. The Burek too, we can have that after, this thin pastry stuffed with cheese, see it puff up? See those women weaving the dresses? They are Roma. We make a great Baklava here too, the

Turkish influence again I guess from those days of the Ottoman empire. All these empires rise and fall. Just as Communism did, when agriculture was the main industry. Keeping the livestock, keeping time, I’m good at numbers. I always carry sweets in my bag. Coffee-flavoured ones. And those strange fish crackers. Savoury, always followed by something sweet. I prefer sweet – oh and those small chocolate cakes. Keks. And the traditional Albanian cheese. I can eat a whole block of that with just a knife. I have my army knife with me all the time. It reminds me of when I trained in the military here. Nineteen ninety-one. Thousands fled the country when Communism fell. We are seeking to ease the food shortage. Now we can eat whatever we like. We can’t get much up here in the mountains. The children were so excited when I came home with your biscuits, thank you. I mostly produce my own food to eat, a simple fare, meat, potatoes, cheese. Nineteen ninety-one. We would get our food from a state store. Women crowded the counter as a harried saleswoman checked their names in a large register and weighed out weekly meat rations.

State stores have no sugar, rice or cheese. Some mountain regions lack even bread. It’s important to serve the man first when in a café or restaurant. Someone in my family owns a restaurant near here.

It’s where they flooded the land once to cultivate – now its a lagoon and there is great fish and fish restaurants. It’s off the coast at Patok. Believing it to be a submarine, they shot it. The object turned out to be a cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus), the Mediterranean sperm whale. I draw a lot when I have time – drawing when I’m by the sea. Or in the café. I like it when they give me a biscuit with my coffee. I have a sweet tooth. I live with Bute. My brother’s widow in a house with a wooden tiled roof. In front of it is a small apple and plum orchard. I came to live with Shkurtan rather than with any of my six children or eight grandchildren. I couldn’t leave, we all need a woman to take care of the house and needs. There is much to be done with the cows and twenty chickens and various crops. You can see the landscape is scarred by time. Where we worked in the land army as a teenager, where you would work

as hard as possible so that you could get further in life. The more you proved yourself the more likely you would be able to have a better life, have more choice, maybe go to study in the city. If you didn’t prove yourself then there was no chance. It just depends on who you know. They tried to take on what the Chinese had done in the land. You can see the striped landscape where they farmed in layers, like rice fields, Vietnam is it? But our soil can’t take it, sucking away all the minerals with the potatoes so after a few years they couldn’t grow anything there. That didn’t fit their plans and you were blamed if you didn’t grow enough fruit or vegetables. Even if it was the land that needed resting, it was your fault it wasn’t growing. You couldn’t do much right. But I think what I did was right, training all those women, fighting for their rights. I’ve been on tv a lot for that. Not everyone agrees but I don’t care what everyone thinks.

There’s a café near where my friend lives named after George W. Bush. He visited the town of Fushë-Krujë. That’s quite near where I ride my bike to see my friend, up in Krujë, who passed away recently. There’s a museum Hoxha’s daughter built there up in those mountains too, where you can learn about Skanderbeg. It’s not like the pyramid she built for her father, Hoxha, like he was some kind of Egyptian God or something. Empty footprints now. Back down at the bottom of the mountain there’s a statue of Bush in his honour and a hairdresser named after his wife. Women kissed him on both cheeks. Men jostled to get close to him as Secret Service agents encircled him. As he stood on the running board of his limousine, waving before ducking back in the car, a second limousine pulled up to protect him from the rear. Apparently someone stole his watch. I think it’s a lie but they say that the

watch made it back to him in any case. Rumours like that give Albania a bad name. Cash Only. I sometimes sit and draw – I am an artist you see, sitting in the café with a cigarette in the hand, looking out to the sea, deep in thought as someone brings him another coffee. That sea has seen more than me. I see a ship in the harbour I can and must obey. Or I take photographs and paint – I could have been a professional, you could get a medal for that. You could get a medal for a lot of things if you knew the right people. My father was in the military, that’s why we moved a lot when I was young. I moved to Durrës when I was nine years old. Elvis is a hero of mine. I would have been given the award for the People’s Artist of Albania, if I hadn’t have been a Hollywood actress, whose merits were exceptional in the sphere of development of the arts.

You’d need to be doing it for forty years to get it. If you look closely in Tirana you can see left behind statues of the past. The empty footprints of Hoxha. You could end up in one of his prisons, where you would either become a miner or be forced to listen to his manifesto on repeat, in a room full of people all sat at a desk, like school exams. I was imprisoned for seven years of my life. There’s a café near where my friend lives named after George W. Bush. He visited the town of Fushë-Krujë. There’s a statue in his honour. Honour is everything to us here in Albania, and a hairdresser named after his wife. And there’s also a café. His poll numbers may be in the basement, but when he zipped through this small, relentlessly pro-American nation on Sunday, President Bush was treated like a rock star. There was a sculptor who got the medal for the Skanderbeg statue in the centre of Tirana. The national hero of our country. There’s a museum for him near where my friend lives where the Bush statue is. Enver Hoxha’s daughter built that. The Albanian sculptor Odhise Paskali did the sculptures. You can see Skanderbeg’s mausoleum in Lezhë. We’ll drive past there on the way to the mountains. He is our symbol of our independence – I don’t need symbols as Albania is a symbol enough. See this on my hat? The eagle, that is my symbol. The symbol of Albanian independence. The eagle. Women in these areas seem to stay inside during the day. Almost nun-like, hidden in secrecy. The men are outside smoking. Many voices, in conversation in a language that is understood by you and yet it is foreign to me. Lean in. Look closer. Rings around fingers, an old wrist-watch reaches for the lighter first. Now take the cigarette from behind your ear and light it. Breath in the sweet familiar rush, the car rushed past that made the sheep panic. They killed my brother in that shepherding accident, he died when he was two years old, but

I have an older brother. He would always point out the eagles to me with the binoculars. The loftiest and most sovereign expression

of pride and independence in every gesture. I don’t need symbols as Albania is a symbol enough.

I carved this eagle out of the wood from my lands with these two hands. I could have been a sculptor too, if I wanted, and won the same medal, probably, but I am satisfied training women to shoot rifles. I found a piece of log when we last visited Tropojë and picked it up. Stop the car. Go back, I just want to get something – I’m going to carve it into a Native American-Indian’s head. The native American came once to see Albania near where my friend lived. They named a hairdressers after his wife. I would never dye my hair. As the older women get on they dye their hair black. I never saw a grey or white-haired woman in the mountains. Especially during Hoxha’s rule, we had to have our hair a certain way. Clean-shaven and never long on a man. Neat and tidy. That suited me just fine as I can’t grow a beard anyway. This is a sketch for the Hotel Dajti, constructed and used until the nineteennineties. It was that February protesters in Tirana pulled down the

giant statue of Albania’s former dictator. The footprints of Hoxha remain in most people. It was the end of the last Communist regime in Europe. Nobody likes to talk about the past here – we want to look forwards. They made a bridge for King Zog. You can’t cross it anymore. It seems people like to build things in honour of themselves, to remind people they were here. Crossing borders, funny when we couldn’t cross them back then. We drive back across the Albanian border from Kosovo, stamping all of our id’s again and then we drive on into the deeper mountains. Like going back in time, zig-zagging dirt tracks, fallen rocks stopping any traffic for good until the roads are cleared. Roads like this are dangerous, killed my brother.

My favourite is the candied walnuts, we can grow them here on the trees. Try them with a bit of rakı. The room is cool and dark as I cross to look out the window. The houses tumble down to the river with its old and new bridges and bustling modern centre. Each walnut is pricked with a needle to test if it is cooked. She shows us the sharp peeling knife and the tips of her fingers stained black from handling the walnuts.

Even tourists had to get their hair cut in the right way to come into the country. Women were not permitted to wear mini-skirts or tight jeans and men were to be clean-shaven. Don’t be distracted by the decadence of fashion and the politics of hair. After Mao died, Hoxha didn’t much care for China, especially when they hosted Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. That would not have happened in Albania. But sometimes people were allowed into the country, if they were important enough. I thought about driving to Greece through Albania. You needed permission and you were timed from entering the country to leaving it. If you took longer than what was agreed you would probably be taken by the Sigurimi. We decided not to drive that way. Nineteen seventy-six. Nobody is allowed out, some hotels just for tourists, showing them only what they were allowed to see. They would go away with a good view of our country, just like they should. It is a good country. But people have it hard, punished for no reason for

things they have no control over. Like if you can’t produce enough eggs. You can’t force a chicken to lay the same number everyday! But it is all written in their plans and you are not playing your part. The tourists would be sent away with souvenirs, like Hotel Dajti, cigarettes produced only in Albania of course. The hotel sits at the top of a hill and you could look out across the artificially made lakes. Hoxha flooded the landscape to create a dam, hydro-power. Relocated everyone and flooded the mosques and churches. Those tourists would have to be escorted everywhere and those cigarettes are now probably counterfeit. I only smoke the real stuff. The hotel sits at the top of a hill. We pride ourselves in being hospitable. Even if someone had committed a blood feud to your family, it still brings you honour letting them into your home, to give them coffee and walnuts. A stranger could turn up and they would be welcome for as long as they wanted to stay. I get a lot of hitchhikers asking for a lift all the time. They take advantage of the custom. I first start with people who have had a member of their family killed and are wanting revenge.

They have to let me into their homes because it brings them honour. Though the husbands never really talk to me. It takes a long time to build up trust, we had one break through recently.

A father whose son was murdered, we took him to Kosovo on a trip as he’d never been. The church where he lit a candle for his murdered son. There was finally some kind of closure. That’s the thing in my opinion, no closure. But tobacco firms have rejected the findings saying they are merely a matter of opinion. Who said it? Jeremy Corbyn or Enver Hoxha? Everyone spied on everyone else, I started smoking when I was six years old, they all probably knew it. It’s a real sign of friendship when you light another man’s cigarette, but its hard to get cigarettes here in the

mountains. Do Americans know Albania? Xhafka asks George. I travel abroad now that we can. I’ve been all over, a lot in Italy. I can speak a lot of Italian. The boat that people tried to escape on was going to Italy, vlora. Just allowed passports. I’ve been to Greece and seen those ancient sculptures like the Albanian sculptor who won the medal for the Skanderbeg statue. Travel abroad was forbidden after nineteen sixty-eight to all but those on official business. We looked at your European culture with deep suspicion. Everything was looked at with suspicion.

Resulting in arrests and bans on unauthorized foreign material. Our country has been invaded many times, but we have always fought the enemies, we have driven them out and we have never mixed blood with them. Blood for blood. Attempts to muster tourism into Albania is at the forefront of most cities. The number of tourist offices is on a par with bridal dress shops. Those people that left the country send money back to Albania to build themselves a house for their family. A floor for every brother. Three floors three brothers, one to sacrifice his wife, the walls still stand. I wanted to look after the livestock. I would never leave.

The Albanian people will throw themselves in to the flames for their true friends, and the Soviet Union is such a friend of the Albanian people. And these are not empty words.

I wouldn’t want to leave Albania. I have a twin sister who grew up with me – we look the same, she is my sister, I am the brother. Adam and Eve. Everyone thought they were seeing double. Enver Hoxha has a double. He found someone who looked like him, a dentist in the rural areas, and had him surgically enhanced. Plastic surgery to make him look even more like Hoxha so if there are any threats at events he can send in his double. Apparently he is well looked after that double, living in luxury, but I heard his family were killed so there weren’t any complaints. My brother died when he was only two years old. The bunkers he built make great chicken coops. People are now innovating the leftover seven-hundred thousand concrete mushroom bunkers that scatter the landscape. From restaurants, bunker warehouses for aging alcoholic beverages, to keeping chickens. I grew up in the mountains with my twin, can you see those bunkers there? In the mountains you were always free. I feel free when I see the eagles and go back to the mountains. My double died, nineteen sixty-five, my brother. More and more blood feuds are coming back. Blood for honour, blood for blood. There was a story of a girl, the sister, my sister, was working in a field wearing a man’s cap. They thought she was a boy and so shot her instead. She thought she was safe outside as men do not get killed in a feud, but now it is no different. I have a sister. I am a twin, I cut my hair, I am the brother. There were two footballers who weren’t able to play their football match, they went into isolation when someone in their family was killed out of grief and respect. Our country has been invaded many times, but we have always fought the enemies, we have driven them out and we have never mixed blood with them. Albanians have spent much of the last decade doing their best to erase any memory of his crazed

dictatorship. Statues of Mr. Hoxha were smashed and photographs burned, and today Albania is struggling to establish something like a democracy. Even if we have to go without bread, we Albanians do not violate principles. We do not betray. As soon as a murderer has killed someone, he must inform the family of the victim, in order that there should be no confusion regarding his identity. The murderer may move around at night, but at the first light of day he must conceal himself. He who decides to ambush must take sufficient food with him to provide for his accomplices and an ambusher must fire his gun at men, not at women, children, livestock, or a house. The public declaration happens on one of three occasions: at her birth (if the family has no male heir and knows they never will), at the death of the family’s only male (often at war), or at her refusal to marry the man her family wish her to accept as a husband. I was the brother and she was my sister, Upon this rock, I am Burrnesha. I cut my hair at sixteen and so couldn’t be a Hollywood actress. Since coming home, I met another in a town in the rural areas, who decided as a child to work for the family after his mother died. My father needed help with the land, so I worked with him to support the rest of the family. I can’t work anymore because of asthma, I would like to work though. We all listen to Northern music. A refined combination of romantic and sophisticated undertones with oriental-sounding scales and a constant interplay of major and minor. Considered the second most important theatre in Albania, the theatre is noted for its romantic and poetic productions, often with nationalist themes. I could have been a Hollywood actress but I would rather have trained women in the military, to be in my country and my home. The murderer may move around at night.

Hoxha broke with the Soviets and China because he thought they were going soft. We live good lives here. I’m in the military and work for the administration. I won’t offer my opinion on Communism as I know it’s hurting a lot of people. I was in Tirana for a conference meeting with a lot of others who work in the administration. We have been brought together to learn from one another. There was a real feeling of togetherness, for a purpose. Nineteen ninety-one, you can build where you like now, homes everywhere. There is no legal system so we just build where we have the land, wherever we need to live, near the unexploded ammunition. Bajram Curri, this town we’re staying in now near my home, was once dangerous for that. Unexploded mines from the Kosovan war, but not anymore. We are just poor now that is our biggest danger. Other people left and now send their money back to build their homes. A Plan B when things don’t work out over in Europe, they can come home to the family. I live above a kebab shop, they are my second family. Albanian diaspora or the Albanian Exodus. Adam and Eve, almost biblical, it is the largest emigration movement in Europe since the Second World War. More people live outside Albania than in, but I still stay. So many people have chance to build a new life, but my life is here. Where would I get my rakı from? My friend made me this rakı. I keep it in the back of my truck when we’re on the road. A small bit at lunch or for breakfast keeps me awake with all the driving. Don’t complain or make noise or you could be put in prison too. I was put in prison for seven years of my life. It ended after two, I was lucky. I work in the fields on a labour camp. It is hard work, but good work, working together especially when the weather is good. The illegal homes are slowly being legalised and acknowledged with

the owner. I live above a kebab shop, the family house is back in the mountains. I think I’ll give it to my niece if she has a family one day. You see these rings? They are for her. The legalisation process started twelve years ago, but there are still around three hundred thousand buildings constructed without permission in the country. Mainly

houses whose owners are waiting to legalise their properties. The high number of illegal buildings in the country was largely caused by people from impoverished rural or remote areas, mainly from Northern Albania, moving to towns and cities seeking prosperity and building homes without permission.

Creating ad-hoc “informal” settlements. Look at the roads in Tirana – they now have strange names like Tokyo street or London street. Trying to make a new system. Tourists cannot be unattended, driving through I have a time-limit and I will be escorted. It’s a mess, the mountain tops are being blown up to get rid of the

leftover ammunition, stockpiled by the last years of Hoxha’s paranoid ruling. Accidents happen. Look out the window – see that? One hundred and sixty people living in the nearby village of Gerdec took shelter in those concrete bunkers while others fled to the hill, the explosion destroyed this whole landscape.

We had to work for three or four months during school on the land. My accursed mountains. But be careful of the mines, accidents happen. We would cultivate the landscape. Hoxha thought it would be like the rice fields of Vietnam and China, the paddy fields. Cultivate the hills, cultivate and produce for everyone. Family is everything and Albania is one big family. The hills would produce potatoes, plums, mulberries, brambles, and other things. If you performed well you would be able to go to university. I was the best in my class. I was an engineer. I was a maths teacher. Computers are a new thing here. If you didn’t work hard enough you would be put in prison. I know someone put in prison for

twenty-five years. They first said ten, then it grew and grew. I grew up here in the mountains. The copper mines, that’s where they would put you to work. In one of the prison camps – like Spaç. A terrible place. You will work all day down in the darkness, or, if there isn’t enough to do, you can sit in a room all day and listen to Hoxha’s propaganda. The landscape is worked on for plums.

The plums can be made into rakı. I drink it with my coffee in the morning, sweet and strong. A morning pick-me-up. Goes down nicely with a burek full of the best Albanian cheese. Add some rakı to your coffee, go on. But my sister didn’t want to. She had a cough from working all the time and not resting. A pick-me-up but not when you’ve not slept and have a nightmare of a cough. Demanding, but holding her ground, she successfully declines. I keep a bottle of rakı in my car, given to me from a friend and kept in a Jack Daniels bottle. An Albanian coffee will last at least thirty minutes, even if its an espresso. Deals are made over coffee, and friends over rakı. I will have it with my meals. Religion is banned here, so even if you couldn’t drink before, you can now.

Some are even forced to drink to make sure they are not practicing their religion. No forbidden foods here – no Tokyo street, Lent or Ramadam – meat and dairy is a must. They send it out to schools and factories – if you refuse to eat it you can get in a lot of trouble. You could be forced to work on a pig farm if you didn’t eat it, made to sleep with the animals. The knife I carry is like my beret, symbolic of my working days. I can peel an orange with it in one foul swoop, like the Albanian eagle. They flooded a lot of the landscape here to make way for the dam and reservoir. If you are in the hotel you can see the river from there. They flooded the lead mosque. No religion allowed, so now it stands empty. Livestock lived in it for a while. The only religion of Albania is Albanianism. I believe in God. I would say I am a Christian. I don’t go to church but I know that there is an Adam and Eve. We all came from the Garden of Eden. There are two halves. The martyred priests in St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral. Their portraits on the wall to remember when the Sigurimi framed them for stockpiling ammunition. Religion is tolerated now.

Because a woman is a sack, made to endure. Women are not in danger of being killed in a blood feud, which is just as well since

the men would otherwise have nothing to eat. A woman works, a woman provides for the family. I have no regrets. A woman isn’t

a sack anymore, I live with Bute, my brother’s widow, in a house with a wooden tiled roof. In front of it is a small apple and plum orchard. I was born in the mountains of Albania where the bears and eagles live, where I have known things about the stars before you were born. I’d shoot you if you did anything to my family. Nineteen sixty-seven. See this photo? This is me before I cut off my hair, I could have been a Hollywood actress. They wore black mourning clothes when their husbands died for a year – a mark of respect and honour – many worn for life. Black mourning clothes, stitched with strange unearthly, other-worldly symbols. They knew more than we do now. The village, sheltered all round by sandstone mountains, at night, as in other villages, everyone stays inside their homes after dark when the dogs are set loose: a threat to the life of any intruder to the village.

Some have made their homes in abandoned buildings, and still fear eviction. Luckily, I live above a kebab shop.

Sources Books Abrahams, Fred C., Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe (New York: NYU Press, 2016) Caraffa, Costanza, Photo Archives and the Idea of Nation (Berlin: De Gruyter GmbH, 2015) Dukagjini, Leke, trans. by Gjecov, Shtjefen, Kanuni I Leke Dukagjinit: The Code of Leke Dukagjini (Tirana: Gjonlekaj Pub Co, 1989) Durham, Mary Edith, High Albania (Fairford: Echo Library, 2009) Lear, Edward, Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1812-1888) (London: Kimber, 1966) Lulaj, Armando, Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015) Magrini, Tullia, Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) Newbigin, Marion, Southern Europe: A Regional and Economic Geography of the Mediterranean Lands (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Albania and Switzerland) (London: Methuen & Co. 1943) Piskale, Ili, Praying for Chaos (Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015) Schwartz, Joan M.,Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009) Sherer, Stan, & Senechal, Marjorie, Long Life to Your Children!: A Portrait of High Albania (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997) Stefa, Elian, Concrete Mushrooms: Reusing Albania’s 750,000 Abandoned Bunkers (Barcelona: dpr-barcelona, 2012) Young, Antonia, Sworn Virgins: Women Who Become Men (New York: Berg, 2001) Young, Antonia & Young, Nigel, Albania (New York: ABC-CLIO Ltd, 1997)

Newspaper Articles Arie, Sophie, ‘Blood feuds trap Albania in the past’, The Guardian, 21 September 2003 <> [accessed 2 February 2016] Abrahams, Fred, ‘Albanian Students Challenged Communism, 20 Years Ago’, Huffington Post, 8 December 2014 <> [accessed 23 March 2016] Barkham, Patrick, ‘Saving Kosovo’s restaurant bears’, The Guardian, March 24 2014 <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Bennett, Asa, ‘Who said it: Jeremy Corbyn or Enver Hoxha?’, The Guardian, 9 December 2015 < Corbyn/12041036/Who-said-it-Jeremy-Corbyn-or-Enver-Hoxha.html> [accessed 27 February 2016] Bilefsky, Dan, ‘Sworn to virginity and living as men in Albania’, The New York Times, 23 June 2008 <> [accessed 24 February 2016] Byrne, Jane, Just Back: Candied walnuts and communism in Albania <http://> [accessed 1 February 2016] Foster, Peter, ‘Behind the murky world of Albanian blood feuds’, The Telegraph, 16 April 2016 <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Hooper, John, ‘Anger as Albania marks 100th birthday with mass slaughter of lambs’, The Guardian, 27 November 2012 < world/2012/nov/27/albanian-birthday-mass-slaughter-lambs> [accessed 2 February 2016] Hooper, John, ‘Albania in nuclear export scheme’, The Guardian, 10 November 2007 < mainsection> [accessed 23 February 2016] Jackson, Harold, ‘Albania on the Blink’, The Guardian, 11 January 1967 <http://> [accessed 4 February 2016]

Kassabova, Kapka, ‘Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones Review’, The Guardian, 31 May 2014 <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Likmeta, Besar, ‘Albanian Cigarette Smuggling on the Rise, Balkan Insight’, 21 November 2015 <> [accessed 23 February 2016] Mejdini, Fatjona, ‘Albania Intensifies Efforts to Register Illegal Buildings’, Balkan Insight, 15 January 2016 <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Preston, Peter, ‘Welcome to Albania’, The Guardian, 22 November 2009 <http://> [accessed 2 February 2016] Shenon, Philip, ‘Dictator Liked Bunkers. My, They Mushroomed!’, New York Times, 13 April 1996 <> [accessed 27 February 2016] Tanner, Adam, ‘Albania ponders opening its secret police files’, Reuters, 13 September 2008 <> [accessed 23 March 2016] Young, Antonia, ‘The men of the house’, The Guardian, 31 March 2007 <http://> [accessed 1 February 2016]

Websites Albanian National Film Archives Online <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Albanian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, 2015 <> [accessed 21 February 2016] BBC News, Albania opens communist secret police files < news/world-europe-32552372> [accessed 1 February 2016] BBC News, 1957: Smoking ‘causes lung cancer’ < hi/dates/stories/june/27/newsid_2956000/2956618.stm> [accessed 1 February 2016]

Caldon, Laura Aggio, Albanian Migrants Make their Way Back Home <http://> [accessed 12 February 2016] DioGuardi, Shirley Cloyes, Denial of Memory: It is Time for Albania to Confront Its Communist Past < post-communism/130-denial-of-memory-it-is-time-for-albania-to-confront-itscommunist-past> [accessed 21 February 2016] Elsie, Robert, Albanian History <> [accessed 25 March 2016] Geiger, Abigail, Awaiting the Enemy That Never Came: The Bunkers of Albania <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Gjermani, Kedja, Musical Revisionism: A Communist Crime <http://www.kejda. net/2008/11/04/musical-revisionism-a-communist-crime/> [accessed 23 March 2016] Guillaume Herbaut, Shkodra <> [accessed 25 February 2016] Hussey, Michael, Enver Hoxha Labour Day Celebration, 2006 <https://www.> [accessed 1 February 2016] Hristova, Pepa, Sworn Virgins < info/> [accessed 2 February 2016] Keneta, Bledar, The History of Cigarette Production in Albania <http://> [accessed 1 February 2016] Marubi Photo Archives Online <> [accessed 14 March 2016] National Geographic, Sworn Virgins < albania_swornvirgins?source=relatedvideo> [accessed 1 February 2016] Neville, Tim, Post-Communist Paradise in Albania <http://www.outsideonline. com/1922551/post-communist-paradise-albania> [accessed 1 March 2016] Peters, Jill, A Solemn Declaration, Sworn Virgins of Albania <http://www.> [accessed 2 February 2016]

Scanderbeg, Isabella S.C., Prisoners of Burrel- Parte 1-5, 2011 <https://www.> [accessed 25 February 2016] Unicef Women and Children in Albania < and_Children_in_Albania_english.pdf> [accessed 25 March 2016] Young, Antonia, “Sworn Virgins”: Cases of Socially Accepted Gender Change < viewFile/687/780> [accessed 4 February 2016] Woodburn, Neil, Biografi: Tracking Down a Dictator’s Double in Albania <http://> [accessed 2 February 2016] Young, Antonia, Women’s lives in High Albania < womens-lives-in-high-albania> [accessed 23 February 2016]

Podcasts Razzell, Neal, ‘Albania’s Munitions Mountain’, BBC World Service, Documentary, 2014 <> [accessed 1 February 2016] Newman, Dina, Albanian Illegal Immigrants, BBC World Service, Witness, 2014 [accessed 23 February 2016] Newman, Dina, The Fall of Albania’s Enver Hoxha, BBC World Service, Witness [accessed 1 February 2016] Margaronis, Maria, Albania: Shadows of the Past, BBC Worlds Service, Crossing Continents, 2015 <> [accessed 30 January 2016]

Films Here Be Dragons. Mark Cousins, 2013. Film. Taken 2. Olivier Megaton, 2012. Film. Sworn Virgin. Laura Bispuri, 2015. Film. Cash Only. Malik Bader. 2016. Film. The Human Cargo. Daniele Vicari. 2012. Film.

Acknowledgments With special thanks to the interviews, support, direct quotations, inspiration and influences from Diana (Lule), Bedri, Shkurtan, Anila Varfi (National Television of Albania), Dan Bilefsky (New York Times), Linda Gusia (University of Prishtina), Kristine Nrecaj, Charlie Phillips (The Guardian), Robert Bisha, Harry Jelley, Joel Stagg, Enea Kumi, Kirsty Badenoch, Tommaso Di Nicola, Sara Ianovitz, Giacomo Bandini, Operazione Colomba, Rasmus Spanggaard Troelsen, and the Frøken Marie Månsson’s Grant from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, Schools of Architecture, Conservation and Design.

During these feats, the eagle faithfully watched over and guided me. A lot of people left when Communism fell. I have no idea how to cook, but luckily I live above a kebab shop.

Profile for Isla Badenoch

The Burrnesha Archive  

The Burrnesha Archive is a project that investigates the memory of a vanishing cultural tradition in Northern Albania. The Burrnesha are w...

The Burrnesha Archive  

The Burrnesha Archive is a project that investigates the memory of a vanishing cultural tradition in Northern Albania. The Burrnesha are w...


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