By Sara Furxhi
Two decades after the collapse of the communist regime, Albania has come a long way from the repressed wasteland that it used to be. In its yet infant stages of a republic democracy, it offers ample ground for discourse for foreign intellectuals to “ooh” and “ah” over. Moreover, the number of adventurers who discover Albania for the first time increases yearly. In 2011, the Lonely Planet chose Albania as its number one for “Top Destinations of the Year”:
“Not so long ago, when the Balkans were considered an ‘only for the brave’ travel destination, only the bravest of the brave trickled into Albania. Since backpackers started coming to elusive Albania in the 1990s, tales have been told in ‘keep it to yourself’ whispers of azure beaches, confrontingly good cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures and the possibility of old-style unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travellers are still a novelty.”
Proving that Lonely Planet has faithful readers, 2011, 2012 and 2013 saw a dramatic increase in this new species, backpackers, and we realized that our “only for the brave” lands could in fact offer an affordable and exotic experience for “te jashtmit” (what one would whisper to another’s ear if they saw a clearly non-local blond biker). However, as much as there is to say about the discovery of this new holiday spot, there is another kind of visitor that Albania has been encountering more and more frequently: the returning intellectual. I am referring to journalists, writers, curious minds who visited Albania in 1991, just after it had been wrecked into a mass of bricks that had to be reconstructed. These visitors are coming back now to be shocked and amazed by the irrecognizable transformation. Reflections and discourse are brought about, as they should be, resulting in a considerable amount of literature on the ‘Albania: then and now’ topic.
Raffaele Nigro is one of these visitors. An Italian journalist and writer from Puglia, he is the chief editor of the regional RAI. Known for his experimental, non-conventional writing style and his fondness of magic realism, he has also published literature on his voyage in Albania, namely “Viaggio in Albania”. This volume describes his impressions of the country immediately after the collapse of the regime. About twenty years later, he decides to return, road-tripping with the companionship of Fatmir Toci, former president of the publishing house Toena and now deputy in the Socialist Party. Not long ago, Le Courrier International published an article of his, “Mon road trip en Albanie”, where he describes his sightings of the trip, putting them in parallel with his recollections from 1990 Albania. Upon reading this memoir-styled report, my attention got tangled in with the way Nigro perceives and depicts change in Albania and his persistent conviction that Albania’s ultimate goal is Europeanization (more than integration). What I saw in that report were the patterns of a certain type of literature that is still being produced on the Albanian metamorphosis, one whose usage both by the reader and the user has reached its boiling point.
Quo vadis, Nigro? Quo vadis, Albania?
Nigro’s attention is pinched from the first moment he sets foot in the Mother Teresa Airport of Tirana. He now sees cafes and bars, where before he saw gray floors and walls; uniformed officials of the Sigurimi (the communist secret police) do not patrol about anymore; outside a Mercedes waits for him. There are four lanes on the highway, and they are filled with 4x4s and BMWs. Nigro is impressed.
Rightly so. There is no denying that change happened. It is true that there are now streets filled with luxury brand boutiques instead of few shops that you could only enter if you had a coupon. It is true that kiosks now sell Chinese mass-production thingumamobs instead of Hoxha’s Maoist little red books. It is also true that now you can see the nouveaux riches and the Roma walking on the same street. Nigro’s descriptions are all accurate enough to give me the familiar feeling of home for a few instants. But are they groundbreaking in any way? Is it really such a surprise that in twenty years of democracy Albania caught up with globalization, urbanization and the basic references of the average European country? Nigro, who has familiarized himself enough with Albania and who comes from a culture not so radically different, falls on the same repetitive and superficial remarks that anyone who has any basic knowledge of communist 20th century Europe would make. Those remarks, while very realistic and authentic, are far from bringing any constructive element to the table. At a time when Albania is involved in international issues as a NATO member or where its art and literature suffer no border barrier any longer, it is slightly daunting that Nigro sees change in women wearing mini-skirts and bars playing American and Italian music. Besides wearing mini-skirts, Albanian women also read, write and are active in politics and more youth is now able to read Le Courrier International than what could read uncensored Albanian literature during the regime.
This is not to say in any way that Albania is a much better developed country than what is described in Nigro’s article, it is not to say that Albanian women are now independent and that they don’t live in a patriarchal environment any more. It is not even to say that democracy in Albania has been successful. The concern lies in the fact that the change that has taken place over the last two decades can be observed and measured differently, if not more profoundly. It is always pleasing to read pieces about Albania written from foreign perspectives, because it indicates exchange of ideas, cultures and visions. However, when figures such as Nigro, who have without doubt the experience and capacity to analyze the shift from communism to a democratic republic in a productive way, restrain their writings to one-dimensional descriptive articles, one cannot help but feel a tinge of ennui.
Moreover, Nigro is convinced that any attempt of improvement has the final goal of becoming “more European”. He mentions an absolute desire for Europeanization, from liberalized freedom of movement, to the fact that the Mother Teresa statue outside the airport gates has been built in contemporary style. This argument is repeated a number of times large enough that could almost make one doubt the reason why Albanians decided to rid the communist regime in the first place. Do we really want to start a “development = Europe” argument here?
Another element that adds to my malaise upon reading this article is Nigro’s standpoint. As he points it out himself, his trip alongside his important friend Toci has not been the same experience that the average road-tripper would get. One would not normally have a folk music band welcoming them inside the restaurant for lunch, the owners and managers of hotels would most probably be much busier than talking to you about Albanian traditions over morning coffee. While this is not intended to be an accusation of any kind, as you read, your eyes shift to the attached images of the slums, the dirtied bunkers, the rural countryside; the connection between what Nigro writes and what he’s could be trying to convey becomes difficult to make.
It is true indeed that is is important to distinguish between a newspaper article and a dissertation, and we could assume that Nigro only had the space to reach the mass public who has most probably not heard of Albania before. However, sometimes the line between using space as a purpose and using it as an excuse can be very fine. I would not judge which side Nigro stands on or why, but despite my attempts to simply enjoy the report, I couldn’t help but read between the lines. While this article probably adds some spice to the table of contents of the newspaper, it is one that could be written by an engaged tourist rather than a knower of the Albanian history and culture. But, I do believe that it is time for literature on Albania to have less of an “Orientalist” tone, and to offer more analytical and practical understanding of the intriguing communist history and the way it is still shaping our society.