Springtime in Tirana: Report From Literary Albania

Stephen Morison Jr.

In the center of Tirana, beside Skanderbeg Square, behind the Ottoman-era mosque and adjacent clocktower (built in the 1800s by the architect-poet Etëhem Bey Mollaj), between a row of government ministries and the semi-Deco national theater, there is a concrete dome atop a bunker. A doorway cut into the side leads down a set of stairs fifteen meters or so into an underground tunnel complex, built by Hoxha, the former dictator; the complex has been transformed into a museum detailing the oppressive years of the communist regime.

The pyramid of Tirana, a former museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha, now a television studio..

The exhibits range from the mildly humorous (the Albanians attempted to bug the Italian embassy by placing a listening device in the wooden handle of a broom used by a local maid) to the horrific: During World War II, captured communist partisans were tortured and executed by the Italian and German fascist occupiers. After the war, the communists responded in kind. They collectivized the countryside, redistributed the country’s wealth and persecuted the middle class, executing priests, merchants, and other potential enemies of their state.

Hoxha aligned himself with Stalin, mimicking the Soviet dictator’s show trials, public confessions, executions, and concentration camps. But following Stalin’s death in 1953, the next Soviet ruler, Khrushchev, surprised Hoxha by pressuring him to end his cult of personality and share power with a broader coalition of Albanian communist elites. When the Soviets additionally urged the dictator to resolve his differences with Yugoslavia, his northern neighbor who had incorporated the Albanian-speaking province of Kosovo into its boundaries after World War II, Hoxha broke with the Soviets.

In 1961, he succeeded in replacing financial and technical support from Moscow with support from Beijing. But having angered all his neighbors as well as his most powerful regional ally, he grew increasingly fearful of the possibility of outside attack; hence, the bunkers dotting every mile of the Albanian capital, the countryside, the beaches, the mountain tops, everywhere. Hoping to ensure national unity, he turned all churches and mosques, including the Etëhem Bey Mosque on the national square, into community centers (Albanian was and is about 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian).

One of many bunkers alongside a road in Tirana.

The bunker museum details all of this in videos, photos, and recordings of concentration camps, executions, forced confessions, and show trials. Dispirited, I return to street level to meet with Rudi Erebara, a poet, novelist, and translator in his late forties, who remembers the communist era well.

The sun has gone down on the beautiful April day and the sidewalks have grown cool when we join Erebara at a table outside a nameless café: The locals call it Lulu’s, after the owner, or Blue Umbrella, after an umbrella that once shaded one of its sidewalk tables.

“After the war, they pulled my uncle’s fingernails out to make him tell them where he hid the gold,” Erebara says, repeating the stories he heard as a child. “When he came home, he couldn’t walk for eight months. He never recovered; he died a year or two later.”

It is evening, and Erebara is dressed in a cap, blue-framed glasses, and a windbreaker. He is celebrating a number of recent victories: He has just been awarded a European Union Prize for Literature for his novel Epika e yjeve të mëngjesit (The Epic of the Morning Stars), which he self-published in 2016, and he also recently reclaimed, then sold, the home taken from his family during the communist era. Jubilant, he chain-smokes cigarettes and downs cognacs. When we join him, he lets us order beers then lifts the floodgates on an occasionally chilling river of information. Erebara’s family and personal histories are as rich and intricate as those of his country.

Poet, writer, and translator Rudi Erebara (left) and Altin Fortuzi.

His paternal grandfather was a prosperous middle class shopkeeper in Tirana who bought and sold gold from his retail shop. After the communists took over, they arrested Erebara’s paternal uncle to find out where he had hidden his stock. “He told them after four months of torture,” Erebara says.

Luckily, his father, just fourteen at the time, had enlisted and fought with the anti-fascist partisans during the war. As a result, he was permitted to attend university in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts from 1947 to 1951.

“Miloš Forman was in his class,” Erebara says, citing the Czech director who fled to the United States when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending that Eastern Bloc country’s brief experiment with liberalism. Forman eventually became famous for directing the Oscar-winning films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Erebara’s father became well known in Albanian, but his path was erratic.

“My father used to say how easy it was to go to jail,” Erebara says, pointing out that this is a central theme in his award-winning novel. In his final year at university in 1951, Erabara’s dad was arrested while directing a show in Prague. Three portraits of communist leaders were hung at the back of the stage in the theater: Stalin in the center with the Czech leader Klement Gottwald on his right and the Albanian leader Hoxha on his left. Hoxha was about four inches lower than Gottwald, and when somebody noticed, his father made an off-hand comment about how a Czech middle-class citizen had more class than Hoxha. The next day, he was arrested and sent back to Albania. As punishment for his remark, he served in the Albanian army without pay for several years, and his family was removed from their comfortable home in central Tirana.

In 1957 Erebara’s father was permitted to work in the state-owned film studios, writing and directing eleven movies and twenty-five documentaries. “Everybody loves him,” Erebara says. “When he died [in 2007], five thousand people came to his funeral.”

During the communist era, such a show of appreciation for an individual would have been impossible. Under Hoxha’s regime, poetry, art and films were credited to communist arts collectives; individual attribution was forbidden. “It was just a big industrial ideological machine,” Erebara says.

Born in 1971, during a period when the Chinese were increasing their subsidies for Albanian infrastructure while using the country as a front to import technology from the West, Erebara remembers a feeling of prosperity in the capital, but without any lessening of the atmosphere of oppression and fear. He recalls watching the communist government build new neighborhoods in the city using political prisoners as laborers. “There was a concentration camp two hundred meters from my house,” he says.

His father’s films were well received, even praised by Hoxha, but still his family lived in constant fear. “My mother had a green valise prepared with clean clothes in it because we were always scared they were going to arrest us and kick us the fuck out of Tirana,” he says.

The writer’s first novel, self-published in 2010, is a fictionalized account of an acquaintance who spent years searching for the remains of his father, killed in jail during the Hoxha years. The acquaintance owns a construction company and, after a mudslide exposed bones on the outskirts of Tirana, he used one of his excavators to uncover the remains of eighty-one bodies. “All shot in the head,” Erebara says.

One of the writer’s maternal uncles disappeared on August 25, 1979, when he was just twenty-five. Erebara believes he attempted to escape the country and defect to the West, but he has never been able to find any record of him resurfacing outside of Albania. “I looked in the U.S. with the International Red Cross, even with the Mormons,” he says. “I don’t think he’s alive.”

In 2010 he self-published a novel inspired by these events, Vezët e thëllëzave (Eggs of the Quails). It sold poorly, but the public’s desire to revisit the crimes of the Hoxha years has increased since then. In 2013, he republished it and quickly sold out his thousand-copy print run.

As a child, Erebara dreamed of being a filmmaker, a writer, and an artist. He auditioned to be a painter and was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Tirana, eventually graduating with a degree in textiles and carpets while continuing to paint, write poetry, work on novels, and translate works from English to Albanian. After the fall of the communists he was part of the group of artists and intellectuals who banded together and created the E7E bookstore, café, and publishing house. He rattles off a list of more than a dozen Albanian artists who were involved. In addition to publishing a newsletter and a poetry journal, they began to translate and publish books that had been prohibited under communism, such as Neitzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Erebara had poems accepted in literary magazines even before the fall of communism, and he followed these with a collection, Fillon pamja (There Begins the View), in 1994. He also continued to be recognized for his paintings, and in 1997, he accepted an invitation with some other Albanian artists to have a gallery show at High Point University in North Carolina. The George Soros Foundation, which has been a steady contributor to the arts in Albania since the early 1990s, paid for their airfare. Erebara arrived in North Carolina and participated in the show, but then disaster struck.

In Albania, after the dissolution of the communist system, there had been a five-year scramble for wealth and resources as the state-owned economy was privatized. Individuals, some with ties to the former communist government and some with ties to the new, democratically-elected government, incorporated themselves and solicited investments claiming they would be used to purchase properties and other resources. Some were legitimate while others were fronts for criminal money laundering and pyramid schemes. In the rush to get in on a good thing, families sold off assets and invested their life savings. With an estimated billion dollars sunk into dozens of these firms, the economy soon hinged on their success. In 1997, the first of the schemes collapsed and the rest soon fell, creating a panic that led to chaos and anarchy.

Erebara’s brother called him and warned him not to come home. Across Albania, enraged citizens were turning on one another, rioting, looting, hijacking cars, kidnapping strangers. It wasn’t safe to travel. Commerce ground to a halt. Criminal gangs took over whole cities, and people fled urban areas for their ancestral villages hoping to find refuge. The European powers and the United States sent in troops to extract their embassy employees and other citizens.

Internationally, the crisis was overshadowed by concern for the neighboring wars in the former Yugoslavia: The civil war of 1997 to 1998 and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Albanian-speaking Kosovo initiated a refugee crisis as Kosovars flooded into Albanian, further destabilizing the country.

In April 1997 the United Nations sent in an Italian-led force of seven thousand soldiers to attempt to separate combatants and oppose the criminal gangs, but it was clear that the country would remain chaotic, poor, and desperate for the immediate future. Erebara took his brother’s advice and overstayed his visa in the USA. He became an illegal immigrant and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

Young and willing to avail himself of whatever odd job appeared, he worked as a roofer, brick-layer, concrete pourer, sheet rocker, painter, and plumber. Within five years, he was subcontracting jobs to a crew of a half-dozen workers. In his final year in the United States he says he grossed a half-million dollars and dutifully filed federal, state, and local taxes. He considered applying for a legal work visa—a green card—but the immigration consultant he approached warned him that he might wind up being deported instead. In 2002, he made the decision to return to Albania.

He had hardly been idle while away. He had worked on his second collection of poetry, Lëng argjendi (Silver Juice), and his years in the United States had improved his English translating skills.

Since returning to Tirana, Erebara has married an Albanian journalist, and they are raising two daughters, ages six and eleven. He has also published sixteen translations, including works by Herman Melville, John Grisham, Harold Pinter, A. R. Ammons, and Kenzaburo Oe. “It took me two-and-a-half years to translate Moby Dick,” he says. “In Albanian, we don’t have the parts of the Nantucket whaling ship.” The United States Embassy subsidized Erebara’s translation of Ammons, and the book won an award for translations from the Association of Albanian publishers.

But today we are celebrating his award for original fiction. As a 2017 recipient of the European Union Prize for Literature, he will receive €5,000 (approximately $5,448) and see his novel translated into eleven languages. We are also toasting the bittersweet sale of his family’s former home.

We leave the sidewalk café and walk around the corner to see a villa in the midst of a renovation. This is the house where Erebara’s father and uncles were born. After the fall of communism, families were able to successfully petition to have properties confiscated during the Hoxha era returned to them. Twenty-five years after the downfall of the dictatorship, Erebara regained the title then sold the building. His pocket bulges with a fat roll of Ablanian leks, and he insists that we take a taxi across town to Petro, a grill house still serving sausages, ribs, steaks and beers, where he continues to enthrall us with stories late into the night.