Diary

Matt Frei

Agim Qirjaqi, one of Albania’s most famous actors, and now director in residence at the National Theatre in Tirana, has ordered 60 pints of pigs’ blood for his production of Richard III. He intends to make the theatre’s small musty stage into an abattoir, dress the actors as butchers in blood-splattered white coats and hang ‘the criminals’ from their feet like cattle. This, Agim says, is the only way to illustrate the horrors of forty years of Enver Hoxha, the dictator who kept Albania in a Stalinist hell long after the rest of Eastern Europe had rejected Stalinism. Agim explained that he had grown tired of Shakespeare’s comedies. ‘Under Hoxha we had nothing but A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure ... what we need now are the tragedies ... to remind people what it was like.’

I wondered why Enver Hoxha, who broke off relations with the Chinese in 1977 for shelving the Cultural Revolution and kept his country in a Stalinist incubator until his death in 1985, should have permitted Shakespeare to distract his subjects from the misery of their lives. Agim shrugged. ‘There is no answer’ he said, ‘except that Mr Hoxha thought they were good plays, and if performed in the classic style, they were not deemed too dangerous.’

Agim Qirjaqi, who has had a beret on his head ever since he spent a year at drama school in Milan, switched on the Socialist Realist chandelier in the auditorium. Only three of its one hundred bulbs flickered into life. Agim complained that the audiences had withered away. ‘In the old days the theatre was always packed. Now that we have artistic freedom people come only to escape the rain, or to kiss in the darkness.’

Another reason the Albanians have lost their appetite for theatre is that they are too preoccupied with fighting for rations in bread queues. In the port of Durres, where last year thousands of migrants clambered onto trawlers bound for Italy, people are now hovering near the Italian aid ships hoping for stray morsels of food. Unable and unwilling to accommodate large numbers of economic refugees from across the Adriatic, Italy has decided to send food to Albania before Albania sends more people to Italy. The day I visited the port a group of old women were carefully sweeping the oily dockside and scooping whatever they found into plastic bags. A consignment of sugar had just arrived from Brindisi. As the bags were lifted by crane onto lorries, fine granules of caster sugar drizzled onto the women. Albania, a mere beer bottle’s throw away from British package tourists on Corfu, is on the edge of starvation.

Earlier this year, 45 people died in a blaze at a food depot in Librazhd. Thousands of people stormed the local warehouse after the Government mistakenly announced that the country’s rations would run out in three days. Greasy oilrags were being used as candles because of a night-time power cut. The ware house caught fire. The victims were either burnt or crushed to death.

Perhaps it’s because they’re too wrapped up in the gory production of ‘Daily Life in Albania’ that Agim Qirjaqi’s audience is melting away. Enver Hoxha turned Albania into a theme park that blends Stalin with Alice in Wonderland. Isolated from the rest of the world by a foreign policy inspired by the Miller of Dee – ‘I care for nobody, no not I, and nobody cares for me’ – he was able to let his despotic imagination run riot.

The most famous monument to his paranoia is the rash of concrete pillboxes that covers the entire country. There are over one million bulbous bunkers peering out of the ground like stranded aliens. They are everywhere, strewn across the landscape hap hazardly, often without any discernible strategic purpose. Cabbage fields in the middle of broad valleys are surrounded by bunkers. Tiny hamlets on deserted mountainsides are defended by scores of solid concrete bunkers, while the people, unable to find cement and bricks, are trying to build shacks with quarry stones and mud. In Petrash, the villagers left the bunkers empty in deference to ‘national security’: last year, when democratic reform arrived in Albania, they allowed the pigs in. Apparently the pillboxes, which used up enough cement to build a house for every Albanian family, have now been bought up by the French Government. The plan is to use them as tide-breakers off the coast of Brittany.

In a large crumbling brick warehouse on the outskirts of Tirana, a dozen Enver Hoxhas have found their resting-place. Waiting to be melted down or hacked to pieces, thirty-to-forty-foot Envers in white plaster, copper or steel stand next to each other, flamboyantly holding out an arm, pointing a schoolmasterly finger, or offering an avuncular embrace. They could be students in the Marcel Marceau School for Toppled Dictators.

Still alive but confined to a cell in Tirana’s municipal jail, the dictator’s widow, Nexhmije Hoxha, plays the part of the embittered but dignified dowager empress with stony resolve. The woman who once rejoiced in the title Mother of the Nation now awaits trial for embezzlement. On the day of the election, a polling-station was set up in the prison and reporters were invited in to see her vote. Wearing a grey raincoat and a brown cloth cap, clutching a bunch of daffodils which a family friend had given her, she explained how she wasn’t looking her best. ‘No pictures, please! Not today,’ she said like an ageing film star. In fact, Mrs Hoxha had no intention of voting, even though the man who succeeded her husband and was until very recently the Socialist President of Albania, Ramiz Alia, had written a book about Hoxha, lovingly entitled Our Enver. If her husband had been alive, she seemed to be saying, he would have introduced democracy without the current pain and hardship.

It was a grotesque boast. The Albanians are suffering the consequences of Enver Hoxha’s economic folly, monuments to which now litter the landscape. In the Marineze oilfields, Albania used to drill for its own oil at much greater expense than importing it from abroad would entail. It was part of the country’s drive for self-sufficiency. The result was a permanent fuel shortage. Although Albania now imports most of its oil with Western help, hundreds of oil derricks are still nodding away, pumping up oil that has no market. Rivers of crude just continue to flow, slowly seeping back into the ground. So far no one has bothered to turn off the tap. The earth is incontinent, polluting itself.

The most impressive industrial ruin I came across were the abandoned steel mills at El Bassan. Once Albania’s biggest steel plant, the Steel of the Party was built in the Seventies by the Chinese and left half-finished when Hoxha broke off relations with China in 1977. A reeking monster stretching over hundreds of square acres, the Steel of the Party fills an entire valley. Twelve thousand people were once employed there. Now only one of the giant Chimneys is still billowing brown smoke into the grey sky. The intricate system of funiculars which used to transport coal to the steel works crisscrosses the valley like a rusty web. The pullies hang motionless. The greenhouses in which the workers used to grow their vegetables are not merely empty: every pane of glass, every brick, every movable object has been removed by human termites. All that remains is the rusty metal skeleton.

As you enter the steel plant, you face a long avenue lined with bushes that seems to stretch into infinity. Chinese trucks from the Fifties stand abandoned by the petrol station, still festooned with yellowed Party posters and numbing slogans: ‘Workers rejoice and celebrate a successful second term of the third year of the eighth five-year plan.’

The mills are deserted, smelting vessels lie stranded on their side, monstrous knots of twisted steel litter the floor. The only sound is a dripping tap, the only activity a rat chasing a lizard. In the nearby town of El Bassan, the unemployed walk aimlessly up and down the potholed streets. A man was selling a miscellaneous assortment of goods – odd shoes, two old tyres, a dead fox and a 1oo-brush. There was no shop, just a roadside cage in which he sat on a stool surrounded by his merchandise. Despite the fact that 60 per cent of Albanians no longer have jobs to go to, they still receive 80 per cent of their pitiful salaries. It’s a luxury that Albania’s new government can ill afford. I asked one unemployed worker what he would do if his salary was cut, as it surely will be. ‘Go on strike!’

What hope is there for Albania? The need to help Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union is far more pressing. Albania, which still receives no more than a negligible amount of aid from the United States, is at the back of the queue. Too much financial aid could stifle economic growth and create the misleading impression that the West will provide all. But without some kick-start from outside it is difficult to see how Albania can revive its economic pulse.

Fortunately, with just over three million inhabitants Albania is a small country. It has stretches of spectacular and unspoilt coastline in the south and is already the world’s third largest producer of chromium. Furthermore, the electoral victory of Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party, which finally put an end to decades of hard-line Communism, may attract foreign investment. The Democratic Party had been publicly endorsed by the US Government in the course of the campaign. William Ryerson, the US Ambassador, even appeared at Sali Berisha’s rally and congratulated him in fluent Albanian. It was a rare instance of public partisanship on the part of a diplomat. The crowd responded by waving American flags. At the Democrats’ victory party in the ramshackle Hotel Tirana, I asked the Ambassador why the United States had given so little aid but were so loved by the Albanians. ‘Perhaps it’s because we have never invaded Albania,’ the diplomat replied. He was wearing a tie speckled with the Stars and Stripes.

If help doesn’t come from Washington itself, it may come from the 600,000 Albanian Americans, many of whom flocked to Tirana during the week of the elections. Some were giving advice to the Economics Ministry as self-styled management consultants, others were there to invest in the country’s virgin market. ‘Got 10,000 bucks to spare, wanna buy some Albanian beach?’ one of them asked a colleague of mine, when they were stuck together in the hotel lift during a power cut.

A burly man from Houston, Texas had come to Albania to open the country’s first ever disco. He invited me to the opening ceremony. Alluringly called the ALBCLUB, the disco was located in a cellar next to a giant crater, the abandoned site of the new Tirana Sheraton. A brace of bouncers in nylon suits and fairy lights over the entrance created an extraterrestrial aura round Albania’s first disco. Inside, the murals of a near-pornographic Flash Gordon with bride would not have looked out of place in London or Rome. There were only a few women, but a lot of free beer and plates of salt sticks. The suave head of the Democratic Party Youth Movement wearing an Armani suit levitated between the guests, speaking fluent Italian. The thing had just started, when the music ground to a halt and the lights went off. The eight o’clock power cut. A nightly occurrence in Tirana when everyone switches on their television set to watch the News, overburdening the fragile grid. The would-be revellers, many of them men in their forties, sat huddled around candles and plates of nibbles. It looked like a miner’s strike.

Albania is a country more given to despair than to absurdist humour. As we strolled across Tirana’s vast Scanderbeg Square, a show-piece of brutalist architecture, I asked my friend Agim Qirjaqi what he really wanted. ‘To leave Albania!’