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THE JAGGED PEAKS OF THE ACCURSED MOUNTAINS glittered in the bright morning sunlight. We sat on large rocks in the shade of a tree in what once was the center of Theth, in the almost inaccessible Dukagjin region of northern Albania. Together with about half a dozen Albanians from Theth and nearby villages, we were listening for a truck that would take us to the city of Shkoder (listening, rather than looking: you can hear those old Czech or Chinese vehicles that ply these mountains long before you can see them). The one hundred kilometer trip, when it finally began, would take four or five hours along a twisting, unpaved, single-lane road through forests and over mountain passes, with frequent stops to pick up logs. For a brief time – in the communist – era there had been bus service to and from this region, but in 1994 buses ran where and when and if their driver-owners chose to go, and they didn’t choose to go to the northern mountains. That left a ride in the back of a truck as the only form of public transportation in this part of the country; it wasn’t too bad when the weather was good. There was no longer mail or telephone service in the mountains, but a few mountain families had managed to buy satellite dishes, and television brought the world into their living rooms. Although geographically isolated, mountain communities were not isolated from the rapid changes taking place in Albania.

The high school student waiting with us was eager to practice her English: she spoke very well although she had been studying for only a year. "And what," she asked politely, "do Americans think of our president, Sali Berisha?" The question conveyed her pride in Albania’s becoming, at last, a nation among others, a nation like others. How could I explain to her that few Americans can tell Albania from Albany or Alabama, and fewer still would be able to find her country on the map? I tried to be tactful: "I’m sorry, but I don’t think that most Americans know who Albania’s president is," and quickly changed the subject by asking her the Albanian names for the plants around us. Eventually a rattling, grumbling, elderly truck pulled up near the tree and all conversation gave way to the continuous task of finding stable and not hopelessly uncomfortable positions on the pile of logs that grew higher with each stop. When we finally arrived in Shkoder, in the late afternoon, the girl and her family vanished into the busy streets.

But we were asked this question, and others like it, again and again. Many of the Albanians we met during our three months in the north in the summer of 1994 were hurt and puzzled by what they perceived as the world’s lack of interest in, or even awareness of, their efforts to become a modern, democratic, European nation. The problem is not new. "Oh, I know all about the Albanians, they are those funny people with pink eyes and white hair!" a woman told the intrepid British chronicler of Balkan life, Edith Durham, over ninety years ago. It would not be difficult to assemble a good-sized collection of equally absurd remarks today. Durham, who traveled on foot and by horseback throughout the north, was known as the "Queen of the Mountains" and is still fondly remembered there. The feeling was mutual: she devoted her life to making her countrymen aware of Albania and its concerns (her classic High Albania remains essential reading). But Albania has not had many clear-eyed chroniclers since Durham.

Despite its spectacular and varied beauty, its rich natural resources, and its extraordinary tradition of hospitality, Albania has always been the most isolated country in Europe, and from World War II until very recently, one of the most isolated countries on earth. Although it has been inhabited since remote antiquity – the land was part of ancient Illyria – it has never been an easy place to visit. In earlier times, travelers were hindered by nonexistent mountain roads and generally poor conditions, conditions that improved little in the five hundred years of Turkish rule. Roads were built between the two world wars and the country was electrified after World War II, but its borders were sealed (to most Westerners) after 1945. Since 1991, Albania has welcomed foreign visitors but, as the poorest country in Europe, it has attracted relatively few of them.

Yet there are many reasons why the outside world should be interested in Albania and concerned for its future. Albania is a Balkan country and thus a crossroads of East and West, North and South; it is as rich in history as it is in resources. When Albania finally achieved independence, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, nearly half its population found itself outside its newly drawn borders, in what is now called "the former Yugoslavia." But Albanians are not Slavs, and the Albanian language is not Slavic – it is a twigless branch on the Indo-European linguistic tree. Today large numbers of ethnic Albanians are struggling with minority status in Serbia and Macedonia, a volatile situation that the U. S. media largely ignores. Internally, Albania is a cross-section of several time periods coexisting uneasily in the present unstable conditions. It is a social tinderbox: economic shock therapy is rapidly creating new classes and widening gulfs between them. Approximately thirty percent of the workforce is unemployed; in order to feed their families, large numbers of Albanian citizens – including many professionals – work at menial jobs in Greece (legally or illegally) and in Italy. Albania’s relations with all its Balkan neighbors are intermittently tense. Albania is multi-religious but not multi-ethnic. Although many Albanians insist that there is no religious tension because "the true religion of Albania is Albanianism," the actual situation is somewhat more complex . . .

We became interested in Albania about ten years ago, through the novels of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. Kadare, who now divides his time between Paris and the Albanian capital, Tirane, is a somewhat controversial figure in his home country, but for an outsider his novels, which retell Albanian legends, reconstruct major historical events, and describe more recent affairs, are an excellent introduction to a fascinating country. I came across Chronicle in Stone by chance while browsing in a bookstore near our home. I started reading it that evening, and read straight through to the end. Kadare’s description of his childhood in wartime Gjirokaster transported me to a strange stone city where deep cisterns held dark secrets, where the faces of brides were powdered and decorated with exotic images, where young people struggled to free themselves – and their country –from ancient customs, superstitions, and a stifling social order. As Kadare portrayed it, Albanian culture was a rare but sturdy plant that had managed to survive centuries of isolation, grafting, and trampling, to blossom in the modern world. My husband, Stan Sherer, became fascinated too, and learning more about Albania became a preoccupation.

Ten years ago it was impossible for Westerners to visit Albania except perhaps on a closely guided tour, and that is not the way we like to travel. But our interest in Albania continued to grow, so we started studying the language through tapes in hopes of eventually visiting on our own. In 1992, after independent visiting had become possible, we flew from Zurich to Tirane for a two-week trip. We had arranged to spend the first few days with a family in Tirane, friends of friends in New York. Beyond that, we had no detailed plans; it was clear we would need to be flexible. Getting around was not easy: the trains were in very poor condition, so were many of the buses, and it was a test of endurance and athletic skill to get a seat. But we were lucky: we found a driver to take us, for a reasonable price, to the city of Shkoder, in the north, and young friends in Tirane climbed through a bus window to claim seats for us for a trip to Gjirokaster, in the south. A network of generous friends arranged for us to stay with Albanian families in both cities, instead of in hotels.

Through our hosts, and through our own wanderings about these cities, we were able to meet and talk with a wide variety of people. Conversation is an Albanian art form: everywhere we went people were eager to discuss everything from comparative family life to their experiences under the dictatorship to contemporary world affairs. Albania is not a third-world country, we were assured: instead, it is the fourth world. Our friend was probably joking, but "fourth world" is a succinct label for a society in which once-functioning but now collapsed industry, agriculture, and infrastructure contrast sharply with a literate and well-educated population and spectacular natural beauty.

The two weeks flew by. We soon found that we no longer noticed the poverty that had struck us so forcibly at first: the potholes, the crumbling facades, the broken windows. We were almost able to ignore the oppressive heat (heightened by what must be a cultural prohibition against cross ventilation). Instead, we delighted in our new friends and the new world we were discovering. Even before we left, we began making plans for a much longer stay, during which we would try to use our professional talents to do something to contribute to Albania.

But how could we help? Albanians need no lessons from us in our professions, photography and mathematics. We finally decided that the most useful thing we could do, at this time, would be to try to make a dent in the general indifference: we would introduce Albania and Albanians to the world through a book of photographs and interviews. A Fulbright research fellowship (for Stan) made it possible for us to return for the summer of 1994. All too aware that three months is not long enough to begin to understand another culture, much less to portray it, we decided to spend the entire time in just one part of the country, in the hope of being able to peer beneath its surface.

We chose the region known as High Albania, in part because we had found it so intriguing on our earlier visit. High Albania includes the city of Shkoder (also known as Scutari), its outlying villages, and the Dinaric Alps. The contrasts between life in the city, in the villages around Shkoder, and in the villages in the mountains are very striking. Shkoder, an ancient city with a strong Italian – and Roman Catholic – influence, is widely regarded as the "cradle of northern Albanian culture:" the birthplace of scholars, diplomats, writers, and artists. The villages are known for colorful embroidered and handwoven clothing; in them, and also in the streets of Shkoder, one sees a fascinating mix of traditional and contemporary dress. The mountain villages, famous for their inhabitants’ strict adherence to the kanun of Lek Dukagjini, were almost inaccessible until roads were built after World War II; none of the many invaders, not even the Turks, could impress their customs or governance on these mountain communities. We wanted to understand and explain how the various components of this society viewed their present lives and the future at this crucial time in its history.

As on our first visit, friends introduced us to friends who introduced us to friends. Again, we were privileged to live with families everywhere we went, both in Shkoder and in the mountain regions we visited, Malesi e Madhe and Dukagjin. (On this trip, we traveled mostly by bicycle and by truck.) We spoke with people of all ages and in many walks of life – shopkeepers, government officials, peasants, workers, entrepreneurs, the unemployed, pensioners, young people, children, educators, scientists, artists and writers, doctors, clergy, smugglers. Everyone received us graciously and talked with us about their daily lives – family, work, education, religion, health care, the arts – and especially about the ways in which their lives are changing and the problems they are facing as a result. They generously agreed to be photographed, and most of them allowed our conversations to be recorded.

After our return to the United States, as we studied the contact sheets of hundreds of photographic images and pages and pages of transcripts of conversations, we realized that together our acquaintances had sketched a broad portrait of northern Albania in the twentieth century. This suggested that the book should be arranged chronologically, a pattern we have followed for the most part. Chapter One is background material, Chapter Two is concerned largely with the past, Chapter Three with the present, and Chapter Four with the future. An appendix includes maps, a glossary of Albanian words, and a bibliography.

Our young friend in Theth will probably be disappointed that the readers of this book will not learn anything about Albania’s president. Nor will you learn much about any Albanian politician, past or present. This book is not about politics in the immediate sense. But ultimately the politics of any country is an expression of its history, its culture, and its economy. The concerns of Albanians today will shape their politics of tomorrow.

But Albania is not only a country of problems, it is a country of toasts. We have used some of them as the titles of chapters of this book. The haunting toast "Long Life to Your Children!" is especially poignant in this uncertain time, but it is also a declaration of hope.

This book is our toast, for long life and success, to our Albanian friends and their children.

Marjorie Senechal
Northampton, Massachusetts
Winter, 1995

(NOTE: All material appearing on these pages is copyrighted and may not be used without permission of the authors)

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