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Friday, 16 November 2012


The red line shows the route takebn by an Italian soldier crossing
Albania in 1941 during Mussolini's invasion of Greece

Having been successively occupied by The Ottomans (for several centuries), the Italians  and then the Germans, it is not at all surprising that the traditionally hospitable Albanians became somewhat suspicious of foreigners by the end of the Second World War. This xenophobia , which was exploited by Albania's dictator Enver Hoxha, led to Albania adopting an isolationist approach rivalled only by countries like Mongolia (until recently) and North Korea (still today). The following is a brief introduction to Adam Yamey's new book Albania on my Mind. It includes quotes from the book.

 When I became a dentist in 1982, the idea of ever treating a patient from Albania would have seemed almost as unlikely as meeting someone from Mongolia. Both were places that hardly anyone visited from the West, and from which visitors to the West were few and far between. Well, 30 years later, everything has changed. Almost daily I treat Mongolians and Albanians (both from Albania itself and also from Kosovo). Whilst I have never set foot in Mongolia, I have visited Albania.

I visited the country in 1984 when it was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. In those days, Albania was firmly under the control of Enver Hoxha, a dictator who counted Josef Stalin as his friend and inspirer.

Occasionally, when chatting to my patients from Albania (in English), I relate curious incidents that I recall from my short, but illuminating visit to Hoxha’s heavily guarded stronghold. Some of my audience are too young to remember life under the dictatorship, but those who are old enough say that what I relate is only too painfully true. One gentleman, aged about 45 and brought up in Albania, said after hearing one or two of my anecdotes:
You must write these things down. No one believes me when I tell about how terrible it was living in Albania in those times, but they will believe you, an observer from the outside world.”
And, that is exactly what I’ve done in my book Albania on my Mind.

My book is divided into two main sections. The first deals with how I became obsessed with Albania, and the second contains a collection of memories of the trip I made there in 1984.

My interest in the country began when I used to spend,
 “…much of my spare time during my mid-teens haunting second-hand bookshops.
In the second half of the 1960s, Hampstead Village, which was in easy walking distance of my family home, had at least 5 such establishments. My favourite store… was run by a scholarly old man. He sat reading in his untidy shop, surrounded by books, which were scattered disorderly on every available surface including the floor. Every now and then, he used to burst out laughing and would then read aloud, often in Latin, to whoever was in his shop. …I found and bought a number of old world atlases in his shop. Most of them were published between the two World Wars. I used to spend hours leafing through them, admiring their beautifully drawn maps. … One day, whilst examining one of my atlases, I saw a country, which I had not noticed before. It was Albania.”
My curiosity about Albania was aroused. I needed to know more about this place, about which so little information was available in the 1960s. Even today, not many people know much about it.

As the years passed, I made numerous trips to places in the Balkans from where I could catch a glimpse of the country which was beginning to tantalise me. On one trip, I took a bus over the Cakor Pass which links Kosovo with Montenegro. It traverses the mountains shared by these places and Albania. When the bus stopped at the top of the pass,
…a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket.  After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.”

Although it was impossible to speak with Albanians in Albania - contact between them and foreigners was strictly discouraged by the authorities - I did manage to discover how friendly they are when I stayed in Kosovo, the part of Serbia which has an enormous Albanian population. When I disembarked at the bus station in the Kosovan town of Prizren sometime in the 1970s,
“…I was immediately surrounded by people, mostly young men. Everyone wanted to know my name, rather than my nationality or where I had come from. When I said it was ‘Adam’, they then asked me whether I was a Moslem. The answer did not seem to matter to them; they were just pleased to meet a stranger.”
Contrast this with what happened within 12 hours of my arrival in Albania in 1984:
After lunch, the Australian, who was travelling with us, called me aside, looking shocked.  He told me that when he was in the hotel’s lift, an Albanian couple began to strike up a conversation with him, but stopped abruptly mid-sentence. It was, he felt, as if they were keen to speak to an outsider, but became scared of the consequences of being caught doing so. Maybe, they had been worried, not without reason, that the lift might have been fitted with a hidden microphone.
In fact, whenever anyone wanted to try to talk to us in the country, they were warned against doing so by others standing nearby. Even our Albanian guides were wary of what they said to us. We, the foreign tourists, were regarded not only as guests (the guest is held sacred by traditional Albanians), but also as potentially dangerous intruders from the hostile world beyond Albania’s hermetically sealed borders. They were constantly keeping an eye on each other as well as us.

My trip to Albania was a truly remarkable experience. I am certain,
“…that the Albanians did not regard us as being simple tourists, but rather as potential messengers. We were being shown the country with a view, so our hosts hoped, to providing us with information that we could use to broadcast to the world how well Albania was progressing along the isolationist path it had chosen to take.”
I am not sure that the message we took home was quite what the Albanians had hoped. We were taken around a factory, of which our hosts were very proud. It purported to make precision instruments, but, 
… the sliding (Vernier) calliper, which had been made in the factory… was a crude object, whose jaw slid jerkily rather than smoothly. The markings were badly scored and looked a little irregular.” ‘Precision’ it was not!
And, although the Albanian-built tractor on display at an exhibition of Albanian industrial products in Tirana,
… differed in design from the Chinese tractors that we had seen on our travels, we had not seen even one of these home-made machines anywhere outside the exhibition.”
Nor, could I find outside the exhibition any samples of the
…yellow plastic bunny rabbit holding a rifle in exactly the same pose as the soldier, who had watched our arrival at the Albanian frontier.
I would have loved to have bought one of these to protect my garden.

It is easy to criticise, but one must not forget to praise. Even if I was unable to meet many Albanians on the tour I made in 1984, I cannot fault our hosts on the care that they took to make sure that we were comfortable and well-fed. Although their main interest appeared to be to ply us with propaganda and to show us what they wanted us to see, they showed us a great cross-section of their beautiful country.

I have not revisited Albania since 1984, but would like to do so. Never in my wildest dreams in my younger days did I imagine that I would now be able to slip out of my surgery, enter a neighbourhood café, and then order a cappuccino from an Albanian barista. And, the smile of gratitude, which I receive when I thank him by saying ‘faleminderit’ and shout ‘mir u pafshim’ when I leave, melts my heart. Even as I write this piece, I realise that although many years have passed, I still have Albania on my mind.

ALBANIA ON MY MIND is available in  Kindle on Amazon web-sites
in paperback by clicking HERE

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