Date of Trip: June 2007
From the European Heritage Alliance. WWW.EUROHERITAGE.NET
Albania is one of the two poorest nations in Europe, second only to Moldova, and is akin to walking through a surly slum in Central America or Mexico outside of its capital of Tiranë. It is also the sole Islamic nation of Europe. It emerged from nearly five decades of autarkic communist dictatorial rule under Enver Hoxha (Hod-ja) into a struggling and corrupt democratic state by 1992. This drastic transition of this relatively young geographically-European nation is apparent in its depressing and deep poverty. It and its ethnic group (Albanians) are seemingly hated all across Europe as backward criminals who settle in other nations to receive their social benefits. Their identity as Muslims also fuels this clash, as Albania was the only state of Europe to fully submit to the Jihad of the Turks during 400 years of foreign rule. Tourism to Albania is thus brand new — our cruise was among the first to travel there commercially. We landed at Sarandë, a growing coastal “resort city” among Albania’s largest.
Upon arrival, the city is relatively innocuous and plain. The backdrop is filled with hills and relatively arid grounds. Fishermen adorn the coastline. All buildings appear the same hue of tan or beige, mostly two-storied with a great deal of construction all throughout the city on the coast. No massive flagpole standards, no huge cathedrals or churches. Only a relatively tall mosque with a very plain blue-and-white minaret in the center of town. This was the first mosque I had seen. But instead of hearing the call to prayer throughout the day, church bells greeted the coming ship. Was this secular, or an attempt to welcome the majority-Christian/European visitors? The city has no harbor, but rather a small dock to which the ship’s passengers were ferried via tender. Inside the city, it is apparent that this country is in a depressing mess. A good 90% of buildings are under “construction”. By no means does this imply that Albania is undergoing expansive growth; rather, the buildings are half-finished, most with holes in the walls or no doors or roofs at all. The buildings dispose of their trash around their homes, a house can be entered by nearly anyone due to the lack of doors or walls, and atop each first story of a home is another layer of the building with only the foundations. The reason for this is that other than their horrific poverty, most Albanians have no work opportunity in their own economy, so they build a portion of their home, then emigrate to a wealthier European nation like Italy or Greece to expand their homes. This takes many phases, so homes are constructed over long-term periods. Nearly every home has a scarecrow made of a doll or other toy out of both fun and to keep the birds from their homes; the tactic fails. Albania is almost universally dependent upon foreign labor elsewhere, subsistence agriculture, and the desperate hope for growing tourism.
Albania has little history of its own, but Albania is ripe with foreign ancient monuments, including an ancient Jewish synagogue in Sarande built near the 3rd century before being obliterated and burnt by the pre-Orthodox Slavic invaders from the 5th century onward. Today, it is merely a series of ruins in a deep sandy bed within 50 meters of the city’s mosque. Near the city’s hinterlands, there are dozens and dozens of Roman and Greek ruins, from a early Christian baptistery to ancient pre-Christian temples. The many churches of Albania were all burnt by the Muslim Turks upon invasion to ensure the triumph of Islam. Future Christian churches were all leveled by the Communists in the so-called “first truly atheist state” of Hoxha.
A source of great confusion to non-Muslim cultures is the fact that Albanians generally shake the head vertically to signify “no”, and horizontally to signify “yes”. The impact of the Ottoman Jihad further enters Albanian European culture in the use of Zitars, drums, chants, and the familiar throat-bellowing of women that can be heard in many songs. Albania, however, is easily the most liberal of Islamic peoples. The veil is seldom worn due to their distancing from Turkey as well as their history of atheistic Communist rule. However, many older women can be seen in the streets with full veils and, occasionally, a full Afghani/Taliban-style blue burqa. Men do not dress conservatively, and the younger Albanians tend to dress promiscuously even. Islam bears quite a nominal rule after the Communist period, as the call to prayer that greeted the city at noon during our visit had virtually no reaction from the locals. But upon carefully gazing into a mosque, I could see that the mosque was full, with some 30 pairs of shoes outside the door. Virtually most of Albanians have Turkish, Arab, or “Muslim” names, including Muhammad, Ali, Rashid, and Mustafa. The toilets are sunken into the ground for squatting of both man and woman, as common in older Turkey.
Further inspection of Albania made it clear that Albania is a total mess. The roads are unpaved dirt. Dust pounds against cars and visitors’ pants. Ledges to deep pits are not cordoned off at all; at night, one could easily slip off a uniform ledge to fractures or even death with only the prestigious Albanian doctors to trust. Trash and sewers are dumped into the streets. Potholes in the street are covered in dirt and plastic wrap. It is virtual feudalism. Pickpockets and thieves are everywhere. Local children rob visitors, many ordered by their own families to do so. Gypsies and Turks perform the same. The locals are very simply clothed with white tank-tops, sandals, some torn clothes, some no shirts at all. Women wear high heels and short tops. The older women wear headscarves. Men are seldom shaven, which may simply be a relic of Turkish Muslim rule instead of uncleanliness. Virtually every building is abandoned it seems. Ancient sites even crucial to Albanian heritage (like that of Turkish Muslim rule or the defense against the Jihad) were demolished for quarry for the desperately poor citizens. Mats are laid in the middle of the street with old fruits, clothes, and wares to be sold; Albania’s economy seems largely informal. Geos, Fiats, Yugos, and Renaults seem to be all that are available or purchased here, each some 20 years old, each with paint peeling or scratches all over the vehicles. At the same time, Audis and Mercedes roll through the city with “I”, “DE”, and “GR” proudly adhered to their rears. These are the work force and entrepreneurial business owners of Albania — the Italian, Germans, and Greek minority. They own nearly all of the businesses and have virtually all of the wealth. The Albanians recognize this, which is a source of mutual racism and social conflict. Grafitti in the city often reads “Italia” or other terms rejecting Greece, Germany, the EU, or Russia, all of which are aiding their sluggish economy that the Albanians consider imperialists instead. There is little grafitti however, thus rejecting the notion that men who have little to do resort to bad behavior. This can also be because of the lack of television and connection to American street culture during the isolationist Communist period. Almost no English is spoken. Greek is spoken commonly to interface with the business and bank owners. The Leke, the currency of Albania, is virtually worthless, and is adorned with some of Albania’s newer statesmen. The Euro is accepted generally.
Outside of the city proper, however, Albania is quite beautiful and unique. The hills and mountains are covered in yellow grain fields and subsistence crops. Military bunkers and pillboxes cover virtually every few meters of the distance. During the period of Hoxha’s leadership, thousands and thousands of small “family” pillboxes were built in order to rally military defense against perceived invaders, theoretically the Jugoslav state of Jozip Broz Tito after World War II. The pillboxes oddly do not face the coastal approach; they point inland towards the other Balkan states of the Jugoslav federation. Nearly one pillbox was built per square mile. During the late 1990s, most pillboxes were covered in spraypaint and other mediums to promote “art” by local artists, but ends up looking like a few orange marks on the concrete. Cows, sheep, donkeys, and goats walk through the street with right-of-way to the next farm crop along the dirt roads. Some 30 minutes outside the city up a long mountain road, the beauty of Albania is fully present. The world-renowned “Blue Eye” pool is reached via a winding dirt road for full-size bus tours who virtually drive over the edge due to the lack of security. The main attraction in Albania, the Blue Eye, is in the middle of a lovely and bizarre forest with hollowed trees and tall grasses and bushes. A flowing river (to which waste and sewage are freely disposed) meets its source deep within the earth in a bright-blue glowing water hole. A deep and cool water source is so rich in minerals that it is virtually iridescent, and has such a powerful current that any size rock thrown into the source will return to the surface. A diving attempt was foiled because the divers could not reach the bottom. After the experience, a strong and huge local beer (Kaon) can be enjoyed along with traditional Islamic Albanian music at a bar. Albania has its share of beautiful sights.
The role of criminals, pickpockets, or terrorists is a frightening and bizarre one many visitors experience. Not only do children and adults alike rob many of the visitors, but many young men seem to drive around together in cars staring at parts of the city or at the tourists. Cars filled with 3-5 men all staring in one direction — often not at the locals even, confused many of the ship’s passengers as to their intentions. After about 10 minutes, the many cars returned again to perform the same act. Many interpreted this behavior as a search for lone visitors to rob or even rape, whilst others (also disturbed by the sighting of full Taliban-esque burqas in the city nearby) were struck by fear of terrorism plots against them, the ship, the buses, or even local Albanian buildings. This made everyone a bit uncomfortable, as ethnic Albanians are a source of the majority of crime by proportion wherever they tend to settle, including Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia (especially in Kosovo). They are also a source of global Islamic terrorism, as was one of the reasons for Jugoslavija’s massacre of ethnic Albanian Islamic rebels who fought against the government and civilian Slavic Christians for independence, which led to the US-NATO destruction of their state and the support for the same Albanian Kosovo that is viewed by the locals as terrorists.
Despite today’s portrayal by the liberal West of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha as a brutal and corrupt dictator, he is still mythified as a heroic figure in Albanian culture who unified the Albanians so ripe to foreign rule (including that of Stalin’s USSR, Tito’s Jugoslavija, Hitler’s Germany, Axis Horthy’s Hungary, or Axis Antonescu’s Romania) into an upright united state with food in every mouth and on every table, all defended by a well-defended nation built collectively by the people. His regime today is disliked for its placement of power in the hands of few, but is praised for its power of a state which historically had almost no importance in European history ever. Equally so, the success of Communism on poverty and starvation problems (or success by their interpretation that is) encourages the desperately poor Albanians to appeal to the left. Albanians’ greatest cultural hero, Skanderbeg, who unified Albanian tribes in war against Islam’s Jihad, is mythified in the same fashion as the founder of Albania’s proud statehood.
It was fascinating to experience such a unique and wickedly poor part of the world, as well as to investigate the strange language and ethnic origins of a people caught between their European Christian heritage and the wake of the mighty Jihad of the Ottomans. Today, Muslim Albania, whose people are such a source of conflict with the local European states, is already approaching membership in the EU, whilst equally non-European Turkey’s membership is such a source of dispute between the East and West. It is popularly deemed a drain on Europe that will open the gates to more Albanian immigrants.
I recommend that no foreigner ever travel to Muslim Albania unless it is a port-of-call on a cruise, as we did. Never bring a watch, wallet, or valuables in public. Never walk alone at any hour of the day. Always look behind yourself every few seconds.
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