Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.

The Castle in Gjirokastra is the place to visit for any tourist to the city. Not only is it an interesting place historically it also affords a fine view of the old town below as well as the fertile valley (now no longer farmed) and the mountain ranges in the distance. The Armaments Museum is located upstairs, off the main vaulted artillery gallery, just to the left of the new, very much bland, most recent museum manifestation. This is not always open so you may have to look for someone who has the keys but it shouldn’t be a problem and it’s well worth the effort.

The museum was opened in 1971 in what used to be part of the Castle Prison, used extensively in the days of Ahmet Zogu, the pre-war dictator and self-proclaimed king. (The entrance to the prison cells is off the corridor to the Armaments Museum so make the time and the effort to see this part of the castle. At the end of the cells look for the sculpture of The Two Heroines by Odhise Paskali, which commemorates the murder of two female Communist Partisans by the Nazis during the Liberation War.) When society collapsed in the 1990s this museum, along with many throughout the country, was looted of many of its antiquities and anything that was considered of value, as well as attacks on many example of socialist art. However, a number of examples still exist to this day.

(There was obviously discontent within the population and the reasons for that have to be studied and lessons learnt for the future. What is certain is that reactionary, fascist and lumpen elements rode on the back of this discontent and they were responsible for the mindless looting of the country’s many museums (the museum in Bajram Curri is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever entered) as well as the book burning that took place in Skënderbeg Square in Tirana.)

Here I want to just concentrate on one of the statues to be found in the section of the museum that tells the story of the anti-Fascist struggle of the Albanian people under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (later known as the Party of Labour of Albania) led by Enver Hoxha.

The sculpture was inspired by the novel ‘The General of the Dead Army’ by the Gjiroskaster born Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The writer, who achieved fame during the Socialist period of Albania’s past, left the country for the capitalist west when everything fell apart in the 1990s – like many ‘patriotic’ intellectuals.

This statue, which I’m calling Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military (as I don’t know its official name) depicts a woman, larger than real size, with her right arm outstretched and her finger pointing into the distance indicating that the other two individuals should ‘Go’ – to where we do not know but the impression we get is that they are not wanted here – ‘here’ being Albania.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

We know that she is Albania as there are many representations of her throughout the country, most notably the huge statue of Mother Albania that holds the red star in her upraised hand in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills overlooking Tirana. The sensation on looking at this woman is that she is strong and determined, not just physically but in the way that she exudes confidence. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And one way to make sure that she gets what she wants is the possession of the rifle, the barrel of which she holds in her left hand as it rests on the ground.

And it’s common to see women armed in the many lapidars (Albanian monuments) that still exist throughout the country. This can be seen on works of art as diverse as the mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana to the statue in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje to the (now sadly abandoned and discarded) commemoration to the young heroine of the National Liberation War, Liri Gero

(Here it might be useful to remind readers, or inform them if they didn’t know before, that the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania (as the Albanian Communist Party was known throughout the period of socialist construction) was: ‘To build socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ And this should be remembered when analysing those works of art produced in that period. This meant that the success of socialist construction depended upon armed workers and peasants, ever vigilant against attempts to destroy workers’ power. This has its parallel in the history of Chinese Communism with the famous quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.)

We also know the woman is Albania as her skirt morphs into the mountains of the country. Those mountains define the country. They have shaped the culture, determined its history, formed its economic development, delineated its tribal and ethnic structure, moulded the thinking of its people and provided the environment in which they were able to resist invaders for centuries. As well as all that those mountains provide the visitor with some of the finest scenery in southern Europe.

So the woman arises from, emerges out of, the soil of Albania, she is a result of the history that has gone before, she is part of a tradition that fights against ignorance, oppression and death. And those elements are represented by the two other characters in the sculpture, much smaller physically than the women, again a statement of their respective relevance to the country.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

One is the priest. He wears the traditional dress of a Catholic priest at the early part of the 20th century. We know he’s Catholic as he clasps a Bible in his hands, there’s a cross inscribed on the front cover. If the woman is confident he is the opposite. He is bent almost double and looks afraid and unsure of himself. He looks questioningly at the other individual. Is he after answers, reassurance, support? That’s for us to decide. What we do know is that he’s not going to get any of what he may be after. By expelling him from the country Albania is ridding the country of ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.

That’s because the other is not concerned with the priest, he’s more concerned for himself. He’s scowling and has an angry look on his face. He’s probably as angry at the priest as he is at Albania; one is throwing him out of the country and the other weak and clinging. He is dressed in some sort of uniform, with a long trench coat, and represents all the rest of the problems that the Albanians had endured over the years such as the self-proclaimed king – who was also an oppressive landlord in his own right – as well as the dictatorial military regime. These forces of reaction produced nothing but death, represented by the skulls which he holds in a cloth in his hands and which can be seen under his coat, at his feet.

In the sculpture Albania is banishing these feudal remnants from the country forever but history has shown that if the workers are not vigilant then those same forces defeated one year will come back the next, and with a vengeance, if they are given the opportunity.

The statue could do with a bit of dusting – but then many of the museums throughout the country suffer from neglect to one extent or another. Nonetheless this is a fine example of socialist realist sculpture still on (limited) show in Albania.

(Albania is in a bit of a quandary about its past (a situation that you also experience in the erstwhile Soviet Union). If it ignores the anti-Fascist struggle against both the Italian and German invaders, which was led to victory by the Communist Partisans, then there’s not much to put in the museums. It might not be wise to remind the people of the condition of their grandparents when that existence was one of feudal oppression in the 20th century. Economic ‘liberalisation’ also means that the museums are being starved of resources and I’ve not found it so easy to get the information I would like (at least so far) and cannot provide accurate details about all the works of art I hope to post on the blog. So if any reader has any information then I would be grateful if they could pass it on. Perhaps then the picture of Albanian Socialist Realist Art will be more rounded.)

Komani Lake – The most impressive ferry trip in Europe?

Ferry arriving at Koman Dam

Ferry arriving at Koman Dam

I’ve done the Amazon, the Yukon and the Zambesi but you have to go a long way to beat the beauty and splendour of the Lake Komani ferry journey from the hydro-electric dam at Koman to the port of Fierza, on the way to the town of Bajram Curri – and it lasts for less than three hours.

The easiest way to make this trip is to start from Skhodër (practical details are below). You have to get up early but it’s not as bad as starting from Tirana. If you stay in the centre of Skhodër you needn’t worry about oversleeping as the call to prayer at 05.20 from the Al-Zamil Central Mosque is loud enough to wake the dead – although I’ve never seen that many people in the streets when I’ve eventually emerged.

The first part of the journey is to the town of Van i Dejës and once you leave there you are immediately in the countryside offering a taste of what’s to come. The valley here is much wider than on the lake itself but this journey provides an introduction to the vegetation and the aspect of the mountains as you steadily climb up to about 400m at the Koman dam. After going through a long tunnel you arrive at a small and simple landing stage.

The lake was formed when the hydro-electric power station at Koman, on the Drini River, was completed in 1986 and a regular ferry service was a cheaper and more environmental form of transport instituted as soon as the project was completed.

You’re not about to embark on one of the expensive luxury river cruises that are becoming more of an industry in many parts of the world. Here you share the space with the people making their way from their homes to the rest of Albania, taking their goats to slaughter, machines to be repaired, or replenishing their stocks of Coca Cola. The boat, which once plied its trade along the rivers of Italy, has seen better days but manages to provide the people who live along the length of the lake with a daily service towards the Albanian towns of Skhodër or Tirana in the west and south, or the town of Bajram Curri (for links to Kosova) in the north.

Passengers on the Lake Komani Ferry

Passengers on the Lake Komani Ferry

For a time there were no other ferries running than the second hand Italian foor passenger ferry but the increase in tourism and probably a desire of car drivers not to have to get to the other parts of Albania without having to go into Kosovo has meant that, at least in the high season, there are two car ferry options.

As should be no surprise the locals just take the beauty of the surroundings for granted. After all they can just look out of the windows of their homes to appreciate the magnificence of the mountains, some of which soar to a height of 1700m. But this is a relatively narrow man-made lake and the route of the original river can still be seen as the boat twists and turns, heading for seeming impenetrable rock faces as it makes its slow and unhurried progress, just chugging along from one makeshift landing stage to another.

Skhoder to Bajram Curri via the Lake Komani Ferry

Skhoder to Bajram Curri via the Lake Komani Ferry

I’ve made this journey three times now but always in the autumn, fortunately when it has been clear and sunny but when it has been bitterly cold in the shade. With a wind that cuts through you like a knife you have to use the vessel as a wind break if you intend to be outside for long. In these conditions the couple of glasses of home-made raki in the café at the dam become a wise investment – the body is numbed before the cold can get to you. In such circumstances the intrepid traveller will have the outside to themselves, apart from those times when the smokers find they can’t hold out any longer.

The boat is dwarfed by the sheer walls that close in on many stretches of the trip but when the waters open out you have the opportunity to see the high peaks of one of the many mountain ranges which constitute Albania. The vegetation is starting to prepare for the cold of winter when you go through in November but as different plants close down for the summer they do so at various times and you witness the transformation through the colour spectrum from almost red, to amber and brown. I’ll have to try to make this journey in the spring when the land is awakening and preparing for the long, hot summer.

The walls of the cliff faces are also an education in the evolution of the very mountains, showing the different layers of sediment set down millions of years ago and then twisted and bent so that they are almost going back on themselves.

Hills alongside Lake Komani

Hills alongside Lake Komani

At times there’s enough flat ground close to the lake and you’ll pass a small, seemingly isolated farmhouse, with outbuildings. However, as in all such places in the world, hidden from view is a whole network of paths and mule tracks that allow communication between the mountain community. The ferry is merely the more obvious and public link between these communities. Many other, sometimes quite large settlement can be seen much higher up the side of the hills, making for a particularly difficult trek back home from the lake, hence the use of mules.

Farmstead beside Lake Komani

Farmstead beside Lake Komani

When the boat approaches the shore often it’s not until you hit the land that you’re aware a path is there at all, but when people leave the ferry it’s not long before it’s impossible to spot them as they make their way to their homes.

As with all these forms of transport you’ll often encounter the unexpected. On one trip a rowing boat rushed across the lake to where the ferry had pulled in. I thought to drop off a passenger but the next thing I knew the small, metal boat was being towed behind us, making for interesting maneuverings at future stops. How the small boat wasn’t hit and tipped over was beyond me.

Bird life is sparse in the autumn, many migrating further south for the warmth, but the country is home to many species and as there’s not that much traffic on the lake (only one return journey a day with a boat of any size) you are almost on top of the wildlife before they know you are there.

All along the route, even in the most remote parts of the journey, you’ll notice the power lines straddling the lake as they provide power to the isolated villages and settlements along its length. The people were not ignored when the project was planned in the late 70s, as is the case in so many parts of the world where major construction projects change forever their lives but they don’t get any benefit themselves.

By the time the boat reaches the end of the journey at Fierza there’s not normally that many people left on the boat, after all you’ve just travelled on the local (floating) bus.

Practicalities

Furgons (normally two) leave Skhodër every morning between 06.00 and 06.30 from the bottom end of Bulevardi Skëndërbeu, on the right hand side as you leave the town centre, just before Rruga Antikomunist Hungarez (that leads to the railway station) and before the road narrows. If you stay in one of the hotels (DON’T take the advice of the friendly yet strangely dangerous woman in the Tourist Information Office who gives the impression she knows everything but always gets a vital piece of information wrong.) The journey takes a little under 2 hours and costs 400 leke. It might stop for a short while in Van i Dejës but always aims to get to Koman in time for the ferry.

On arriving at the ferry terminal, right beside the dam, there’s a café for tea and raki.

Just wait for the ferry. It normally arrives just before 09.00 but everyone else there is in the same boat, or will be eventually, so there’s no need to panic. There’s only one boat a day, each way. Some guide books will tell about car ferries. There are two of them and you will see them when you arrive at Fierza but they don’t run any more.

The cost of the journey from Koman to Fierza, one way, is 500 leke and this will be collected en route.

The journey takes just under 3 hours.

On arrival at Fierza get off the boat on the left hand side bank. Here there will be some sort of transport to take you the short journey to Bajram Curri. DON’T hang around or dilly dally or you’ll find yourself stranded, at least for a while. The furgon/taxi to Bajram Curri takes about 15-20 minutes and costs 200 leke.

One place to stay in Bajram Curri is the Emar Hotel. This is the other side of the football pitch and children’s playground that’s to the left of the roundabout which doubles as the town’s bus station.

If you want to take the ferry from Bajram Curri to Koman you need to catch a furgon that leaves the roundabout at the top end of town (beside the looted museum and the large statue of Barjam Curri himself) at 05.30 in order to be at Fierza for 06.00.

If you want to return to Tirana from Bajram Curri by road there are furgons that leave from that roundabout during the morning each day, going via Kosova.

The dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania

Kukull to ward off the 'evil eye'

Kukull to ward off the ‘evil eye’

You think that when someone buys a soft toy or a blow up Tele Tubbie it’s destined for a baby or a young child. In Albania it could well be for another purpose. This is all part of the ‘tradition’ of the dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania.

No one who travels around Albania, especially in the part of the country south of Tirana but to a lesser extent all over the country, can avoid noticing scarecrows in places you don’t normally see them, e.g., on the top floor of an unfinished building. Or soft toys hanging from balconies, fences, fruit trees and vines.

This is all related to the ancient superstition of the ‘evil eye’ and the attempt by the superstitious to retain what they have. And the instrument that is used to provide protection is the dordolec, whose meaning in Albanian covers scarecrow, doll, or guy (as in Guy Fawkes). Traditionally this would have been a figure, in the shape of a human, made out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and many of these can be seen in your travels.

Dordolec in Delvine

Dordolec in Delvine

But there has been a reduction in what is necessary and anything that looks, sometimes only vaguely, like a human figure will suffice. This minimalist approach even goes down to just a shirt, arms outstretched and tied to a fence. However, new consumerism has been recruited into the 21st century version of this old superstition and you will often see soft toys (teddy bears, Smurfs, monkeys, etc.,) as well as blow up plastic toys of animals, Tele Tubbies or even Spiderman – one of the most surprising to me (on my first visit and before knowing what they symbolised) was a life-size version of Spiderman attached to the outside of an unfinished building. In Albanian kukull is the word for a store-bought soft toy and might be one of the words you hear if you ask the locals.

Kukull Smurf in Polican

Kukull Smurf in Polican

It’s on buildings, either in the process of construction or perhaps not occupied as they are up for sale, that you are most likely to see the dordolec. But not exclusively. When travelling by road this is the impression you get but once you walk around Albanian towns and villages you begin to understand that they’re more ubiquitous. A small soft toy might be hanging from a grape-vine or from a fruit tree, a citrus or perhaps an olive, or just near the entrance to a family home.

The idea of the dordolec is not to frighten away people as the scarecrow ‘frightens’ birds, it’s more complex than that. The idea is the passer-by ‘fixates’ on the dordolec and in that way doesn’t covet the property on which it’s attached, it’s there to prevent envy which might lead to someone taking action to acquire that particular piece of wealth. It’s there to help reinforce one of the strictures of the Ten Commandments, the one about coveting your neighbour’s house, wife, servants or ox.

However, there is no direct correlation between this superstition and religious beliefs. In Albania such beliefs can be found in all religious communities, Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic – in fact I encountered less examples of the dordolec in the north, in the area around Skhodër, where the Catholic Church is particularly strong. And knowing the intolerance of the Catholics I’m sure that they would have come down on such superstitions with an iron fist in Albania’s feudal past and would be very wary if signs of it were to return with the end of socialism and the openly atheistic state authority.

There are a couple of theories as to why this tradition has again become prevalent. One is the stratification that has developed since the early 1990s between the rich and the poor means that people have a greater fear of losing what they have. This was not an issue under Socialism when land was the property of all the people but this all changed when land was privatised. And now that the population is caught up in the mire of consumerism they might have more to ‘lose’. This is a bit like the way homes in Britain are increasingly becoming like fortresses whilst at the beginning of the 20th century many houses didn’t even have locks, merely a latchkey. In the UK people install expensive locks and security systems, in Albania a soft toy suffices, so I suppose they are using a cheaper option.

Another theory is that this ‘tradition’ has been imported from Greece, where many Albanians have been forced to go to in order to find work after the wholesale destruction of industry in their own country in the last 20 years or so. Greece is not a country I personally know very well so can’t compare the situation between the two countries. This theory has some credence when you consider that the scarecrows and toys are more in evidence in the southern part of the country, especially around the town of Saranda.

Ram's Horns and Garlic, Saranda

Ram’s Horns and Garlic, Saranda

Whatever the exact reason for such an upsurge it seems to fit into a society that is looking for something to protect itself from the hostile world outside. In the same way that there has been an explosion in the construction of religious buildings (although I never experienced hoards of people going into those buildings in the way I would have expected if there was a true religious revival – I seemed to be entering more churches that the general population) perhaps the dordolec is a belt and braces approach to (divine or pagan) protection.

The positioning of such effigies on property goes along with other manifestations of superstition. Travelling around the country you’ll see a number of people, surprising to me especially older men, who walk around with worry beads in their hand. As well as that garlic, animal skulls/horns and horseshoes will adorn working businesses, especially shops or restaurants. Bunches of garlic sit on the dashboard of cars and other vehicles and once I even noticed a dordolec with a string hanging from it which had both a horseshoe and a rope of garlic, so they were definitely bringing out the big guns at that place.

Religion in Albania

If you are interested in how beliefs in Albania currently manifest themselves you might like to click on these links for some other observations and comments:

Sacred Heart Church in Tirana

Panagia Monastery Church in Dhermi

Anti-Communist Paintings in Skhodër