Saturday, September 24, 2016

Escape to Tirana

September 8-18, 
Tirana beats Arrabeh; let me count the ways: The olive oil I have savored in restaurants here in Tirana is more flavorful. Granted, it is Italian in origin and the salt I sprinkled on it is very special, red salt from Hawaii—via Italy as well. Also Tirana’s watermelons are tastier, sweeter. Ours, mind you, are still grown in the Battouf Valley without the benefit of irrigation. You see, the canal serving as the national water carrier diverting the Jordan River goes the length of the valley from one end to the other but we cannot use that water. It is for the benefit of Jewish agriculture. We lost part of our farmland in the valley to the project since it serves the ultimate goal of the state, empowering its Jewish majority. In the end it all meant that our watermelons are watered by nature’s nightly dewdrops causing them to be the best in all of Israel. Excuse the diversion, but I feel choked and have to explain: I am not comfortable saying this aloud because it is admitting defeat on a much more serious level than the competition between Arrabeh and Tirana. Once we used to say “the best in Palestine.” Now, on occasion, I catch myself making the faulty switch. So, let us agree that from now on it is Israel/Palestine. Believe me, this is what I am trying to escape from by coming to Tirana in the first place.

Not to worry though. There is a calming sense of peacefulness about the city of Tirana. And people are friendly. They go out of their way to be helpful with directions, etc. But the expressions on the faces of the older generation are quite somber, almost glum, the men more so. And cars are mainly German with a preponderance of old Mercedes. In the section of ‘downtown’ where our B&B is located the street is wide and relatively clean and the building facades are colorful. The neighborhood is not far from The Block, the former ritzy area where the communist bosses had their homes, offices and hangouts such as Hotel Rogner. In addition to the parks and squares, there is much open space fronting the various government office buildings and institutions of the state. You see the mountains in the distance as you stroll at sunset along the Boulevard from the Skanderbeg Square next to the Et’Hem Bey Mosque and the Museum of National History heading south to Mother Teresa Square and the University of Tirana campus. On the way a crowd of teenagers and young adults seems to build up from tens to hundreds to a veritable mass before you reach the part of the boulevard blocked off to traffic. Before that you pass the Pyramid that Anwar Hoxha’s daughter designed and built in memory of her father. One block further on the opposite side of the boulevard is the ‘BunkArt’ display of that lost era’s atrocities. This latter memorial entitled “Checkpoint” includes an actual original bunker for two, now upgraded with a clear glass ring around it. Not far from it there is the bare frame of the mine-shaft style entrance to the Stanci prison for enemies of the state. A graffiti-covered concrete slab borrowed from the Berlin wall completes the ghastly display. The wall is much lower, by the way, than the Apartheid wall that Israel built to keep its ‘barbarian’ enemies out. The trilogy of Soviet era items mocks the communist regime’s dictatorial mentality and the quirky fancy and paranoia that drove Hoxha from his start as the intellectual revolutionary and father of modern Albania into the infamy of murderous dictatorship. One trip to North Korea and he came back ready for the worst: He commenced the insane project of bunker building to guarantee the survival of the top echelon of the state system in case of a nuclear attack. In total he built close to two hundred thousand bunkers. Of late a group of Albanian creative artists have converted the largest of those into a maze of audio-visual parodies of the horror that the whole psychotic mess must have inspired in its worshippers. I admit, I found it enough to drive one deeper in the ground than they could have imagined. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. But the absence in the underground maze of any sense of the four directions bothered me terribly.

When you stop to think about it, Enver Hoxha’s paranoia was not out of proportion to what was actually happening in the nuclear arena. True, only a lunatic could grant himself the level of centrality and indispensability that the man assigned to himself to justify such an underground metropolis. But think of the other side of the equation: Not one and not two countries had built nuclear weapons. And one country had used them. Twice in fact. So why is basing the act of building nuclear weapons on the logic of expecting to use them sane while building bunkers that could possibly protect one from a nuclear attack nuts? I am not denying the insanity of what we saw in the BunkArt maze that we visited. It is the other half of the equation that I find illogical. When will we see an AtombombArt display? When will Israeli artists treat us to a display of the skill, the effort, the meticulous science and the insanity that went into building a nuclear bomb and readying it for actual use? Until that does happen, I will withhold passing judgment on Enver Hoxha. The insanity of his egomania dims in comparison to the megalomania of whoever holds the trigger to a nuclear weapon. Convoluted as the logic sounds, compelled by a sense of solidarity with the Albanian people for their entrapment between the paranoia of their late leader and the psychosis of nuclear arms’ developers, the next day I combed the bazaar in search of a folding trooper’s shovel like the ones I saw in the BunkArt display. Failing to find one, I settled for a military periscope, which I now keep on my desk next to my laptop. At least I will be able to tell the directions.

Another insane thought crossed my mind as we left the underground maze: True, most of the bunkers in Albania are of the small dome-shaped variety, not the communal size type. Still, why not use them to house Syrian refugees? Just a thought! Both the Levant and the Balkans once were under the same Ottoman rule. And we exchanged unplanned favors. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of the line of Egyptian rulers who introduced cotton to Egypt and lit the spark of modernity in the region was an Albanian. And many exiled Bosnians have settled as part and parcel of Middle Eastern society. Why not continue the exchange of favors under duress?

The Pyramid, though mostly neglected and in disrepair, is put to some inventive use on occasion. The night after our pioneering stroll down the boulevard we returned at sunset again and were treated to the hair-raising experience of the annual gathering of Tirana’s motorcyclists. The same Hell’s Angels style of burly, longhaired and leather-clad cyclists poured in in twos and threes till the spacious parking area assigned to them in front of The Pyramid was full. They alighted and greeted one another with hugs, kisses and slaps on the back. They climbed the few stairs that the crowd of onlookers used as seats and assembled to mill around in rowdy bunches on the large elevated concrete space fronting The Pyramid. A couple of soft drink stands and one tattoo booth were kept busy. (there was also beer and kebabs available) A band with a flashy and loud show was making it impossible for me and my wife to communicate. The wide entrance to The Pyramid provided the perfect space for the huge screen under which the band performed. My wife thought the music was of the Metallica genre. To me it was all horrible noise, enough for me not only to take out both of my hearing aids but also to move out to the sidewalk on the other side of the boulevard till the big parade started. Didi noted that none of the riders were women though many gathered and added to the milling crowd. As the guys climbed on their cycles and started revving their engines many women joined them on the back seats. A young woman declaring “AC-DC” on her T-shirt was one of the first to climb on the back seat of a Harley Davidson. Half a dozen of those took the lead as they emerged noisily to the boulevard that the police had blocked to other traffic. Large Yamahas, Suzukis, etc. followed. A few Vespas brought up the rear while a young man did showy tricks on his bicycle to demonstrate how useless all motors were.

Another plus for Tirana is that it has street names while Arrabeh doesn’t even though such names are seen more on maps of the city than on actual street signs. You ask for directions to the bus to Kruje, the hometown of Albania’s most heroic historical figure who rose against the Turks, and you are told to go to the train station and ask again. The problem is that the train station is a virtual one. Everyone knows where it is but there is no actual station and no train stops or starts there. And when you do locate the presumed spot it turns out to be quite a distance from the bus station, which is a real space with buses in it.

Another virtual reality experience was the Tirana Beer Fest. It coincided with our stay and was held in our neighborhood. It turned out to be a tame affair especially compared to the festival still inscribed in our memory from Darmstadt, Germany some three decades ago. Perhaps the fact that the street that was blocked for the purpose in Tirana was right next to the old mosque, the one Enver Hoxha did not destroy considering it a cultural site and not a religious one.

Exploring the center of the city, you realize how much public space it has and how much people walk, for pleasure in the evenings and to do chores at other times. That is another endearing attribute to their “primitive” lifestyle besides the striking absence of Macdonald’s and Starbucks. But if you look carefully you will discover the first signs of the vicious nibbling of “modernizing” forces at the socio-economic flesh of this traditional people: In many shops you can use the Euro instead of the Lek; the embassy of Kuwait has placed a Sabeel—drinking water outlet—in the shape of huge coffee decanter in the park not far from us; and the ancient clock tower by the mosque has been renovated with American aid while Turkey is footing the $30 million bill for a huge mosque right next to the Parliament. And you see some women dressed in hijab. Older women in traditional ‘respectable’ Islamic costume are encountered frequently. But they don’t don the uniform black attire. The difference is minimal but I find it significant in that it reflects traditionalism among older women and not the dogma of fundamentalism; one shows a consciousness of decency in the mind of its wearer while the other the imposed rules of conduct and the dress code of restrictive religiosity, be it of the Nuns’ order of Mother Teresa or the Wahhabi sect.

Religion seems to play very little role in the daily lives of Albanians. This obviously is part of the legacy of the communist system that banned religion and did away with mosques and churches. There are relatively few such worship houses and interfaith marriages are common, we are told. By and large religion has little to do with the way people dress or interact on the street: Like secular people the world over, teenagers and young adults of both sexes flaunt their youth and its bodily gifts, going around in Bermuda’s, half-open shirts and blouses and stylish threadbare tight jeans. They greet one another with kisses on the cheeks, once, twice and thrice, regardless whether of the same or opposite gender. Older people, long past the stage that must inspire the freaky sexual obsession of intolerant religiosity, act in exactly the same fashion. It is my deep appreciation of Albania’s liberality that makes such a step as the Turkish mosque construction project appear threatening. No less threatening, it seems to the uninvolved like us, is the incursion of uncontrolled capitalism and free market projects like the showy massive commercial center being constructed not far from Skanderbeg Square. What rubs me the wrong way is the seeming lack of a parallel social welfare net to alleviate the plight of so many disabled beggars scattered in public spaces. The country’s economic woes are still such that some hardy ‘entrepreneurs’ sell single cigarettes to park visitors while others repair lighters. The capitalists will tell me that the coming free market economic boom will take care of such irksome trivia. I am ready with the counter argument based on all the homeless in the richest Western capitals. At moments like this I regret not having taken up the assistantship offer one professor of economics made me in my senior year at the University of Hawaii. Think what I could have done for Albania. Or for Palestine.

We had inquired from our host about the possibility of attending a Sufi zikr. Instead, on the occasion of Eid el-Adha, he took us on a ceremonial visit to the world headquarters of the Bektashi Sufi sect. It is a branch of Sufism that prides itself on mysticism and liberality. It was established in Turkey in the thirteenth century. In Albania it is the third largest religious group after mainstream Islam and Christianity. We paid a visit to the head of the sect, Baba Edmond Brahimaj, to wish him a happy Kurban Bayram. Edmond is a member of the group and a personal friend. We were received along with a line of well-wishers including government ministers and foreign dignitaries. The kindly old man offered his hand in greeting for followers to kiss and for us to shake and we were treated to delicious nut cookies. The reception hall is part of an impressive ongoing construction project potentially on the scale of the Baha’i World Center in Haifa. It includes a massive open hall, its high ceiling held atop 12 hefty marble columns with the intervening walls and arches beautifully decorated with Islamic calligraphy. The tekke stands over a large basement serving as a museum housing the faith’s relics and documenting its history. Of special interest to us was a full illustration of the traditional festive communal meal of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Shia Islam’s saints Hassan and Husain. The actual ingredients and utensils were on display and life-size models and photographic images decorated the walls. Later, we mentioned Ashura to Rita, our hostess, and that night we feasted on the crunchy delicacy, especially prepared for us. The third part of the complex is a mausoleum housing the graves of a dozen late leaders of the faith. Visitors light candles in the special stand on the grounds, touch the raised wooden grave covers decorated with Arabic calligraphy and kiss and some cry openly perhaps for their own dead. A planned fourth component of the compound is a Bektashi religious university. On the way out I purchased a set of red prayer beads from the souvenir shop. Had we planned our Bektashi foray right I would have done that first and had the masbaha—beads—with me to ask the head of the tariqa to bless it for me. I had also missed the chance to have my photo taken with the master. I made up for that by having one taken with the image of his late predecessor at the entrance to the museum.

One thing we in Arrabeh do better is the group dance, our traditional Dabki. As is my custom whenever I set out to discover a new country, I had asked our host if we could attend a local wedding. With his rich circle of contacts the good professor arranged for us to join a wedding party at a palatial banquet hall on the outskirts of Tirana. Rita joined us to mediate the encounter and we were accommodated at a table with four couples nearly our age. Wasting much food at wedding parties must be a worldwide phenomenon. Even though we overate, enough leftovers remained from our table to feed a dozen troopers. And the wine flowed generously as well since frequent toasting was our only means of communication. The deafening level of the live music, mainly of a kazoo-like clarinet, issuing from the loudspeakers forced me to take out my hearing aids to protect my eardrums. With the exception of the occasional ballroom dance, the partying involved nonstop mixed line-dances with the lead dancer twirling a kerchief in his or her free hand. By comparison our traditional Dabki is more energetic and its complicated steps are more arty. No wonder Arrabeh’s dance troop just stole the show, placing first in another international competition. Had it been a Jewish Hura dance group it would have been the first item in all Israeli news media, right up there with Hilary Trump and Donald Clinton. (Yes, I know I am mixing up the two presidential candidates; but from where I stand it is all confused.)  Too bad, with the current wave of Wahhabi-inspired gender sensitivity in Arrabeh, we no longer see the old way of alternating mixed gender line dance known as Habl Mwada’a—pearly string. It is just as confusing for us as it is for the folks in Tirana: Do we follow the glitter of Saudi money and don Burkas or let the frayed jeans and deep V-necks of the Wahhabi’s masters and protectors dazzle our youth? Between the two I vote for the Bektashi.