Conducted by an Albanian

OLSI 1

 

The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.

Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, 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.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Two heads, two cities

 

Ever since my interest in Albania began in the 1960s, I have had a fascination with the use of the double-headed eagle as a symbol. It appears in many places including the Albanian flag. Far less commonly used than single-headed eagle, the symbol has been found on ancient Babylonian archaeological remains dating from roughly 3000 to 2000 BC.

A few days ago, while I was visiting an exhibion (of works by Ruskin) in London, I spotted a man carrying a bag with the badge and letters in the photo above. I suspected that the letters above the double-headed eagle were Greek, but I did not know what they stood for. I asked the man, who turned out to be a Greek from Thessaloniki (Salonika). He told me that the badge and letters were the logo of a football team based in Thessaloniki.

PAOK stands for ‘Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinopolitón ‘, which means ‘Pan-Thessalonian  Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans’.   The club was founded  in 1926 by Greeks who had fled from Istanbul (Constaninople) following the tragic population exchange that began in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). During this exchange, Turks living in Greece were deported to Turkey, and Greeks living in Turkey were deported to Greece. Over 160,000 ethnic Greeks from Turkey were resettled in Thessaloniki.

Some of the Greeks who had been evacuated from Istanbul established the PAOK in 1926. The team has two nicknames, translated as ‘The Black-Whites’ and ‘The double-headed eagle of the North’. Why did PAOK choose the double-headed eagle? The answer might lie in the fact that since the early Middle Ages this symbol was used occasionally by the Byzantine Empire, which had its headquarters in Constantinople, from where the founders of the team originated.

Two heads on the football field

WIMB

 

Back in March 2017, I was flicking idly through the London Evening Standard. So idly was I flicking that I looked at the sports pages, which I usually ignore. There was a large photograph of football players in orange shirts. Absent-mindedly, I stared at them, and then suddenly I noticed that their shirts had black double-headed birds printed on them. Knowing that the national symbol of Albania is a double-headed eagle, I wondered whether this was an Albanian team.  It was not. It was AFC Wimbledon, a team based in the southwest suburb of London, Wimbledon.

Soon, I discovered that Wimbledon’s municipal coat of arms bears a double-headed eagle. A trip to Wimbledon Library did not prove useful in my quest to discover why this two-headed bird should appear on the Borough’s crest. Various Internet websites suggested that it was there as a reminder that Julius Caesar had camped somewhere in what is now Wimbledon.

It is believed that the Ancient Romans used the eagle as a heraldic symbol, but it was usually the single-headed variety. It is unlikely that they used the double-headed variety, which dates back to Ancient Babylon and maybe before. It is likely that it was first used in a ‘Roman’ empire context after the fall of the Ancient Roman Empire, by the Byzantine Empire, a successor to that earlier Roman Empire, in the 12th century AD when it was adopted by Isaac I Komnenos (c. 1007 – c. 1060). His family originated in Paphlagonia (now ‘Paflagonya’ in Turkey) in Anatolia. Double-headed eagles were associated with the Hittites, who had lived in the area, notably in the city of Gangra (now ‘Çankırı’ in Turkey). A plausible theory, but probably unprovable, is that the double-headed bird migrated from the Hittites into Byzantine usage.

This brings us back to Wimbledon. From the little evidence that I have presented, the connection with Julius Caesar and the London borough’s crest seems weak. Whatever the real story, the crest is not an ancient one. It was designed and granted as late as 1906.

 

Part of  an image from http://www.sportinglife.com

How China viewed Albania

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!

Albania is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Between 1944 and late 1990, it was isolated from the rest of the world by a stern dictatorship that held in high regard the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his methods of government. In brief, Albania was ruled by a pro-Stalin dictatorship.

The dictatorship, led by Enver Hoxha from 1944 until his death in ’85, had few allies. For a couple of years after 1945, Albania maintained an uneasy friendship with Tito’s Yugoslavia. Then for a longer period, the USSR became its ally and provider of assistance. With Stalin’s death and his replacement by Nikita Krushchev, who denounced Stalin posthumously, Albania rejected the USSR.

For a period between about 1964 and the mid to late 1970s, tiny Albania became closely allied with the enormous Peoples Republic of China. This period included the ten year Chinese Cultural Revolution. Albanians were subjected to Enver Hoxha’s own version of what the Chinese people had to suffer. Eventually, China’s drift away from Albania’s approach to Marxism- Leninism, caused an end to friendship between the two countries.

I have met several retired diplomats who served in China during the period of Sino-Albanian friendship. Their anecdotes make interesting reading.

When I was last in Tirana, I met a retired Albanian diplomat, who had served in China during the years of Sino-Albanian friendship. He said that in those days the Chinese newspapers were full of pictures and articles about Albania. One day, some Chinese people approached him. They told him that because there was so much about Albania in the news, it must surely be a huge country like China!

A retired Indian diplomat, who had served in China during the Cultural Revolution, collected atlases, something that I also enjoy doing. He found a Chinese world atlas and looked for Albania. In this particular atlad, Albania was hidden away near the spine of the book where two pages met. The country was barely visible except by opening the atlas as widely as possible without cracking the spine. When some young Chinese students asked the diplomat to show them Albania in his atlas, they were surprised at its almost hidden representation in the book. They could not believe that their country’s socialist ally in Europe was so tiny and insignificant. Almost immediately, the students began insulting him with phrases like: “capitalist spy”, “imperialist lackey”, and “enemy of the people”. They refused to believe that the country, which was so important to China, was so tiny.

Another retired Indian diplomat, whom I met in India, came up tomeafter I had given a talk about Albania. He told me that he was serving in China when Enver Hoxha sent the open letter declaring that he was terminating the friendship between his country and China. He told me that he was amazed that such a minute nation like Albania had the nerve to throw mud in the face of a major power and ally such as China was and still is.

These anecdotes help illustrate that tiny Albania had a larger than life history during the 20th century.

Two names, one country

The Albanians now refer to their country as “Shqipëria”. Almost everyone else calls the same country “Albania” or some variant of this.

Here is an interesting article that discusses this difference: http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=133209

Incidentally, the national symbol of Albania is a two headed eagle. This is appropriate for a country known by two names!

Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.

TAXI 2

A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.

TAXI 1

Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“Why?”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”

TAXI 3

Traffic in Tirana, 2016

DISCOVER  WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY

It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Uncle Joe

STALIN

 

Standing by Stalin,

albeit in bronze:

odd memories evoked

 

This statue of Stalin, now in Tirana, was cast during Albania’s Communist era (1944-91). Albania was the only country to continue revering Stalin after his death.

Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

ALBDENT 0

Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

ALBDENT 1

Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

ALBDENT 2

Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

ALBDENT 3

Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

ALBOLLY 3

“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

ALBOLLY 2

“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

ALBOLLY 1

“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, Kindle,

and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)