Houses of Parliament

westmin

 

Recently, I attended an event, a performance of Albanian polyphonic singing by the ‘Grupi Lab’ ensemble from Vlore (Albania), in a room in the Palace of Westminster in the heart of London. For those who are unfamiliar with the Palace of Westminster, this enormous building contains the two Houses of Parliament.

To enter the Palace, it was neccessary to weave around the barricades put up to limit the activities of the Extinction Rebellion climate change activists. The public entrance is in Cromwell green, close to a statue of Oliver Cromwell. After a series of security checks that resemble those at Heathrow Airport, we followed a path that leads into the huge Westminster Hall. Although restored in parts, this hall dates back to 1097 AD. Its marvellous hammer beam timber roof  was built in the 14th century. Much of the timber is original, but some of it had to be replaced after a bomb struck in 1941.

After the concert, we decided to visit the public gallery of the House of Commons. After a short wait, we were issued with tickets and then escorted to another security check point. The examination here was very thorough. 

The public gallery overlooks the chamber in which Members of Parliament debate and make speeches. When we arrived at about 5.30 pm on the 14th of October (2019), there were more people in the public gallery than in the chamber. A Labour MP was delivering a lengthy, dull speech. Nobody seemed to be paying him the slightest attention.  After what seemed an eternity – actually, about ten minutes – he stopped. He was followed by a Conservative MP, who made an interesting speech, concisely and powerfully phrased. Again, this did not appear to interest anyone else in the chamber. During the couple of speeches we heard, we could see the few other MPs present sitting quietly, many of them fiddling with their mobile telephones or tablets. This, my first ever visit to a sitting of the House of Commons, was interesting but hardly scintillating.

What impressed me most about my visit to the Palace of Westminster was the staff. Everyone we encountered was not only helpful, but also kind and couteous. The ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the Palace did amaze me, but not nearly as much as the superb staff.

An automobile in Albania

KRUJA small

This is an extract from my book “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” (ISBN: 978-1326807108). The extract describes a visit to a historic town and problems with a rented car.

“When we have hired cars in the past, we have been presented with a car which is almost new and totally flawless. This was not the case with Enterprise at Tirana’s airport. We had ordered a Tata Indica car – I had chosen it because of the price and also because I had not driven an Indian car since 1994, the first and only time that I ever drove in India. Our Tata was distinctly tatty in appearance. It was covered in scratches and dents, all of which were carefully noted and photographed by the Enterprise representative and me. The upholstery was clean but looked well worn. He told us that the car was “quite new”; it had “…only done about 32,000 kilometres”. Dubious at first, I realised later that this unprepossessing vehicle was just the job for the terrain that we were going to traverse.

I had not driven for two years, the last time being when we hired a car in Palermo (Sicily) in 2014. However, I soon got into the swing of driving. I was pleased that we had not hired the car from an office in Tirana, where traffic is heavy, but from the airport where traffic is light. Soon, we left the main Tirana to Shkodër ‘highway’, and then began winding our way uphill to the small town of Krujë, which is where Albania’s hero Skanderbeg had his headquarters while he was combatting the invasion of the Ottomans.

Skanderbeg, the son of a noble-man called Kastrioti, was taken forcibly by the Turks to Turkey as a young boy (as many Christian youths were in that time). He was converted to Islam, educated as a soldier, and became a good fighter in the Ottoman Army. In 1443, aged 38, Skanderbeg along with several other Albanian soldiers abandoned the Turks. Soon, he took command of the Castle at Krujë, which became his headquarters from where he harassed the Ottomans, who were trying to invade what is now Albania. After many military exploits both in Italy and in Albania, Skanderbeg finally succumbed to malaria in 1468. This is a very brief account of the career of a man who saved Western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Albania did become part of the Empire, but in the words of a guidebook published in 1969 by Albturist, the state tourist agency of Albania:

Although their heroic efforts were not crowned with final victory, the Albanian people did not kneel down. Throughout the centuries that followed, our people continued their resistance against the Ottoman feudal regime.”  

The road became steeper and steeper until we entered the town in which level ground is a rarity. We parked the car on a steeply sloping street and made our way to a café, whose terrace provided a great view of the town’s castle, which overlooked us, and the old bazaar, which was several metres below us. From where we were sitting we saw one or two elderly people wearing what looked to us like traditional costumes, but most people were dressed in modern clothing.

We made our way along the shiny cobbled street that runs between the two lines of shops that make up the old bazaar. This has been extended since I saw it in 1984, but the extension has been made to look as if it were original. As in 1984, all of the shops in the bazaar are selling goods aimed at tourists: everything from tasteless ‘tat’ to some very lovely antiques. One particular shop contained superb examples of traditional Albanian handicrafts, some pieces including some wooden cradles for babies were quite old. Some weeks later in Tirana, we met, quite by chance, the shop owner’s cousin, the daughter-in-law of one of Albania’s foremost artists. Although the bazaar resembles what I remembered from my first visit in 1984, the town is filled with new buildings, including mosques and churches, which might have existed before Enver Hoxha destroyed them, but are now reconstructed or entirely new. Many but not all of the old Ottoman era buildings that made Krujë so attractive to me in 1984 have been demolished to make way for newer mostly less-attractive constructions. Nevertheless, Krujë, nestling in the wooded hills that surround it, is still a lovely place to visit.

After stumbling through the cobbled market, we began climbing the path that leads to the castle complex. On our way we passed an old (Ottoman?) structure that housed what must have once been the outlet for a spring. It was filled with fragments of old carvings including an eight-pointed star, and just above the outlet for the water two animals (lions?) facing each other.  Nearby, two young boys selling small round green plums asked where we were from, and then tried to sell us some of their fruit. Just before we reached the entrance to the castle, we came across a man sitting on a wall selling books. He was the author of the various volumes that he had set out for sale. We said hello to him, and told him that we would have a look at his books after we had visited the castle.

Parts of the vast area of the interior of the castle walls are still inhabited. Much of the space is covered with ruins of what had originally been Skanderbeg’s castle and then later the Ottomans’. These ruins include a solitary watchtower and the base of a large minaret. We had read that there was a Bektashi mosque, the Tekke (‘teqe’ in Albanian) of Dollma, in the grounds. A young man offered to guide us to it. Because the way to it was extremely rough and Lopa had a bad ankle, she decided to wait for me while I went to see the mosque. The young man explained to me (in good English) that he is a Bektashi, a member of a ‘sect’ of Muslims (although many Muslims disclaim them) that is halfway between Shia and Sufi. It is particularly popular in Albania, Bulgaria, and Anatolia. Unemployed as so many Albanian graduates are, he spends his time looking after the tekke and its surroundings. On our way along the path to the tekke, we met a woman, aged about 30, with her small child. She spoke some English, but mainly gossiped in Albanian with my new acquaintance. We stood next to what looked to me like an Ottoman hammam or bathhouse. It was, but it has been heavily restored with bright new roof tiles that detract from its character and beauty. After the woman left, he explained that when she had been orphaned, his family had informally adopted her and brought her up as a daughter.

The 18th century tekke is in good state of preservation. By the way, a tekke is a gathering place for Sufi and Bektashi believers. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with delicately painted frescos and lines of Arabic or Turkish calligraphy. There are several tombs of dervishes within the mosque, and also some outside it in its grounds. Near the tekke, I saw some old stone fragments that looked as if once they had been part of an earlier structure, maybe a church. My guide introduced me to an elder man who lives in a recently built circular meeting place next to the mosque. The old man, I was told, had spent 12 years in prison during the Communist era simply because he was a Bektashi adherent. Some years ago I showed my friend Bejtulla Destani, an academic from Kosovo, pictures in a book by Albert Mahuzier who visited Albania in the early 1960s, in the years before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion. The book included a photograph of the imam or priest of the tekke in Gjirokastër. Without hesitating, Bejtulla said that it was most likely that that man would have been killed by Hoxha’s people soon after 1967.

The visit to the tekke took rather longer than I had anticipated. As we were making our way back to where I had left Lopa, a security man came rushing towards me shouting: “Mister Adam?” I nodded, and he led me not to where I had left my wife, but instead to the Ethnographic Museum, where Lopa was passing the time and also becoming concerned that I might have been kidnapped or worse. After being reunited, I took a look around the museum which was not only interesting on account of its exhibits, but also because it was housed in a very old Ottoman era building.

Our way back to the castle entrance took us past the impressive but incongruous fortress-like building, built in 1982 by the Communists to house a museum or mausoleum to honour Skanderbeg. I did not enter it in 1984, and not on this visit (because it is closed on Mondays). When we emerged from the castle, we stopped by the man selling books. He introduced himself as Professor Baki Dollma (he was related to the Dollma family after whom the tekke is named), a professor of history. Most of his books are in Albanian. We bought a couple that contained some English and were related to the history of Krujë. When he learnt that I also write books, the professor became very friendly, and kept addressing me as ‘Professor’.

We left the amiable professor, and returned to our car. I turned the ignition key, and nothing happened. I tried several times, and then assumed that we had been given a dud hire car. I rang Enterprise, and explained the situation, and was told that someone would ring me back in a few minutes. When this happened, I was asked if I had used the remote control. I told the person on the ‘phone that I had not the remotest idea of what she was talking about. I was told to look under the driver’s seat where I would find a little box on a cable, and that I should always press a blue button on it before starting the car. It worked. However, it would have been helpful to have known about this security feature when we took possession of the vehicle.”

 

Enjoyed the extract? Then read more!  Buy a copy ofREDISCOVERING ALBANIAby Adam Yamey. It is available from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and as an e-book on Kindle

Postage stamps in Albania

TIRANA Skand Sq with House of Culture and mosque

 

Recently, I read a blog (Click here) written by an Australian, who has visited North Korea twice. On one of his trips, he visited a museum or exhibition of postage stamps, many of which depict important leaders of the country. Given that it is against the law to deface pictures of these people, he wondered how careful postal officials would have to be when they cancel the stamps with the rubber stamps used for franking. One false move and the great leder’s face might become defaced. In that case, the postal official would risk punishment. This story reminded me of something that I observed in an Albanian post office when I was visting Albania in 1984. In those days, Albania was even more isolated from the outside world than North Korea and it was governed by a stern, repressive regime led by the dictator Enver Hoxha.

This excerpt from my book  Albania on my Mind describes what I saw:

I wrapped my books into a number of parcels, addressed them, and then began leaving the hotel to visit Tirana’s main post office. The Australian, who was travelling with us, spotted me in the lobby and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he askedwhether he could accompany me to the post office, as he,working as he did for the Australian postal service, was curious to see how things were done by the Albanian post…

… The clerk behind the counter in the Tirana post office offered no objection to the way that I had packed my parcels. He weighed them and then gave me numerous stamps to stick on them. I stuck them on and returned the parcels one by one. The clerk examined each of them to make sure that I had stuck the right combination of stamps on each packet.

Suddenly, he stopped, looked up at me, then at the parcel, before pointing at one of the stamps. In my haste, I had stuck it on upside down. He tore the stamp off the
parcel, and then replaced it the right way up, pointing at the portrait on it whilst saying:
Enver Hoxha.”
The Australian, who was watching this with wide-open eyes,
turned to me and said:
You know, it’s completely illegal to remove stamps from postage. It’s against all international postal rules.”

I did not know what to say, but admired the respect that even a humble postage stamp could inspire in one of Enver’s subjects.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND 

is available

on Amazon by clicking   HERE

Picture shows Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania, in 1984

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!