Albanian Independence Day

You may have missed it – I very nearly did myself – but Wednesday 28 November marked the 100th Anniversary of the emergence of Albania as an independent nation. OK, Albania may not be a country that makes a loud beep on your international radar. Its population, hovering on either side of three million, depending on which source you look at, undoubtedly ranks it among the minnows of Europe. If you have any mental image of the country at all, chances are it’s not awfully positive. Perhaps you’ve seen the “Taken” movies, where ex-CIA agent Liam Neeson single-handedly dispatches an extended family of spectacularly incompetent Albanian bad guys intent on killing him along with his lissom wife and daughter.
Well, I admit it – I do empathise with small countries struggling to make a splash in the ocean of world opinion. Coming as I do from a nation whose population is creeping towards the five million mark, I know what it’s like. ‘Oh, you come from Auckland – California, right?’ or more commonly, when someone picks the accent, ‘So, what part of Australia are you from?’Perhaps that’s another reason I have a soft spot for Turkey. Not that we can compare in terms of land area (about one-third) or population (one-sixteenth), but no one knows much about either of us.
Love Albania 🙂
By chance I have a young Albanian colleague at work who proudly informed me of Wednesday’s importance in the Albanian national consciousness. I use that phrase because Miranda herself comes from Kosovo, and there is a significant Albanian diaspora in many European and major US cities, who have, apparently, been celebrating somewhat noisily in the past week. Miranda is the second ethnic Albanian I have come to know quite well while living in Istanbul. The other, Dritan, hosted me for a few days on a work-related visit to the Albanian capital Tirana a couple of years ago. I can’t say how typical these two are of their race, but I can say they are two of the most intelligent, talented, hard-working, sincere and honest young people you could hope to meet. Unlike us New Zealanders, born with the God-given gift of English as our native language, Albanians struggle with the harsh truth that no one much wants to learn their tongue. Perhaps that’s why these two seem to have a gift for learning others – French, Italian, English, Serbian, Turkish, Russian . . .
Anyway, as I said, I had the opportunity to visit their beautiful country in January 2010. It’s always better to see a new country with a local guide, especially when you don’t know the language. Albanian at least belongs to the Indo-European family, which perhaps makes it easier for us than Turkish – but I didn’t pick up much in my three days there, apart from learning that ‘Albania’ bears no resemblance whatsoever to the word the natives use for their own country: Shqiperie! Still, the Germans have to put up with us calling them ‘Germans’, so they’re in good company I guess. But not to digress, Dritan and his family made me wonderfully welcome, and I had the opportunity to see three cities, Tirana itself, Shkodra and Vlore.
Dip into travel books and websites about Albania; you’ll find they all mention the scenic beauty, the mountains, beaches . . . and the flora and fauna, which apparently represent one of the last remnants of primeval Europe, its extensive forests providing habitats for wolves, bears, the almost extinct European lynx, and the golden eagle, Albania’s national symbol. Well, I’m proud of our kiwi, of course, but an eagle is something else, isn’t it! Still, that’s another thing we New Zealanders have in common with Albania – a small population and minimal industrial development have some advantages in terms of preserving nature. Two of my enduring memories of the country, apart from the marvellous hospitality of the people, are of the majestic mountains. My first sight of them was as my plane approached Tirana from the Adriatic coast. And later, dining with my hosts at a restaurant beside Lake Shkodra as a full moon rose behind snow-capped peaks on the far shore, turning the still waters to a sea of silver.
As my grandmother used to tell us kids, every cloud is lined with silver, and its natural beauties must be the silver lining for a country that has had more than its share of cloud cover over the years. Albania achieved independent statehood in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire was entering its last years, but if its people had thought they would be left alone to determine their own destiny, they were to be sorely disappointed. Like their neighbour Greece eighty years previously, they were thoughtfully provided with a king from the extensive aristocracy of Germany – William of Vied. During the First World War they were invaded by Greece and later by Italy, regaining independence for another spell in the 20s and 30s, when a gentleman by the name of Ahmet Bey Zogu seems to have played a pivotal part.  This multi-faceted character apparently got himself elected to office once or twice, participated in a couple of military coups on the winning, then the losing side, ending up in a royal role as King Zog the First (to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a Zog the Second), before being finally sent packing when Mussolini’s Italians mussoled in in 1939. After the Italians surrendered, the Germans moved in till the end of hostilities in 1945. Perhaps these experiences help to explain why Albanians chose a singularly isolationist road of their own in the chaos that enveloped Eastern Europe when peace finally broke out.
Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with the iron hand of ultra pure communism for forty years until his death in 1985. So pure was his dogma that, in his eyes, post-Stalinist Soviet Russia lacked doctrinal credibility, and he threw in his lot with Red China. The country that, after 1990, emerged blinking into the brave new world of capitalism triumphant, was, as one might imagine, somewhat behind the developed world in the trappings of material modernity. Average per capita income is still among the lowest in Europe[1], the urban architecture of Tirana itself has an Eastern bloc austerity, and the beaches are mostly free of five-star hotels and holiday villages – which could, of course, be seen by some as an advantage.
For the present, Albania’s independence looks fairly secure. Capitalist development, for better and worse, is under way, and one of the things that struck me in Tirana (apart from the ubiquity of Mercedes Benz motor cars) was the vibrant café scene – a sure sign of post-modern urban sophistication. Other things that caught my attention were the frequency of Turkish Muslim names among the people, and the large mosque occupying a strategic spot in Tirana’s main square – reminders that Albania was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly five centuries, from 1431 until the Conference of London brought formal recognition of independence in 1913.
The initial conquest was apparently a protracted process, drawn out by the pugnacious determination of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Albania’s very own Alexander the Great, who organised resistance to Ottoman military power for thirty-five years, before the end came in 1478. Even then, he might have been successful if the promised assistance from Papal Europe had shown up.  Albanian relations with the rest of Europe, it seems, have long been problematic.
Nevertheless, having finally come under Ottoman suzerainty, Albanians seem have taken to their new situation with a will. It is said that more than two dozen Grand Viziers of the Empire were of Albanian extraction, including several members of the Köprülü family, who served with distinction during the glory days of Ottoman power. The majority of their countrymen apparently converted to Islam at this time, which accounts for those names I found familiar on my visit.
But how to account for the name ‘Albania’? Even allowing for our English tendency to mangle unfamiliar words from other languages, it’s hard to see how the local name could have been mutilated to that extent. Admittedly, even with a modicum of good will, it’s not easy to make an Anglo-Saxon tongue do ‘Shqiperie’. My researches showed that ‘Albania’ owes its origins to Medieval Latin, and seems to have been applied fairly indiscriminately to remote places of minimal geopolitical significance. Scotland, the land of my fathers (and mothers) picked up that label at one time in its history – probably around the time when medieval monks had a monopoly on Western education, and were instructing their students that ‘here be dragons’, and traveling too far in any direction would likely result in your falling off the edge of the world. Anyway, maybe that’s another reason I feel empathy for Albanians. If the monks had known about New Zealand in those days, they’d probably have called it Albania too.
Well, I’m sorry I missed the centennial celebrations. If I’d heard in advance, I’d have been tempted to head off to Tirana with a bottle of duty-free whisky and spend the evening with Dritan’s family. I’ll bet it would have been a good night!

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