Mu­sine Kokalari and the Al­ba­nian Si­lence

The London Magazine - - ROBERT WILTON -

Al­ba­nia’s most dis­tin­guished woman writer spent the last decades of her life as a street sweeper. ‘We were very iso­lated from ev­ery­one else,’ Mu­sine Kokalari said in a se­cretly-recorded ac­count. ‘They would say no more than “hello” to us, and that was it.’ Her se­cret po­lice file con­tains a re­port that she has ‘ex­changed two or three words’ with two other women in the street, and the in­for­mant is tasked to re­port if they meet again and what they say. Her pre­co­cious dis­tinc­tion – in lit­er­a­ture, in pol­i­tics, in ethnog­ra­phy, and as a woman in so­ci­ety – was swal­lowed up by the ig­no­rance and fear essen­tial to Europe’s most iso­lated and ex­treme com­mu­nist regime.

The writer-politi­cian Malëshova died a ware­house­man. His fu­neral party com­prised one rel­a­tive and two se­cret po­lice­men. No­to­ri­ously, if any­one dared speak to him, Malëshova would pinch his lips with his fin­gers. No one could be trusted. No word could be trusted. To say any­thing was to risk mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion and be­trayal.

The si­lence is a void which, three decades af­ter the fall of com­mu­nism and dur­ing Kokalari’s cen­te­nary year, Al­ba­nia ex­plores and fills but dif­fi­dently.


The first decades of Mu­sine Kokalari’s life as­cended and ac­cel­er­ated with op­ti­mism and pos­si­bil­ity. The Al­ba­nian so­ci­ety into which she was born was in its early stages of evolv­ing, of be­com­ing. Seen from Lon­don, the coun­try was the dark­est and most back­ward ex­trem­ity of Europe, the ‘land of the liv­ing past’ of the English an­thro­pol­o­gist Edith Durham who had ex­plored it at the be­gin­ning of the cen­tury. ‘The wan­derer from the West stands awestruck… filled with vague mem­o­ries of the cra­dle of his race.’

1 This trans­la­tion by Robert Elsie, whose death last year was an ir­re­place­able loss to the preser­va­tion and aware­ness of Al­ba­nian cul­ture, and whose great gen­eros­ity and pa­tience with younger Al­ba­nol­o­gists is un­for­get­table; pushofte lehtë dheu, o mjeshtër. Sub­se­quent trans­la­tion by the au­thor.

Seen from the other end of the con­ti­nen­tal tele­scope, Al­ba­nian pol­i­tics and cul­ture were the prod­uct of a di­verse net­work of ideal­ists and en­thu­si­asts stretch­ing across and be­yond the old Ot­toman Em­pire. Al­ba­ni­ans (proudly) and for­eign­ers (sniffily) have al­ways de­fined Al­ba­nia by its iso­la­tion, an un­touched moun­tain peo­ple speak­ing an un­al­loyed proto-Euro­pean lan­guage. In truth, Al­ba­nia’s is an ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tory of ex­change, of ex­is­tence be­tween oth­ers.

Kokalari was born near the end of First World War in what is now Turkey, but her fam­ily re­turned to their na­tive Al­ba­nia when she was very young. The coun­try had ex­isted barely a decade, and was still more an idea than an ad­min­is­tra­tive re­al­ity. Chopped out of the crum­bling Ot­toman Em­pire in 1912, it was val­i­dated by the Euro­pean pow­ers in 1913, and col­lapsed in 1914. It spent the First World War in a bru­tal limbo, and would have been for­got­ten af­ter­wards but for the spon­sor­ship of Woodrow Wil­son.

Al­ba­nia’s child­hood in the 1920s was a jostling be­tween the most pro­gres­sive and so­phis­ti­cated of Euro­pean ideas and the feu­dal power pol­i­tics of the me­di­ae­val vil­lage, be­tween poet-priests and moun­tain barons. Mu­sine Kokalari was the prod­uct of a cul­tured and rel­a­tively cos­mopoli­tan youth, in which the echoes of the ‘Re­birth’ move­ment of Al­ba­nian cul­tural na­tion­al­ism only a gen­er­a­tion be­fore still res­onated pow­er­fully. Just be­fore her twenty-first birth­day she went to study lit­er­a­ture in Rome. She wrote her the­sis on Naim Frash­eri, one of a tri­umvi­rate of lit­er­ary-po­lit­i­cal brothers, gods of the na­tional awak­en­ing. He was an apt idol for a ide­al­is­tic young writer. As an old woman, in iso­la­tion, she was still con­fid­ing her ven­er­a­tion of him to her note­books.

But if lit­er­ary ide­al­ism had po­lit­i­cal im­pact in the cre­ation of a new coun­try, so too pol­i­tics must over­shadow lit­er­a­ture. By the time Kokalari reached ado­les­cence, a (Turk­ish ed­u­cated, Vi­enna-im­pris­oned) high­land chief­tain named Zo­golli had sur­vived fac­tional chaos, shoot­ing and ex­ile to make him­self Prime Min­is­ter, then Pres­i­dent and even­tu­ally King. King Zog was the first modern ruler of Al­ba­nia who could cred­i­bly claim con­trol over any­thing like the full ter­ri­tory of the coun­try, but he spent his reign try­ing

to bal­ance Italy’s badly-needed in­vest­ment with her grow­ing po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. Shortly af­ter Kokalari ar­rived to study in Mus­solini’s Rome, Italy for­mally an­nexed Al­ba­nia; within a year, the Se­cond World War had be­gun. By the time she ar­rived home in 1941, Al­ba­nia was un­der a pup­pet gov­ern­ment and the war had reached neigh­bour­ing Yu­goslavia and Greece.

Kokalari claimed that she wanted ‘only to write lit­er­a­ture, and to have noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics’. While Al­ba­nia en­dured oc­cu­pa­tion and the side-ef­fects of the Se­cond World War, and Bri­tish parachutists were try­ing to spur re­sis­tance against the Ital­ians and then the Ger­mans, be­tween 1941 and 1944 she pub­lished three vol­umes of folk tales in Tirana.

Yet though her writ­ing was de­lib­er­ately nos­tal­gic, her po­lit­i­cal sense was al­ready acute, ac­tive and pro­gres­sive. The sense of op­por­tu­nity, of a plu­ral­ity of pos­si­bil­i­ties, is hard to imag­ine from the other end of the cold war and the other end of the con­ti­nent. (It was hard to imag­ine for the Bri­tish sol­diers who had parachuted in, try­ing to con­vince Al­ba­nian vil­lage head­men that they needed to pick a side, let alone the dis­tant al­lied one.) But Al­ba­nia’s monar­chy had been short-lived, and Ital­ian oc­cu­pa­tion would prove even shorter, and the Ger­mans were al­ready los­ing the war in Europe, and En­ver Hoxha’s par­ti­sans had yet to be­come as pre­dom­i­nant or as ab­so­lutist as they would prove. Al­ba­nia was a state half-formed, and for a brief hope­ful mo­ment, in the eye of war’s hur­ri­cane, po­lit­i­cal and po­et­i­cal ideal­ists had the chance to flour­ish. ‘This word na­tion­al­ism on its own can’t cap­ture the hearts of the peas­ants and the work­ers,’ Kokalari in­sisted to a po­lit­i­cal ac­quain­tance, ‘even as a false hope. Stripped bare, the word na­tion­al­ism be­longs to the past, while the fu­ture de­mands so­cial and eco­nomic change’. In 1943 Kokalari drafted the pro­gramme of a new So­cial Demo­cratic Party, and was re­spon­si­ble for its news­pa­per, Voice of Free­dom. As well as an in­de­pen­dent united eth­nic Al­ba­nia, the party pro­gramme em­pha­sized so­cial jus­tice and po­lit­i­cal free­dom.

In a place that had had pol­i­tics and politi­cians for no more than a gen­er­a­tion, and re­mained pa­tri­ar­chal, the promi­nence of this woman in her twen­ties was re­mark­able. Per­haps the lack of a po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion helped. Al­ba­nia

was young, and volatile, and hun­gry for in­flu­ences. With fas­cism as the enemy, pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics was more ap­pe­tiz­ing. But the same lack of po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion made easy the rapid suc­cess of the com­mu­nis­tic par­ti­san move­ment led by En­ver Hoxha.

Al­ba­nia’s in­su­lar ex­per­i­ment in back­woods Stal­in­ism would even­tu­ally crum­ble with the rest of the East­ern Euro­pean regimes, at the end of the 1980s: a brit­tle oli­garchy of old men who had been deft enough and medi­ocre enough to sur­vive four decades of purges. To­day, the move­ment’s op­ti­mistic youth can only be glimpsed on the walls of one room of the Na­tional Gallery in Tirana: some of the so­cial­ist-re­al­ist pic­tures are glo­ri­ous, with cheek-bones like Al­ba­nian moun­tains and colours fired by the na­tional pro­gramme of elec­tri­fi­ca­tion; some, in their adopted ap­proved style, are very bad in­deed. They all cap­ture the en­ergy of the move­ment, its pre­tence at univer­sal pop­u­lar­ity, its syn­thetic hope. In 1944 the par­ti­san move­ment proved un­stop­pable: it had hus­banded its strength dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion, re­fus­ing Bri­tish prod­ding to­wards an ac­tive at­tri­tional guer­rilla cam­paign, un­til the mo­ment when Ger­many’s fight­ing sap be­gan to with­draw to­wards its core and the par­ti­sans could launch north­wards over the coun­try and fill the void; it of­fered enough so­cial­ism and op­ti­mism to inspire a peo­ple who had no al­ter­na­tive model of suc­cess­ful democ­racy to fall back on; it was ide­o­log­i­cally co­her­ent, stiff­ened by some dis­creet guid­ance from Yu­goslav com­rades, driven, fo­cused, and – in out-of-the­way lit­tle mas­sacres – ruth­less.

The do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion to the par­ti­sans was in­ter­mit­tently heroic, but neg­li­gi­ble. The only other armed groups were a pre­dom­i­nantly ru­ral and north­ern gag­gle, whose in­co­her­ence was con­firmed by the di­ver­sity of la­bels at­tached to them, whose ide­ol­ogy was lim­ited to general and di­verse in­cli­na­tions to­wards the way things used to be, and whose un­doubted hero­ism was burned out in early half-cocked re­bel­lions or ex­ile. That left Mu­sine Kokalari and her like: a tiny class ed­u­cated enough to be able to per­ceive more than ba­sic sur­vival, and op­ti­mistic enough to be­lieve that plu­ral­ism was pos­si­ble. In Novem­ber 1944 two of Kokalari’s brothers were shot by ‘lib­er­a­tion sol­diers’. She her­self was ar­rested a day later

and in­ter­ro­gated, ac­cused of pro­vok­ing dis­sent by her ad­vo­cacy of the So­cial Demo­cratic move­ment. In elec­tions at the end of 1945, the largely un­op­posed com­mu­nists won 93% of the vote, and all of the seats in the new Peo­ple’s As­sem­bly.


‘What­ever pres­sure may have been brought to bear prior to the elec­tions, dur­ing the vot­ing no in­tim­i­da­tion what­ever was no­tice­able’, runs the re­port from the Bri­tish Mil­i­tary Mis­sion now in the UK Na­tional Archives. In 1945, as to­day, the lead­ers of Al­ba­nia had ac­cepted in­ter­na­tional ob­servers of their elec­tion, as a handy ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion:

In the North an air of bore­dom and be­wil­der­ment pre­vailed on vot­ing day; in the South there was a cheer­ful at­mos­phere and in some lo­cal­i­ties drink­ing and danc­ing… It be­came ap­par­ent a week be­fore the Elec­tions that the Op­po­si­tion lacked the courage, pro­gramme, or­gan­i­sa­tional pow­ers, unity and fi­nally the time to ex­press it­self in any way.

Buried in the com­pla­cency and gen­er­al­i­sa­tion was Mu­sine Kokalari’s supreme act of de­fi­ance, dis­tinc­tion and courage. In Novem­ber 1945, in an at­mos­phere of sus­pi­cion and fear and hope­less­ness de­scribed pow­er­fully in her se­cret ac­count, a di­verse group of non-com­mu­nists met furtively to dis­cuss their predica­ment as elec­tions loomed. On their be­half, Kokalari drafted and put her name to an ap­peal to the al­lies to push for a post­pone­ment of the elec­tions, to give the var­i­ous op­po­si­tion groups time to muster cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tives to the com­mu­nists. The note was passed to the Bri­tish and the Amer­i­cans and, tak­ing a fur­ther risk, Kokalari pushed the point in a meet­ing with a Bri­tish of­fi­cer.

But this phase of the un­der­whelm­ing his­tory of Bri­tish at­tempts to in­flu­ence Al­ba­nia ac­cord­ing to some ex­ter­nal prin­ci­ple or goal was end­ing. Just as Europe looks dif­fer­ent from its op­po­site cor­ner, so does its his­tory. Bri­tain had con­sis­tently failed to per­suade any of the fac­tions in Al­ba­nia of the

du­bi­ous propo­si­tion that they should pick a side in the world war, and risk their ex­is­tence by early cam­paigns against the Ger­mans as a con­tri­bu­tion to the al­lied ef­fort rather than bid­ing their time and con­cen­trat­ing on their own civil war. At every stage the Bri­tish had pulled back from tak­ing a de­ci­sive po­si­tion, for fear that it would ac­cel­er­ate some un­de­sired re­ac­tion – Ital­ian en­try to the war, the fall of Greece, open civil war in Al­ba­nia – which in the end hap­pened any­way and was probably in­evitable. By the end of 1945 Bri­tain was try­ing to ad­just to the new Al­ba­nia; by the end of 1946 re­la­tions had been bro­ken for good.

Even­tu­ally, Bri­tain could do noth­ing but bur­nish its role as spec­ta­tor with the delu­sion that, one way or an­other, Bri­tish in­flu­ence had been de­ci­sive: the vain hope that Bri­tish prompt­ing and sup­port could per­suade the par­ti­sans to a more ac­tive role be­came the re­gret­ful myth that Bri­tish sup­port had en­abled the par­ti­san vic­tory in the civil war; a few years later, the fan­tasy that in­fil­trat­ing a few hand­fuls of Bri­tish- and Amer­i­can-trained Al­ba­nian ex­iles might top­ple the com­mu­nist regime be­came the as­ser­tion that the mis­sion had only failed be­cause of a Bri­tish dou­ble-agent, Philby, rather than be­cause of its in­her­ent in­com­pe­tence and fu­til­ity.

As Kokalari said later, the Bri­tish and Amer­i­cans could at least have demon­strated that multi-party elec­tions were im­por­tant, and that op­po­si­tion was in prac­tice ob­structed. But she was an in­con­ve­nient anom­aly, some­thing to be swept un­der the car­pet as the for­eign­ers tried to ad­just to the new re­al­ity. (The clum­si­ness was mir­rored in the early 1990s, when the western rush to sup­port any­thing anti-com­mu­nist in Al­ba­nia led to the val­i­da­tion of peo­ple and be­hav­iours with short-term ap­peal but dis­as­trous long-term con­se­quences for the sta­bil­ity and po­lit­i­cal style of the coun­try.) In the re­port on the 1945 elec­tions, Bri­tain’s in­abil­ity to do any­thing about what was hap­pen­ing in Al­ba­nia was masked by el­e­gant dis­dain for the op­po­si­tion no-show. Mu­sine Kokalari – and the pos­si­bil­ity of democ­racy in Al­ba­nia – be­came an anony­mous aside, on a flimsy page in Kew. ‘A small and un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive clique signed a last minute pe­ti­tion to the Bri­tish and Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ments to post­pone and guar­an­tee the elec­tions. But the dis­grun­tled el­e­ments in the State did not pub­licly con­test the elec­tions.’

Mu­sine Kokalari dis­ap­peared into the si­lence. She was ar­rested in Jan­uary 1946, just one among many in a whole­sale as­sault on in­tel­lec­tu­als and in­con­ve­nients. It is a fa­mil­iar pat­tern; per­haps Al­ba­nia’s fragility made the long-term dam­age greater. Kokalari’s speech at her trial was a tri­umph of de­fi­ance, of stub­born­ness in the face of ig­no­rance and il­le­git­i­macy. The most fa­mous pho­to­graph of her was taken at this apoth­e­o­sis: the clothes are rough and mono­tone, the plain belted dress and the jacket and the scarf that frames her head; large eyes gaze up past the prim­i­tive microphone to­wards her judges, with some­thing like in­so­lence. A con­trast with ear­lier pic­tures of her, their soft fo­cus Sun­day-best pret­ti­ness, the sim­ple cos­tume and dark beauty make this fi­nal im­age some­how time­less, and iconic.

She was sen­tenced to twenty years in prison. In the street out­side the court, she was ha­rassed by a warmed-up crowd. She served eigh­teen years, and in 1964 was trans­ferred to in­tern­ment in the north­ern Al­ba­nian town of Rrëshen. Even to­day, af­ter a gen­er­a­tion of democ­racy and cap­i­tal­ism, and served ac­ci­den­tally by the im­pres­sive high­way to Kosovo, Rrëshen is a bleak place: a tum­ble of plain bar­rack-like build­ings, be­side a mostly dry river bed. Fifty years ago it was a for­got­ten pur­ga­tory, a place where life was scarce and ra­tioned, hid­den up a val­ley in an iso­lated, inse­cure and ever-sus­pi­cious land. Kokalari lived alone, watched, haunted. A rare visi­tor to the town who asked af­ter her was warned not to speak to her; her dossier has de­tails of her slight­est ex­changes with oth­ers, and ex­haus­tive in­struc­tions for how the move­ments and opin­ions of this aban­doned old woman are to be tested; one re­port won­ders whether a sus­pi­cious move­ment of her coat, and her car­ry­ing an um­brella, might not por­tend some an­ti­s­tate ac­tiv­ity. A worker in the town’s tiny li­brary was once phoned by the Sec­re­tary of the lo­cal Party Com­mit­tee who had seen Kokalari sit­ting in front of a pile of books: the ‘de­classed old woman’ must be hus­tled out of the li­brary, for­bid­den to take any­thing to read. ‘For the town, she was like a shadow.’ The en­thu­si­ast for her na­tion’s lan­guage and cul­ture, the ide­al­ist for her peo­ple’s rights and as­pi­ra­tions, the im­age of brave and scorn­ful wom­an­hood who dared to defy her judges: all of these Musines

were buried. In this limbo, sweep­ing the streets, she lived a fur­ther nine­teen years.


Mu­sine Kokalari’s cen­te­nary has been marked with a cer­tain du­ti­ful dili­gence: some ar­ti­cles; some round ta­bles. There’s a school named af­ter her now, and a mu­seum in her home town, and a li­brary - though the li­brary didn’t have any books, like her. But Al­ba­nia’s pre­lim­i­nary at­tempts at com­ing to terms with its com­mu­nist past have been wary, and un­com­fort­able. Many of the or­ga­nized events come down to speeches by old men and women, to each other, bit­ter that their sto­ries and their truths are still un­heard. Whole­sale com­pen­sa­tion for prop­erty seized by the regime would be too ex­pen­sive, and de­ci­sions about prop­erty are too prof­itable to be left to a truly ef­fi­cient and im­par­tial ju­di­cial process. Af­ter the fall of the com­mu­nist regime a few of its sur­viv­ing fig­ure­heads were given short prison sen­tences, but there has been no sys­tem­atic process against those who pros­e­cuted, those who framed, those who judged, those who tor­tured. ‘We know who they are!’ com­plains one speaker at a cen­te­nary con­fer­ence on Kokalari, to an au­di­ence of frus­trated fel­low-sur­vivors. A con­sti­tuted agency is now re­spon­si­ble for manag­ing ac­cess to the old se­cret po­lice files - those that weren’t burnt - but in­ter­est in them is more con­cerned with gos­sip or to­day’s feuds. Al­ba­nia’s brand of para­noid to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism de­pended on ev­ery­one be­ing will­ing to de­nounce their neigh­bour, their friend, or their par­ent. A sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion found it nec­es­sary, or pos­si­ble, to im­ple­ment this. How do you ap­por­tion guilt - what is guilt - when ev­ery­one was com­plicit?

On the foun­da­tions left by the Ot­toman and com­mu­nist so­ci­eties, a wild west fron­tier cap­i­tal­ism has been built. Com­mu­nism made self­ish­ness essen­tial to sur­vive; cap­i­tal­ism has made self­ish­ness essen­tial to suc­ceed. The in­con­ve­nient truths of his­tory are ir­rel­e­vant, un­help­ful, and for­got­ten. In her iso­la­tion, for­bid­den to write pub­licly, watched sus­pi­ciously by ev­ery­one, Mu­sine Kokalari con­fided her ideas and her en­thu­si­asms to dozens of cheap pa­per note­books, sup­ple­mented with reused scraps of

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