Letter from Albania

Nestling in the highlands in the far south of Albania, very near the Adriatic and Ionian seas and less than 10 kilometers from the island of Corfu, Butrinti (the ancient Greek name is Bouthroto) became one of the major maritime and commercial centers of the 4th century BC. Nowadays, there is an International Festival of Theater, already in its sixth year, in Butrinti. Headed by a highly acclaimed Albanian actor-director, Alfred Bualoti, and at a time when competing fundamentalist creeds – radical Islam, evangelical Christianity – seem to be struggling for dominance, this festival had quite an impressive program: Shakespeare from Sofia, Sophocles («Antigone») from Bitola in FYROM, Goldoni from Bucharest, plus «How Mussolini was Defeated by Me» from the National Theater of Tirana, and «Ouzeri Tsitsanis, Pavlou Mela 22» from the National Theater of Northern Greece. Plays were performed in a well-preserved antique amphitheater of the 3rd century BC, which in its glory days would have held an audience of 1,500, next to a temple dedicated to the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius. It is a really impressive place. Yet the splendid vegetation and the proximity of Lake Butrinti prove to be prolific breeding grounds for mosquitos. Rumors insist that the dreaded Asian tiger black-and-white mosquito, Stegomyis albopicta, has found the right place to be endemic. Fortunately we were warned in time by the Greek consul-general in Gjirokaster (Argirokastro in Greek), Yiannis Tziovas, and brought along lots of insect repellents. (More on Argirokastro soon. The novel «Chronicle of the City of Stone» has been my favorite Ismail Kadare story. When it appeared in English, John Updike called it «thoroughly enchanting» in The New Yorker). This July they’ve got theater festival fever in Saranda; Ayii Saranda for the ethnic Greeks who live here and used to be the majority of the population. The postwar communist governments have moved Albanians into such Greek majority areas in the southern regions of the country and moved Greeks out, thus dispersing the Greek community. That is about when the enmity between our two countries started. To understand Greek-Albanian relations you would have to understand the Balkans in the 20th century, and that is something that our educational, political, and media establishments are not about to help us do. As elsewhere in the Balkans, religion is a key to self-identification in Albania. The Ottomans brought Islam here. It was adopted by approximately 70 per cent of the population, the remainder being divided between Orthodoxy, around 20 per cent, and Catholicism, some 10 percent. However, in Albania there is less of a division between the religions than between the two main dialect groups, the Ghegs of the North and the Tosks of the south,» explains Alfred Bualoti, who comes from the south and does not seem to fancy the adjective «Balkan.» He tries to be nice to us Greeks. «Greece is in essence more a Mediterranean rather than a Balkan country,» he argues. They loved us in Butrinti! I mean, they loved Giorgos Skambardonis’s play «Ouzeri Tsitsanis» set in 1943 during the German occupation, with a live orchestra rendering famous rebetika songs composed by the great folk song composer, Vassilis Tsitsanis. Even for the young audience, to whom theater might seem boring, the 120 Greek minutes sounded like a celebration. After failing to build socialism «With a pickaxe in one hand, and a rifle in the other» as the Hoxza regime slogan propagandized, Albanians have discovered the pleasures of owning cars (mainly older Mercedes Benzes), wearing beards and running private businesses. Already dozens of new hotels are being thrown up in nearby Saranda – «Too many people are laundering their money that way,» insists a local lawyer -, a popular resort for Albanians. Already there are fears that uncontrolled development could irreparably damage one of the world’s most spectacular rocky landscapes. Fortunately, the archaeological treasure trove has been declared a world heritage site. No new buildings are allowed here. There are already many day-trippers from Corfu. There are several ferries and a flying dolphin from Corfu to Saranda. I heard of a ferry that twice a week goes on to Himara, the main small town on the Albanian Riviera. Only beware: Should you reach Saranda or Himara and get a taxi be sure to haggle! Most drivers speak better Greek than English though. Could Albania be the next tourist paradise of sun, sea mountains, lakes and archeological sites? Hardly in the next 5-10 years, although for now, at least, hotel prices are about half those in Greece. I was there only days after last week’s elections, where about 2.8 million Albanians could choose from 22 political parties and coalitions running for the 140-seat parliament. Since the fall of communism in 1991, elections in this country, where corruption has been more the rule than the exception in political life, have been plagued by irregularities, hard-fought protests and claims of fraud. Although European observers also said some days ago that the polls had been marred by several irregularities, this time around things seemed better. The reason is that these elections are seen as a crucial test of the country’s ambition to join the European Union. Optimistic diplomats see an eventual membership, possibly within 10 years.

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