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Albanian Imlosion
CHAPTER XII

CULTURE



Year: 1991, AD., in the month of June.

Venue: "Encyclopaedic" Publishin House.

Background: Proclamation of Freedom of the Press.




June 1991

Founding of the first Fan S. Noli Association (it has ceased to exist)

Founding of the HUMANIST newspaper, as publication of the association



A meeting was set up in the office of the Encyclopaedic Publishing House where Zef and I were still working, in order to discuss how to collect enough money to pay for the printing of our newspaper the HUMANIST. We finally decided we had to share the expenditure fifty-fifty, and Rinush and Frida Idrizi (husband and wife) said they would look after the rest, that is, getting a fair deal with the printers.

Rinush wrote the editorial of the first issue. The rest of us contributed articles and translations and bits and pieces to fill in the empty spaces.

A few days later we had the galley proof. It looked fine. We were excited and pleased to see our own ideas in print for the first time in our life.

Everyone of us was not new in the printing and book industry. We knew every trick of the trade and were fully alert to the difficulties and pitfalls. The only hiccup was that we had never run a newspaper before.

It does not look bad at all, at least at this stage. If the printers manage to stick to this plate, we'll have as good a newspaper as anyone else. Although it is an upper-crust paper, I hope we'll sell enough copies to keep us going for the next issue in two weeks' time, which will be less costly than this one, - I hastened to say.
Not bad, really, - said Zef with a barely noticeable sceptical tone.
We'll have to get a distributor and a newspaper boy or two, - said Frida, matter of fact, who understood the difficulties of the commercial aspects much better than the rest of us. She was director of the Publishin House then.
Three days later Rinush and Frida came with the good news that the 4 thousand copies of the HUMANIST were packed and ready for the distributor.

We went immediately to Zogu i Zi and stored the packs on the upper floor of a restaurant which a Kosovar friend of Rinush's was in the process of rebuilding.

After so many difficult trips upstairs we were exhausted and finally when each pack was safe in the upper floor, we took one hundred copies each to give to our friends and acquaintances.

Later that day Frida came back to us with reassuring news. The distributor had hired three newsboys who had accepted, albeit reluctantly, to take five hundred copies of our newspaper each. Those days they were the busiest people in the capital of the country and were difficult to negotiate with.

In the streets of Tirana we would have our ideas tested. We were enthusiastic though not quite sure how it would work. Nevertheless, in the early days of the freedom of the press we had made the decision and taken the most difficult step.

We remained in the office for a few hours, which seemed ages, fidgeting around and getting into each other's way, doing nothing in particular. Then we decided we had given the newsboys plenty of time to put our newspaper in a nice spot which could catch the eye of the passers-by and went out to see for ourselves how the sale was doing.

The first newsboy was posted on the pavement just outside the pastry-shop close to the Publishing House, by the Ring Road. With scores of newspapers laid on the open ground in front of the pastry-shop, each with a piece of broken brick or something to keep them down against the wind, and the young person standing tall at the edge, we were at a loss where to look first.

We approached the mosaic of print on the pavement cautiously, trying to attract as little attention as possible. We did not want to look too eager.

After making a full circle of the patch of newspaper ground without disturbing the young man, we approached the area from a different direction and started looking with a system, row by row.

Where on earth is our HUMANIST!


At last I saw it staring at me. Then, suddenly I realised something terrible. I looked back to make sure that I was not seeing things. No, there it was in big black strange letters which anyone would read as COMMUNIST. I, who knew that I was looking for the HUMANIST, mistook it for the COMMUNIST. Think of the half illiterate and the careless passer-buy. No one would ever read that title properly.

I called Zef aside and disclosed to him my unpleasant "discovery".

That day the three newsboys reported no sales for the HUMANIST.

The first week went by and we learned that only fifty copies all in all had been sold. Fifty out of 4 thousand copies.

We had no choice. We pleaded with the newsboys to keep them for another week or so, to give it a chance, in the hope that people would realise their mistake.

With all our experience we had overlooked the thing that sells a newspaper, the title. Damn our Gothic letters! HUMANIST.

The people interested in a communist newspaper had plenty of other choices, Zėri i popullit, to mention just one, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country. They would not have to switch to our COMMUNIST - HUMANIST for that purpose.

I am tempted to say now that no matter how the passers-by read the title COMUNIST - HUMANISTI, our newspaper would not have sold anyway. Sure, the mistake was bad, but that was not all.

We met again three weeks later to see how much we owed the printers and distributors. We paid our bills and forgot our HUMANIST.

The Fan S. Noli Association did not fare better, either. Without its newspaper, the association could not be what we meant it to be. We dismissed the association after the only meeting which we managed to organise in one of the smaller corridors, converted into conference room in the upper floor of the Palace of Culture.

Those times witnessed the emergence with a triumph of the newspaper RILINDJA DEMOKRATIKE, and scores of others with less success. Every other day we could see new titles appear for a couple of weeks and disappear for good, like our HUMANIST had done.

The Encyclopaedic Publishing House was then caught in the grip of the free market reform. The book industry of the country, in general, was in a critical situation, and the worst hit were the difficult publications covering fundamental studies in culture, history, and sciences, the so-called traditional publication which until one year ago were done with money from the state budget.

As long as the whole country had concentrated its publications in three publishing houses ("8 November", "Naim Frashėri" and the "School Text Books") their directors had had no money worries. But the new times brought new ideas into this industry and the directors, who had had no problem finding enough money to pay the printers and the distributors, found themselves in a predicament.

It began to dawn on the people who worked in the "serious" book sector that they had to change their style of work. It was then that the word "sponsor" and "sponsorship" began to be mentioned more and more frequently in the Albanian book industry, especially by the young entrepreneurial private publishers.

New publishing houses began to emerge all over the country. Tirana was no longer the exclusive capital of the Albanian book industry. Private publishers were hard up for office space and most of them started work from home, which were everything in one - storage rooms, conference rooms, financial department, press office - until they moved into the old state publishing houses from which they rented office space.

The book-shops had a difficult time, too. Whereas the publishing houses found the ways to cope with the changed situation, the book-shops became a liability of the Ministry of Culture which was at a loss what to do with them. For many years they were neither privatised nor declared state concern.

The situation was not better with the many artistic, scientific, cultural and research institutions all over the country - and there were hundreds of them - which until then were sustained with money from the state budget.

Many who were employed in those institutions found they could not carry on as of old and volunteered to resign in the hope that they could do something else to earn a living. Some of them became street peddlers, some went in for the lucrative money-change business, some fled abroad.

All this was accompanied with discontent and preoccupation, because the change of life style was taking a toll on the people who were not prepared for a different life-style. Most of them had lived under a system in which they got their fortnightly pay regularly, no matter what they did to justify their pay and how they performed. When they understood that the State would no longer fund their activities, they felt betrayed, frustrated and angry.

Personnel was cut down to the bare necessary numbers. The first to be asked to go were the very young and the old in each of the state institutions. The young left in the hope that they would be lucky to get a job in the rising private sector. Some of them applied for scholarships abroad, especially at the American Cultural Centre which offered Carnegie and Fulbright scholarships for post-university studies in the United States. Soros Foundation in Tirana sponsored one year studies at the American universities in Prague, in Budapest and in Sofia.

The older people knew that they had to retire and get the meagre pension.

Whereas the industrial workers were paid 80% of their basic salary for staying at home, the intellectuals of the country had to be content with far less.

The professional theatres, ballet troupes, the State Ensemble of Folk Songs and Dances went through the same convulsion.

All this happened in the period between 1991-1992 and was further consolidated in 1993 and afterwards.


* *

The American Cultural Centre



As we struggled with daily hardships and tried to make both ends meet with the measly salary we could get by working in the publishing house, one day of spring 1992 word came round from the American Cultural Centre in Tirana that translators were needed to put into Albanian a number of books for the Tirana University.

The list of translators included all the most experienced people in the field. The American Cultural Centre, a branch of the Vienna headquarters, had an ambitious plan to translate from English into Albanian reference books for the Albanian schools of law and social studies and the books had to be in print in September for the opening of the new school year.

Zef and I had no difficulty in working together. We decided to take Georgio Santori's "Democracy Revisited" in two volumes.

The Centre wanted the translations in computer disks, so that the printers could skip the old-fashioned Lynotype setting.

We obliged. Fortunately we had started to learn how to work on basic word processors and we thought we could manage, but just.

For three months, each afternoon of the weekdays, and every Saturday and Sunday, we went to the Centre, which was housed at the PYRAMID, the former mausoleum of Enver Hoxha. We worked steadily in a small but comfortable office next to the office of the head of the Centre, Miss Cynthia Caples.

The only inconvenience was the frequent power breaks, until the Centre installed a Diezel electricity generator, and the loud gas releases that were heard from the office next door. There was no air conditioning then and no windows so we left the doors open all the time.

Towards the end of July we heard that the Centre had announced that there were 48 Fulbright scholarships and a few Carnegie Endowment awards available for Albanian post-graduates. The candidates had to sit the TOELF examination and Zef and I were among the examining board. About two hundred candidates applied immediately.

While working at the Centre we noticed that the place was quite busy. We were surprised to see what kind of people approached the American Cultural Centre in order to get a visa to the United States, or who applied for a scholarship for himself or for his own children. We wondered at the boldness of some individuals, who were until the day before notoriously anti-American. How could they perform a U-turn so quickly! Or did they? We also wondered at their quick and easy success with the Americans.

At the end of the TOELF only a score or so candidates were admitted, not because the rest had failed the exam, but because the places available for Albanian post-graduates were reduced.

Amongst them there were a few names that stank.


...


One September afternoon we stopped work earlier and went out for a coffee. Obviously the news about who had obtained the Fulbright scholarships had upset us a little and we could not help voicing our surprise that most of the accepted candidates were hard-line communists, lackeys and minions of the dictatorship, individuals with a famous communist track record.

It is not just unfair. It stinks. Not even a single one from the downtrodden, from the underdogs of yesterday was good enough for the American scholarship!
Obviously not.
I agree that the sons and daughters of the former prisoners of conscience did not have the same chances as the sons and daughters of the Party and State functionaries. Yet, it is strange that not a single one of the score of them who sat for the exam has qualified.
The Americans are trying to be impartial in their own rough way. This is what they call even-handedness.
I agree that they have a reputation for lack of touch and understanding of fine issues. But this is not a case of drawing too fine a line. What worries me is rather the fact that nearly all the winning candidates are those who had an easy time until yesterday. It is not just a matter of American's lacking finesse. There is something more to it.
I should think so too.

Those days as we worked we kept our eyes open to the interesting goings-on in the American Cultural Centre. We were made more and more aware of the activity of another Centre - the Open Society for Albania, or, as it was to be known amongst Albanians, the Soros Foundation.

Soros Foundation and the American Cultural Centre shared the same building. It was a convenient choice of venue for both, many people said. The committees of Soros Foundation were staffed with a "defectors" from the DP.

There's a nice team of anti-democrats for you..., - one of my friends told me one day.
Don't be envious, - I told him mildly. - Thank God that another centre has opened which can do good things for us. They say that the Foundation will publish books, will repair schools, will send students fto universities abroad. We should be happy that they have come to help us. I can't put up with the sort of people like you who would try and pick holes in everything.
Sorry, you misunderstood my remarks about both the American Cultural Centre and Soros. I did not question the purpose for which they were set up. I was only pointing out that the sort of people they are working with or helping out are rather questionable.
I know what you mean. You are worried by those who a couple of months ago applied for Party of Labour membership and were refused. They must have been stupid. Or at least they did not have a sense of the time we're living in. How can anyone try and identify himself with the communists when communism is a dirty word all round the world. Their timing was bad. They were not careful, and that's all there is to it. The Party of Labour has its days numbered. I don't blame them for trying to clig their teeth into something while that old ship is still floating. Now that they have realised that the communists are foundering they are trying to reach out of a life-line. They have their sense of survival, don't they? They are the sort of people who cannot see themselves living of the sweat of their brow, like everybody else. It is beneath them to join the dole line, isn't it? They are cut from a different cloth, ah? I am not saying that they had a fabulous life before this change came, however, they were doing much better than the rest of us, the workers, not to mention the farmers.
Don't lump all American Cultural Centre and Soros people in one bag.



Rumours ruled the roost those days.

People had a fresh memory of things of recent past and now they felt free to vent their pent-up anger.

Don't start it again. The more you think of it the worse you are. Especially when you think of a set of people who could ride roughshod on the hard-working. They drove us like slaves.
And do you remember the big shots, I bet you do! Some of them spent all their time fishing or shooting fat game. They had no time to think of the country and the people. They saw it going to the dogs by the day and did not give a dam. The worst thing about them is that the underlings learned the tricks from the few top-shots who bossed everyone around. These latter groups, they were the worst type. They were ruthless.
A rotten apple will rot the whole lot. When Comrade Qirjako heard that Comrade Mehmet had been to the hunting reserve to shoot wild boar, he would order his men to organise a hunting party for him immediately. For, if he didn't, he would feel below the mark for a man of his position. If a member of the Politbureau refurbished his villa at the seaside in a certain French fashion, the rest of the pack would follow suit with their own style. If a Party Secretary ordered a suit from a famous Italian high street shop, the rest of them would send their men round the world to order something better.

Goodness gracious me! They were a nasty lot. But there was worst to come when the co-operative farm team leaders and outstanding drivers were brought in to govern the Party and the State. You know who I mean, don't you? They had hardly shaken the soil from their skin when they started building swimming pools and tennis courts in the grounds of their villas.

God help 'em.


This kind of talk was not always conducted in whispers. People were frustrated with what went on inside of the exclusive residential area for the leadership which was known to everyone in the country as The Block. The very name had something ominous about itself. It was heavily guarded by two visible impressive rows of soldiers in uniform. In addition everyone knew that the plainclothesmen in service duty at the Block outnumbered the soldiers.

And, as if to spite all the dispirited wretched people, it is them again who are at the top of the crest, having an easy ride with the foreigners, Americans and Italians and what not. I don't believe the wise man who said "There will be a ray of sunshine for the poor alleys, too." What a sunshine! If the sunshine is what I see today, I don't want it. I am not a sinner but I cannot help thinking that the Goddess of equality is blindfolded. She never gives to the poor.
Don't be upset, - the interlocutor would refuse that line of argument. - It is true that the offspring of the servants of the regime, the sycophants and the spineless are occupying positions with a high pay in foreign currency at the American Cultural Centre, at the Soros Foundation and the rest. But they are just a handful. Be patient and wait for the day when the Block and the red house are overrun and then you'll see the rats abandon ship in droves. Then, there'll be no more sponging on the country they way they have done.
You don't need me to tell you how they skinned everyone they could. They treated the country as if it were their own feudal feoof. They treated everyone as if we were slaves.

Come June a man would be sent all the way to Lezha to pick the largest water melon fresh from the fields. The huge fruit went into the boot of the car and arrived still fresh to the home of the Party Secretary or the member of the Politbureau.

Every week a man would be sent down to Kamza cattle fattening farm. The man asked the local vet: - Have you the papers ready for the "destruction" of the "sick" calf? - And the best cuts were neatly packed for the boss. The man took for himself what he though he could use, and the entrails were left with the vet and the team leader. That's how it went.

People had eyes and ears. They began to talk too. And they grew bolder when they heard reports of the imminent overthrow of communism in the Eastern Block. The louder the noise about pjerjestroyka and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the more scared the party bosses in Tirana became. Their grip on power grew slack. And the weaker they became the more scared their minions were.

As if by the magic wand they found the water of their life in the American Cultural Centre and the Soros Foundation. In the foreign companies which began to put up their signs and advertisements in Tirana, they found a safe haven. We know who was holding the strings hand when the foreign companies first came into the country. The self-same people in the establishment who had thundered against capitalism were opening the doors of the country to foreign businessmen.





Encyclopaedic Publishing House




What's new with your dictionary? Any chance of getting it in print? - asked an acquaintance of mine, recently appointed head of cultural department of the Soros Foundation.
I have a contract with Frida and I am hoping for the best. But the printers are not in a good mood, - I said.
They have financial worries, can't even pay their electricity bills. The printing of a dictionary of that size is quite a job, and needs a lot of money. The publishers and the printers cannot help you now that the Ministry of Culture is working on a very small budget.
He knew that I was sore on this subject. He knew I had written three dictionaries since 1968 and none was published.

I wanted to see them in print for a number of reasons. First, and that is rather selfish, I had spent years and years of my life on them and the reviewers of the manuscripts had made positive comments about their quality, except for the English-Albanian Dictionary of Set Phrases and Idioms which the reviewers, Mr. Hamlet Bezhani and Ilo Stefanllari, refused on ideological grounds.

I wanted to see them in print not just because they would assist the students and translators, but also because they would put the Albanian language in a good light by showing that it could cope well in a comparison with the English language on a scale that had never been attempted before - a dictionary of 100 000 entries and the smaller one of 50 000 entries, were better than the existing dictionaries, most of which were of the small size (20-25 thousand entries, except for the Italian Albanian Dictionary, by Zef Simoni and Ferdinand Leka, which is of a medium size).

I had a contract with the Encyclopaedic Publishing House for both English-Albanian Dictionaries.

I know the difficulties of the Ministry of Culture and I do not expect my dictionaries to do any better than the rest of costly publications, - I said.
Come round to my office early next week. Meanwhile I will have a look and see whether I can find some spare money. If there is any left at this time of the year, I think I can convince the board to sponsor the publication your larger dictionary. Then we shall see about the rest. Do you have an idea how many copies were planned for it?
Twenty thousand.
How much print paper would be needed?
The technical office estimated that twenty thousand copies would need about 20 tons of paper.
If the number of copies is reduced to ten thousand, it means we'll be looking for ten tons of good quality paper, - he was already speaking in terms of copies and tons of paper, which was very encouraging.
The printing paper is only one fraction of the expenditure, - I said. - I don't have an idea whether the publishing house has any money at all. Frida might be able to convince the printers to accept some sort of understanding by paying them back as the sales of the dictionary go on.
Leave it to me. I'll talk to Frida first. Next week come round to my office to fill an application form for sponsorship.
I found to my pleasant surprise that the Board of the Soros Foundation had made a decision in favour of sponsoring the publishing of the English-Albanian Dictionary by providing 10 tons of print paper.

After many trips to the port of Durrės, finally the paper arrived and reached Tirana in the beginning of 1992 and was stored at the paper storage space of the "Ēajupi" (former "8 Nėntori") Printing Shop, as Frida had directed.

At that time she was in Boston on an 8-month management training course, and Vjollca Shtylla, who as in charge, signed on the delivery of the print paper.

Many months after the arrival of the paper, work on computer type-setting was proceeding at dead-slow speed, sometimes because of the power-breaks, sometimes because of the typists who refused to work for Frida. They said, she was no longer interested in the future of the Publishing House and had started a strange business with a certain Guzzi, a shady Italian dealer in a variety of things.

When Frida left for Boston, the typists abandoned the type-setting of the dictionary altogether.

...

The print paper for the dictionary was spirited away. There are rumour that Soros Foundation is going to take the Publishing House director to court, - I was told on the telephone from Tirana.
What do you mean, spirited away? - I had not heard anything about the theft until then. - You mean stolen? Who did it? The paper was stored at the printing shop.
Do you remember an Italian, a certain Guzzi, the one who rented some office space in the building of the Publishing House? We have a hunch it's him.
I did remember. Guzzi rented nearly all the offices on the third floor of the Publishing House in early 1992. He was in small business, but he had the gift of promising much.

At about the same time as Signor Guzzi established himself comfortably in the Publishing House, the Albanian private publishers had difficulty renting offices, because Frida had driven all of them out of the spacious building, which they hoped to share with her under a renting agreement. The private publishers, all of them former editors of the Encyclopaedic Publishing House, had taken the matter to the Ministry of Culture, but Frida had anticipated their move and succeeded in keeping the whole building for herself.

Soros Foundation had decided to take the Publishing House to court, - my informant said.
What next?
Next I heard that Frida, who had hardly been in the Publishing House for six months after returning from Boston, applied for and got a visa to the United States. And she is there already.
But Soros Foundation is taking the Publishing House to court, not just Frida Idrizi, a physical person, - I said in protest. - Ten tons of print paper, which cost 12 000 US dollars, have disappeared like that and...
Hold on... I've just told you what I have heard. What began as an earnest court case, has subsided and it looks as if no one will take the matter further. The same people who said they would investigate the case in full are now silent. There are those who say that Soros Foundation would not bother for just 12 thousand dollars. But I am worried about the blatant theft and the fact that the thief is allowed to leave the country when the case was due for court proceedings.

Frida, with an American visa on her passport, left the Publishing House in the lurch and fled the country. Ten tons of print paper disappeared and Soros Foundation refuses to investigate the matter in full.

The pages of the manuscripts of the English-Albanian Dictionaries are turning brown. In a few years they can be hardly read. It's a shame that the Albanian students and translators who need a helping tool cannot have it because of similar goings-on. It is a shame that the Albanian language is mentioned as one which cannot compare with the great languages. It is a shame that the Albanian lexicography has only a dictionary of 41 thousand words to show and a medium-sized bilingual dictionary, while the manuscripts of my dictionaries, which would be a credit to our language, are left to rot in the publishing house.