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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Classical



Faik Bey KONITZA 1905

Webdesign J. Groß




The General Appearance of the Country

Those who prefer to spend their lives daydreaming are often afraid of waking up. Their desire for the advancement of their country slowly transforms itself into a starling dream. A long stay abroad puts you into an even deeper sleep and catapults you, body and soul, into a fairer world that has no physical dimension and that is to be found only in your mind. The moment you awaken from your dream, you are startled to find yourself surrounded by ugliness. Your one and only desire is to get back to sleep and to the vivid world you left behind. But it is impossible. When a dream has faded, it can never be brought back.

This is exactly how I felt sixteen years ago. I had done a few things for Albania and was aware that my services to the country were well known, and even held in some esteem. I decided to set off for Albania, convinced that I would find a fairer, more dignified world than the one I had found abroad. My awakening was rude – and ridiculous at the same time. After a few months of erring among sour and unshaven faces, one morning in November 1913, I was handed an “official” ticket in Durrës, surprising in itself because it was still written in Turkish and in the police prose of the day. They ordered me to “shove off and move my ass onto the steamer heading for Brindisi that day because they had no need of my sort there.” (The police would have been surprised if I had told them that I agreed entirely and that they were completely right in stating that there was no need for my sort there). Since we lived in two completely different worlds, with myriad of mountains and oceans between us, what use could they have of me or I of them?

Such wounds never heal entirely and, if they close, they leave behind an eternal mark in the soul. But there is one positive aspect. They serve as a good lesson for later. And such lessons make one stronger and more able to confront the throes of fate.

I was not inebriated last autumn, fifteen years after that ridiculous encounter with the police in Durrës, when I happened to be on my way to Albania again. I was sober, very sober. While waiting in the fair town of Bari, I envisaged the following: that I might be attacked by some unkempt idealist appearing before me or behind me with a pistol in his hand, or that I would be accosted by some student who had taken a big leap straight from kindergarten to university, springing over elementary or secondary school and who, after spending a few years in a café to catch his breath, had learned a basic, few letters of the alphabet. The unnamed upstart lost a rare opportunity to save the motherland, or both worlds, and make himself immortal in annals of history. I made my way onto the steamer and, having said goodbye to the consul general, Mr Mark Kodheli, a lively and competent official of rare humanity who was kind enough to accompany me, and having conveyed my greetings to Mr Kosturi, the son of the national hero Spiro Kosturi, who was third secretary at the legation in Paris and who had come down to Bari with his wife with some goods for the palace, I took up my spacious quarters, got cleaned up and went down for some curious-tasting spaghetti alla marinara.

On the steamer was the secretary of our consulate in Bari. Before making his acquaintance, I had endeavoured to look somewhat sullen and aloof because it occurred to me that he might be one of those “students or “idealists,” but when I observed that he actually knew how to read and write, and more than that, I realised that he was not “idealist” or “student.” What distinguishes an Albanian “student” or “idealist” is either that he is illiterate or that he knows only some of the alphabet, usually about up to the letter G and no further. The letter G seems to be hard to master. It is like a brick wall and you need heavy artillery to break through and proceed beyond it.

I went for a stroll on deck with the secretary of the consulate and the brisk wind of the Adriatic reminded me of the breeze when it rises in Albania. What a difference to my first journey fifteen years ago! In 1913, when the steamer took me across the sea to Albania, my heart was beating fast and my blood was boiling with joy. Now, sober as never before, I journeyed to Albania with neither enthusiasm nor trepidation. I was prepared for anything. I went to bed and fell asleep immediately, a peaceful sleep that lasted until dawn, unperturbed by dreams. I got up, washed, shaved, got dressed and hastened out to enjoy the romantic coastline of Durrës from a distance and the mediaeval towers that embellish the town like jewels on a golden belt. But the towers, where were the towers? Approaching the town, the ship entered the harbour and dropped anchor, but there was no sign of the towers. I questioned one of the officers on board: “What town is this?” “Durrës,” he replied. “Durrës?” I said. “Are you sure? Are you joking?” “No, I’m serious, this is Durrës,” the officer repeated with a smile. I realized that I had indeed arrived in Albania, a country blessed with a thousand beautiful things to see, but trampled on by a mass of people who hate beauty. I later learned that of the eight wondrous towers that gave Durrës a grandeur of its own, two of them had been destroyed in the war (not the fault of the Albanians), and three others had been demolished and carried off at the orders of the mayor of the town. The remaining three are now hidden behind some new buildings constructed around them. Sic transit gloria Durrhachi!

Disturbed but not at all surprised, I went back to my cabin and packed my worldly goods in the one open suitcase I had with me and lit a cigarette. There was a knock at the door which caused me to rise and open it. Before me stood a group of men, among whom I recognized the beaming faces of two or three of my oldest friends who had come to welcome me back.

With a few choice words, Hiqmet bey Delvina, the Minister of Justice, and Colonel Zef Sereggi, the king’s main aide-de-camp, welcomed me on behalf of His Majesty. Thus, even before I got to the stern of the boat, the King had given proof of his fame, and the foreigners on board understood that he was still the grand seigneur. His indeed royal bearing revealed itself in one choice detail: of all the cabinet ministers, it was my first cousin whom he had to come and welcome me. Thus, even though beauty may be despised and trodden upon in Albania, there is certainly nobility, one of the oldest virtues of the Albanian race. And here was a living example of it from the man who is known to be the a mirror of goodness and kind behaviour. A porter, loaded down with meat and vinegar, who had once been minister of finance muttered: why do they meet representatives of the diplomatic corps so ceremoniously and not other representatives of Albania when they return to the country. Alas, the poor fellow did not realize that the impromptu welcome was given not to the Plenipotentiary Minister in Washington, but to me.

After exchanging a few words and compliments, we got into the barque that was waiting beside the ship to take us ashore. It was raining heavily but, despite this, all the porters continued with their work, a good sign of vivacity. Another sign of positive development in Albania were the well dressed and well fed sailors and policemen. My austere companions accompanied me to a building with the odd name of “Civic Assembly,” which I took to be the town hall. Here, the Chairman of the Civic Assembly, whom one would normally simply call the mayor, had arranged for a table with coffee and food to be laid out for me. As head of one of the oldest cities in the world, built some two thousand six hundred years ago, the Mayor of Durrës seemed like a polite and pleasant fellow despite the ridiculous title that those out to destroy our language had given him. We raised our glasses to one another’s health and, having warmed ourselves with the last of the French raki, we left the town hall and set off for Tirana.

On the way, I felt the same pleasant anticipation I had felt on the steamer when we were approaching Durrës and was hoping to make out the ancient towers of the town. On the road to Tirana, I had a vision of a grove of willow trees full of birds, like an oasis in the middle of the desert. I described such a grove on one of the pages of my book, “Doctor Needle”:

“Near Shijak, he was surprised to see a small grove of birds, a whole swarm of them chirping and singing together so sweetly that they were like a symphony composed by nature amidst the willows. What hope they stirred in him! Long after the vehicle had passed the grove, Dr Needle could still hear the music in his heart.”

Quoting these words I published five years ago, I must admit that the feelings I had for that grove had little to do with its actual state. They thrived on memories of the distant past. But you will understand my despair when I discovered that the grove with the divine music was gone! Disappeared, felled, stacked and forgotten. Only a couple of people even remembered it and its rare beauty.

After this disappointment, I prepared to face the inevitable fact that everything of beauty which Albania once possessed had now disappeared. Who knows what I would find in Tirana which, if you will allow me once again to quote from Dr Needle, I described in the following terms:

“A glade of lofty poplar trees marked our arrival in Tirana, a garden city, where all the houses seemed to be hidden behind trees and flowers, a quiet little town which only appears when you arrive at its doorstep.”

But the poplars with their tips in the clouds had long been felled, and most of the gardens had been disrobed by winter or had been sold to make way for new buildings.

Despite this, life in this town has numerous facets. The beauty of the country may have been assaulted here and there, yet it was a pleasure to see a nation finally awakening and setting to work. Many foreigners write nonsense about Albania because they did not see the country in the past and cannot measure the progress it has made from then to now. There is order instead of chaos, exemplary peace and quiet, no more killings, good roads, trade where there was previously nothing but hovels and unemployment, trained soldiers instead of bashibouzouks. All this is indelible proof of progress. It is more than evident from the first day. And the unyielding force that brought about these changes so quickly is a young man in the shadow of the crown. Only sick minds, scarecrow brains, could fail to understand the grandeur of this historic change.

The best hotel in Tirana is the Continental. It is situated right across from the American Legation and is run by an honest and capable Italian. Two rooms had been reserved for me on orders from the palace. When my belongings were brought up, I washed, changed my shirt and opened the windows. Although it was drizzling out, I was moved by the incomparable beauty of the mountains around Tirana. Mount Dajti, loomed majestically on one side, Petrela on another, and the mountains of Kruja and other chains of hills rose beyond the chilly bluish mist in the other direction with their cliffs and forests. They were in various hues and colours, but violet seemed to predominate and unite them. Musing on the visions before me, I wondered how it was possible for the Albanians to leave their country and go and work in distant, foreign lands, in the din and smoke of ugly factories. Suddenly, I was awakened from my daydream by a knock at the door. A gentleman from the palace entered and informed me that the King wished to receive me immediately. I begged him to give me half an hour to get dressed, but His Majesty had foreseen my reaction and his emissary countered that the King would receive me in street clothes. This noble gesture enabled me to meet him without further delay and not to have to fuss about the proper clothes. With no further ado, I set off for the palace to see the face of the most historic person Albania had seen since the times of Scanderbeg.


The King

Since it was raining and the day was drawing to a close, I was not able to see and enjoy the new palace gardens that had been laid out with many types of flowers. Later on, I had no mind to visit the gardens as I was full of thought and questions as to what changes the new age had brought with the appearance of the king. We had met in Rome in 1919 and then in 1921, but only briefly. We had spent two terrible years in Vienna amidst the confusion and suffering of the Great War, but with one consolation: music. I don’t think I missed any of the concerts of classical music performed by the two great symphony orchestras in Vienna. We went to all of Beethoven’s symphonies several times, and I remember how moved I was by an amazing performance of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) by Mozart at the Court Opera House.

At that time, the Bey of Mat was but a twenty-two-year-old lad, yet even then, his intellectual capacities were apparent in that he spoke little, listened a lot and attentively, and offered succinct and thoughtful comments that threw new light on any subject discussed. These were characteristics that surprised me. Our common friend, Fazlli Bey Frashëri, one of the profoundest and most rational-thinking men of Albania, reminded me in Tirana this time of something I had once said in Vienna: “We have a quite exceptional fellow here. I have the impression that Ahmet Bey is destined to play a great role in Albanian history.” “These were your words, or something to the sort,” said Fazlli, reminding me of his prophetic pronouncement.

That young lad, in the conflagration of the war, surrounded by treachery and countless perils, managed a few years later to unite Albania, to place it under the laws of the Kanun, to overcome all armed opposition and to put the country to the plough. And now he is on the Throne of Scanderbeg. I was startled from my thought by the opening of a door. One of the officers of the court mentioned my name, the door closed behind me, and I found myself in front of the King.

Had I inherited any problems or shyness from earlier years, I would certainly have been dizzy in his presence and have lost my balance. But the King of the Albanians, with the bearing of a philosopher, was the very same person I had known in Vienna, agreeable in his conversation, profound, yet reserved where needs be. He smiled, had a good sense of humour where appropriate, and was quick to engage in conversation, capable of seizing the positive and the negative on any given subject.

The only change that the throne had brought to him was a positive one. His tastes had become more refined and noble. When he was head of the Republic as a young man, he had a passion for ostentatious colours in his clothing and surroundings, whereas now he had come to appreciate the greater beauty of the unpretentious. He gave up the flashing uniforms and used only a simply dark uniform and gave his officers and guards clothes that did not draw attention to them. He only wore medals on exceptional occasions when duties of State obliged him to do so. The palace furniture was of aristocratic modesty with no superfluous sparkle or gaudiness in the furniture or wallpaper.

As to his physical appearance, I was surprised to find the King the same as I had known him in the past. He was quick-minded but not unappealing. His eyes sparkled and his cheeks were rosy – a very picture of health that anyone would desire to enjoy. I had heard rumours abroad that he was ailing and would not be around for long. His rivals, in the pay of foreign governments out to destroy Albania, had expressed their hopes from time to time that the life of this new Scanderbeg would not last long. Honourable Albanians were anxious at these rumours. From the start, I regarded the allegations of these traitors and the anxiousness of my countrymen as completely unfounded. Any man who works from dawn to dusk and spends all his evenings with his friends, and then manages to get up the next day fresh and full of energy cannot be ailing. I informed my friends of my impression. When two physicians arrived from Vienna and found that he was suffering from nothing other than a surfeit of tobacco, all the rumours subsided. It seems that the ancient Gods of Illyria were watching over the health of the man who only recently managed to unite the Albanians and allow them to live in peace. He is the last sprout of the great Illyrian oak that once covered ten times more territory than the present Albania.

A man of average ability who had attained the highest position in his country would have put any further ambitions aside. He would have lain back and enjoyed the rest of his life without further effort. But for a magnanimous soul like King Zog, it is the word Duty that reigns supreme. He does not regard the crown as an embellishment on his brow, but as a heavy responsibility to ensure that the Albanian nation flourishes. Without exaggeration, it can be stated that, now that Albania has been united and blessed, all that remains to be done is to give the nation a new spirit of life and progress. This is an imposing task. If Zog succeeds in this, his image will radiate higher than that of Scanderbeg.


[extract from Faik bey Konitza: Shqipëria si m’u duk, originally published in the Boston newspaper Dielli (The Sun) from 1929, Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]