As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1963|
Born in Scotland, educated in France and England, James Cameron has been a reporter for more than twenty-five years. As chief foreign correspondent for the London News Chronicle, he was one of the first Western observers to travel freely in Red China, and his account of what was going on inside this Communist country was set forth in his book Mandarin Red, published in 1955. Now he tells us how he managed to infiltrate Albania.
by James Cameron
FOR years, long before the explosion of rancor between the Albanian republic and the Soviet Union split the Eastern world and made this small Communist enclave the political phenomenon of the times, I had nourished an erratic ambition to get into Albania. The impulse, I readily admit, was not wholly academic; there must have been involved a sort of collector's curiosity. It happens that I have worked in, or at least been to, almost every country in the world; it was my trade to travel. But although I had moved through all the Communist states, including China, Albania was the one that seemed impenetrable. From time to time I made representations at Albanian missions and consulates in Paris, Rome, Ankara, Sofia -- remote legations in obscure streets. Invariably I encountered either a total refusal to discuss the matter or, more frequently, the blank wooden face of some closed door with a dusty card explaining that the official was out for lunch. In any case, I had long ago written off Albania. And then suddenly I was there.
Some months before, an advertisement for a travel agency in Cologne appeared in a West German paper announcing an eighteen-day tour group through Albania. There was nothing in it to suggest that it was addressed only to Communists. Consequently, on the principle of trying anything once, I sent in an application to join this tour group, in the virtual certainty that it would be rejected or, more probably, ignored. To my surprise it was promptly acknowledged, with a batch of forms to be filled in, a demand for a deposit of one hundred pounds, and the request that my passport be sent to Germany to be fitted out with an Albanian visa. This would presumably take place in East Berlin.
Return to Albania: Enigma of the Balkans
I felt in no way persuaded to send my passport, on which I depend for the
pursuit of my living as a workman his tools or a doctor his degree, into some
unspecified German limbo. These matters are, however, more manageable now than
they used to be. A short consultation in the right quarters produced another
passport, which was sent on its way.
For weeks thereafter nothing happened. I put the matter out of my mind. Then, with the kind of maniac suddenness that seems to characterize most things that happen to me, an urgent message arrived: the tour was on after all, the group was ready. It seemed there was an inaugural flight by the Dutch line to Tirana. Would I, said the agency, make my way at once to Munich, where the tourist group would rendezvous at the airport and where I would collect my passport and my Albanian visa?
It seemed to me that there must be something either very naive or very devious about an agency that could cheerfully propose that a man travel from one country to another to collect his passport. However, I obeyed; if they were disposed to ask no questions, so was I. Thus I came to Munich, and there it was that the pantomime began.
I admit that it had crossed my mind that, while my stratagem for infiltrating Albania as part of a tourist group had been ingenious, it was not necessarily exclusive. I was prepared to find that some other writer, journalist, or kindred tradesman had latched on to this body of innocent visitors. I welcomed the possibility of a colleague, and I prepared to detect him if I could.
What I had not expected to find at our Munich rendezvous was this: among the seventeen of us was not so much as one who could claim to be, in any sense, a tourist. This discovery required no great talent, since, so far from dissembling their purposes, the entire party except myself were most palpably laden with technical gear, 35-millimeter cameras, tripods, sound equipment, lights and lenses, wires and cables, and television machinery of great weight and complexity, and were standing around with the wearily watchful demeanor of those who live with such affairs.
Thus, when our tourist group eventually touched down in Tirana some hours later, it resembled not so much the wide-eyed arrival of those on pleasure bent as the annual outing of some wild and capricious press club.
This manifestly took the Albanians somewhat aback, though with great composure they refrained from comment. You are, they said, as the passports vanished one by one into a black leather bag, tourists? Everyone nodded urgently, fiddling with exposure meters. Very well, said the official in level tones: Welcome; and we climbed out of the aircraft into Albania.
I DO not know what I had expected. Most airports of Eastern republics are much the same in my experience. They have a common quality of charmless austerity, are always at the end of long straight roads, and are ceaselessly preoccupied with the reception of fraternal delegations. Tirana proposed every kind of difference. Here in the evening light was a scene of haunting loveliness: a backcloth of erratically sculptured mountains, a purple frieze against the darkening blue, a long broad valley between the climbing olive slopes, a block of low buildings that could only by courtesy be called an airport, yet bordered and embowered in a profusion of roses. On the far side of the perimeter I could see what appeared to be about two squadrons of MIGs of the first design, much dated now; between them and the runway an old man in a loose turban tended a flock of sheep.
The frontier examination was of the usual People's Democratic pattern, conducted with impassive civility, but most surprisingly interrupted by a shirt-sleeved waiter with a tray of minute brandies. The woman customs inspector accepted all the television technology calmly enough, and the owners, on whom there had settled a kind of depressed embarrassment, began minimally to cheer up. As it turned out, this was premature. The Albanians had not the slightest intention of allowing the cameras to be used; on the contrary, they had devised an inspirational technique of discipline. Instead of impounding the equipment, they sealed it and insisted on its owners taking it with them, tottering around under the weight of gadgetry that served no purpose whatever but to remind them, if this were ever necessary, who was boss.
My own condition was very different, and my attitude tended (again, with fatuous optimism) to smugness. Alone among this bogus company, it seemed, I had gone to some lengths to resemble a tourist, at least in having nothing in particular with me -- no typewriter, not even a notebook. Yet it was my ostentatiously innocent valise that most absorbed the customs lady, because, as it happened, it contained half a dozen paperback editions of assorted books -- a novel or two, a book of essays, and Tristram Shandy, which I have been dragging around the world for years and years against the day when I should be driven to such desperation of idleness that I would actually read it. The customs lady had them out on the counter like a shot, and studied them with the resentful doubt of a scoutmistress uncertain if she has been landed with Henry Miller in a Bulgarian translation. By and by she took them into a back room, where she was joined by two more officials, and for a while I saw their heads together in baffled disapproval. When the customs lady returned and closed my valise, the books were not in it, nor did I ever see them again.
We climbed into a bus and drove into Tirana through the gathering twilight. All around us the physical grandeur of the country faded into the dusk, and the creaking of the cicadas was crying in the trees. Along the potholed road we passed one group after another of soldiers; youngsters in the shabby secondhand Soviet Army uniforms that were part of Russia's aid -- rather ungenerous, it seemed to me -- in the days when the two countries were talking to each other. On that first evening it seemed that Albania was wholly populated by young crop-headed soldiers in gray smocks and soft high boots. That impression was soon to change; nevertheless, this little nation was manifestly the most over-armied I think I have ever seen.
There was nothing surprising in this; all Albania's recorded past has been one of almost uninterrupted tumult and violence, a history of conquests and tyrannies, oppressions and insurrection, occupations and liberations, bitter exploitation and recurrent revolution. Here was a country steeped in the tribal memories of endless war; add to that fact -- since the population of Albania is still largely Muslim -- the exclusivity and withdrawal of Islam; superimpose the new suspicions and disciplines of twentieth-century Communism: no wonder I felt, as the dim lights of Tirana drew nearer, that Albania is a tough place in which to feel at home.
THE Albanians are among the most ancient peoples of Europe, the Illyrian tribesmen who somehow maintained their identity under the Greeks for six centuries B.C., who contrived to survive five hundred years of Roman occupation and another five hundred under the Byzantines, who chose these impossible highlands as their battlefield against the kingdom of Bulgaria. Albania was the bridgehead for the repeated eastward incursions of Europe -- the Normans in the eleventh century, the Venetians in the thirteenth. Even after the great Turkish conquest in 1478, the Albanians refused to settle down as good colonials and continued to be the biggest nuisance in the Ottoman Empire for four hundred and fifty years more.
When the Austro-Hungarians, the French, and the Italians had fought themselves to a standstill over Albania in the First World War, there came the curious interlude of the tribal chieftain Zog, who declared himself first President, then King, in the 1920s, and who vanished with the wind in Mussolini's Italian invasion at Easter, 1939.
In the inevitable progression of the times, the First World War produced fascism, the Second produced Communism. Licking the terrible wounds of the years of guerrilla fighting and counting their losses -- 28,000 dead, 43,000 deportees in the concentration camps, 60,000 homes destroyed -- the Partisans of the Albanian hills proclaimed their People's Republic in 1946, under the protective arm of the Soviet Union. So went the honeymoon for fifteen years. And then had come the great divorce. Once again the featherweight nation with the massive and furious pride was on its own.
The hotel in Tirana stood off the main boulevard behind a belt of evergreens. It was unexpectedly grand. Like almost everything else of any pretension in town, it had clearly been built by the Italians in an expansive mood, but it had long ago acquired the colorless antiseptic cheerlessness of all Popular Democratic hotels. This is very difficult to define; it has something to do with dim economy of underpowered electric bulbs, an immobility of elevators, a dusty emptiness of showcases, a grayness of table linen, an absence of servants, and a superfluity of unidentifiable shadowy functionaries who are clearly neither staff nor guests. These characteristics are, in my experience, shared by all hotels in the Communist economy, and are explicable in the simple fact that, as befits their function in societies where people circulate only on specific instructions, they have long since changed from hotels to institutions.
However, the Daiti Hotel in Tirana put on as fair a show of hospitality as was permitted by its manifest lack of practice. To deny by implication the travelers' tales that Albania is a country of unexampled filthiness, the place reeked of floor polish and germicide. I was given a large, dispiriting, but spotless room with a most elaborate bathroom, complete with bidet, most certainly a memento of the Italian occupation. The profusion of taps and faucets emitted a series of hollow clanks and groans, but no water. Of the set of five wall switches, one alone was operational, producing a thin subaqueous light.
It was unfair to carp. To blame Albania, of all places, for an inadequacy with tourists -- even tourists as spurious as we -- was absurd. And yet the peculiar fact was that Albania really did affect to believe that it was a tourist center. The bleak lobby of the hotel was littered with leaflets and brochures extolling the virtues of its richesses archéologiques, its culture artistique, its vie sociale, its traditions ethnographiques. Some of them looked as though they had been there for centuries; others were obviously new. They were printed in several languages -- German, French, Russian, Italian. To produce an English version was presumably pointless. Americans are neither sought nor, indeed, permitted, and there have been no relations whatever with Britain since 1946, when Albania inconsiderately mined a couple of British destroyers in the Corfu Channel.
What was the purpose of canvassing for visitors while simultaneously making it virtually impossible for anyone to get into the country? For now, of course, there were not even any Russians. The great schism between Albania and the Soviet Union may have been one of the weirder phenomena of recent times, expressing as it did doctrinal differences of an importance far transcending Tirana, but there was no mistaking its visible effect on Albania. Albania was a tributary dammed from its river, and most evidently drying up.
The quarrel between Nikita Khrushchev and the Albanian boss, General Enver Hoxha, had been brewing slowly since 1959 and came to a boil in the summer of 1961. That, in fact, the whole row was a development of the growing rift between Russia and China, with Albania playing the role of a political shuttlecock, is now a fairly self-evident fact; thus did tiny Albania suddenly find itself upholding the banner of pure Marxist-Leninism against the corrupting tide of "Soviet revisionism" and "Tito imperialism." It is said that the row began when Khrushchev, on his official visit to Enver Hoxha, became aware for the first time of Albania's singular and, indeed, striking backwardness, even by Balkan standards, and thereupon advised General Hoxha in a paternal way to abandon his wild and ambitious plans for industrialization. Albania is an incurably peasant community, Khrushchev is said to have observed; let it stick to growing tomatoes and olives, and never mind the steel mills and fertilizer factories. One can readily imagine Khrushchev's saying this; it is also understandable that his celebrated homely nudges and rustic aphorisms cut no ice with the furious General Hoxha.
Anyhow, the storm broke; Khrushchev denounced Albania at the 20th Party Congress, stopped all Soviet aid, withdrew all credits, recalled all technicians, and cut Albania dead. The large and opulent new Soviet embassy in Tirana was stopped abuilding halfway up, and remains to this day exactly as the workmen left it, without a roof.
The blow to Albania's economy, such as it is, was of course appalling, but far worse was the jolt to its pride. Having no economic cards whatever up its own sleeve with which to counterattack, Albania could take its revenge only in a manner that still seems somewhat comical: it recanonized Stalin. In Moscow and Prague and Sofia and Bucharest the statues of Stalin were carted away; in Tirana, on the contrary, the massive concrete images of the great man were not only rooted to the ground but garlanded with flowers. It was the perfect, the textbook case of human bloodymindedness adopted as a national principle. There was something almost admirable about its senseless arrogance.
However, all this left Albania without a friend in the world -- except the Chinese. The new diplomatic togetherness between China and Albania has deeply perplexed everyone, since it would be hardly possible to envisage two nations for whom an exclusive alliance could be more improbable temperamentally and more difficult physically. The largest nation on earth and one of the smallest; a vast Oriental country of 650 million and a Balkan province of 1.6 million, separated not just by seven thousand miles but by every conceivable human, traditional, racial, and linguistic difference -- how did they even communicate? Accepting that the relationship was, in fact, a political cover story, that Albania existed to be denounced by Russia and exalted by China, nevertheless, the Chinese must do something about it, and if so, what? The Chinese had, it seemed, produced a credit of $140 million. But what about the présence Chinoise in Albania -- where were they all?
It was hardly to be expected that the streets of Tirana would now echo to the cries of ricksha boys and Mandarin-speaking cadres in blue boiler suits. Yet I had just heard that two new planeloads of Chinese technicians had recently been flown into the country -- to do what? Could Chinese advise Albanians on the harvesting of olives?
The fact was that several hundred Chinese in Albania were behaving there just as the Russians used to behave in China eight years ago: strictly keeping their heads down and remaining out of sight. Only once, on my second day in Tirana, did I blunder by chance into the wrong section of the restaurant, and there they were, some two dozen Chinese, dining in discreet segregation. They looked up in a very startled way, and I backed out in embarrassment.
FOR two days, then, before I made my irremediable gaffe, I had the freedom of Tirana, and a beguiling town it was. This was due more to the old than the new. The new was banal indeed: a pattern of broad, even stately avenues, lined with Party buildings in the Italianate style, with a carriageway wide enough to take several lines of traffic that was, for 80 percent of the day, totally empty.
The desolation of the streets was eerie. At each intersection stood a smart white-uniformed traffic policeman, rigidly poised to direct a press of vehicles that never came. Once every five minutes, perhaps, an old green truck, hugely numbered on its flanks in the Russian manner, would appear clanking and grunting up the street; the traffic cop would spring to attention as it appeared on the horizon and wave it on with great panache, against no opposition whatever. At even rarer intervals would appear a dark Zim saloon, heavily curtained, on some mysterious official errand. In all Albania today there exists, as I was formally told, not one single private automobile.
Down past New Albania Boulevard, down past Scanderbeg Square, where the vast statue of Stalin brooded over the spinney of banners demanding long life for the workers' state, Tirana petered out gently into a tangle of wayward little streets and lanes of unmistakable poverty and increasing charm. There, where the tinsmiths beat out their gimcrack plates and jugs, there strolled the sort of Albanians one would not have thought ever to see outside a fête folklorique. Half the people wore the drab serge of a normal urban proletariat, but the other half, without any kind of self-consciousness at all, swaggered around in the white Macedonian tarboosh, the embroidered xhublete, and the enormous baggy pantaloons of the Muslim highlander. Albania must be one of the few countries left where what is known as peasant costume is in fact worn by peasants. It gave the back streets of Tirana a wonderfully rakish air.
These splendid wild men had one unexpectedly charming custom: that of carrying flowers in their mouths, as other people wear boutonnieres. Scores of times one would come across some swarthy brigand of most ferocious mien, darkly mustachioed, from whose scornful lips drooped a rose or a spray of honeysuckle. It gave an odd suggestion of Ferdinand the Bull. Even the drab and tattered soldiers redeemed their surliness with this insouciant habit. Once, outside 'Tirana, I saw a morose sentry at a wired stockade who had thrust a nosegay of field flowers into the barrel of his carbine.
The first and very serious problem I ran into was that of communication. The Albanians speak a language of, it seemed to me, insuperable difficulty; a sort of tormented Turkish with heavy Slavic complications, by no means to be picked up overnight. It has, for one thing, an alphabet of thirty-six letters, with seven vowels and twenty-nine consonants. The words for "yes" and "no" are po and yo, but that should lead no one to underestimate its intricacy. I very soon discovered, for example, that Albania does not, in its own tongue, call itself Albania at all, but "Shqiperi," which somehow struck me as unreasonable.
Baffling though Albanian may be, few people appeared to speak much else. Since our tourist group had originated in Germany (and was, for that matter, largely German), the interpreter provided spoke German, which was unhelpful to me, as my German is none too good. I met nobody who spoke a word of English. When my own contretemps came to pass, involving some rather fierce and complicated discussion, it was translated in committee -- from Albanian to Russian, from Russian to German, and from German into French.
THIS little local difficulty had better be recounted now, as it completely changed the character of an already somewhat shapeless expedition. I could see that the Albanian authorities (which, in effect, means everyone with whom we came in contact) had been dismayed by the transparently professional nature of our tourist group, though it seemed to me that their reactions had been unexpectedly civil, considering. On the day after our arrival, therefore, I sent a very short telegram to the newspaper in London to which I was contributing. I sent it in the ordinary way, through the hotel desk, and while its main purpose was simply to give my address, I thought it could do no special harm if it were couched in terms of which the People's Republic could not disapprove. There was, after all, a certain news value in the arrival of Western foreigners in Albania, and this was my starting point. "'This small, proud, isolated Republic, which has gallantly challenged both east and west," I wrote, "has opened its doors," et cetera, et cetera. If I had any doubts about the phrasing, it was that it was conciliatory to the point of being fulsome; it might well earn the derision of any Albanian censor of taste.
What I had not foreseen was the extraordinary reaction. By and by I was sought out by a small group of very tight-lipped functionaries, clearly in a markedly hostile frame of mind. After a great deal of' bamboozling multilingual sparring, I was given to understand that my telegram had been considered unpleasant, unfriendly, contemptuous, that it had fascist undertones and was an intolerable breach of my status as a visitor.
I found this so astonishing that I deduced some incomprehensible misunderstanding. What, exactly, did they object to? 'The terms describing the republic of Albania, of course, the offensive adjectives. But, I protested with some incredulity, the words I used were not generally held to be hostile -- "gallant," "small," "proud," "isolated...." That's it, they cried, "isolated!" Who but a Western lackey would use a word so bitter, so inaccurate! Feeling by now deep down in Alice in Wonderland country, I protested that "isolated" was not a term of reproach. Why, I said, not so many years ago, during the early days of the war, we in Britain used to brag about being isolated. Right, they shouted, and so you were; so you probably still are, but Albania isn't! The term is atrocious.
By this time the conversation was verging on the preposterous. All right, I said crossly, so I take it you've stopped the message. Not at all, replied the committee; all that happened was that the post office workers who read the telegram found their loyalty so outraged by its tenor that they refused to transmit it. Moreover, they had better not catch me trying to send any more telegrams, good or bad. And furthermore, come to think of it, they had put an exit visa in my passport and they did not care how soon I used it.
At this point, however, there arose what, from their point of view, was a very awkward and embarrassing snag. It is all very well to make the big gesture, fling open the front door, and say Begone, but the climax loses something of its drama when it turns out that there is nowhere to be gone to. Tirana is far from being the traffic crossroads of Eastern Europe. Its airport dispatches about two planes every fifteen days. The frontier roads were cut, and the railroad did not work. Short of flinging me over the end of the pier, there was no practical way of getting rid of me for at least ten days. The officials seemed to appreciate this rather belatedly, and departed, after some cold and courteous handshaking all around, to consider the situation.
Thus I was left alone for another day while the People's Republic reflected on the next step. I found my situation far from irksome. To begin with, I asked if our tourist group could have a look around the University of Tirana, and this was agreed on with surprising readiness. The university was, in fact, by far the most imposing building in town and was described with some pride as a monument to the new Popular Democracy. It was actually, like most substantial real estate in Tirana, a monument to the reverse, having been built some twenty years ago by Mussolini as the Casa Fascista of the occupation forces. Still, it was a handsome affair, and the students were a robust and likable crowd. They drifted and sidled into our group with a sort of watchful curiosity; to me it was like being in Moscow fifteen years ago. Indeed, there was much of Albania that was like the Russia of the immediate post-war years, before the Geneva spirit unlocked so many tongues and turned controlled frankness and bonhomie into a civic virtue. It was like China had been seven years before, when I had found in the schools and universities communities of youth consumed with the impulse to communicate, yet totally inexperienced in the technique of doing so.
The main problem in these circumstances -- apart from the language, the permanent presence of interpreters -- is that the only questions that come to mind are the awkward ones. In a kind of Franco-German lingua franca I began, minimally, to break through. Why do you personally feel this revulsion toward the Soviet government? It was a poser, but -- well, it seemed that Khrushchev had somehow or other promised the Greeks to support their claim for the northern Epirus, which to them was south Albania He had deceitfully agreed to sustain Tito, and everyone knew what he was. When Khrushchev had visited Albania in 1959 he had been unsufferably patronizing and called Albania a "market garden." Mr. Khrushchev, they said, had betrayed the basic spirit of Marxist-Leninism by scorning the national right of free Albania to become a proper power. Further than that, no one seemed able to go. As for now being virtually alone in the world -- by no means; were they not indissolubly allied to the greatest nation on earth, the Chinese?
But, I questioned, while the Chinese were a great and potent people, were they not inconveniently far away? No, they were not. Was it not possible, then, in the somewhat larger and more complicated differences between Moscow and Peiping that Albania was being used as a marionette, even a fall guy? No, it was not. Was it not inevitable that sooner or later this indomitable little nation would have to come to terms with someone, if only to survive? No, it was not. The debate was without much mutual give and take, and soon it flagged.
The next day they put us all in a bus, drove us down to the seaport of Durres, and left us there. I was not to see Tirana anymore.
DURRES, the Durazzo of Italian days, is one of the really ancient places of Europe. It was the Epidamnus of the Greeks, the Dyrrachium of the Romans. It had been the capital of the Illyrian dynasty of the Talantines; it had been the very landfall from which the Romans colonized Eastern Europe, the gateway to the Balkans. Almost every kind of foreign hand had seized Durres, developed, sacked it, left it -- the Bulgars, the Serbs, the Ostrogoths, the Spaniards, the Venetians, the Turks, the Italians. Now it looked as though nobody had ever wanted to be bothered with it.
As it turned out, I was to see little of Durres. For an hour or two we paused on the way through and drank an ouzo in a curbside café and strolled to the massive overgrown walls of the old Byzantine fortress. A long crocodile of tiny girls trotted up the street on the way to school, all identically dressed in rose-pink smocks, each child firmly holding the hem of the one ahead. The shops were inexpressibly dreary, offering for sale little but Leninist pamphlets and dusty flyblown sweetmeats. Almost all food seemed to be sold in the MAPO, the Albanian equivalent of the Russian chain store Gastronom; it seemed to consist mostly of fruit and canned fish.
Only two things were surprising. As the conductor urged us back into the bus I heard a faint airborne wail, a chant like that of a muezzin, and when I looked up, it was a muezzin; high on the minaret of the big mosque of Durres he was calling the faithful to prayer in the seven names of God. It was clear that here, at least, as in the Muslim Soviet Republics, Communism had come to terms with Islam. (I discovered later that both in Durres and Tirana the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches remain open and collect fair congregations, and the papas and the priests are tolerated, if not encouraged.)
The other momentary shock was to glance in a dark and somber shop window and see, by chance, there among the postal cards of Hoxha and Lenin and Stalin and all the other minor members of the Eastern pantheon, the familiar sulky face, the only too well known tumbled hair of what was needlessly labeled "Brixhid Bardo."
About five miles outside Durres stood the new beach hotel called the Adriatika. It was one of several hotels that faced the sea in various conditions of half-completion. They had all clearly been erected by the Russians for their use as a resort, and when the rift came they had been abandoned, exactly as the embassy had been abandoned. Only the Adriatika was operational, and of its three hundred rooms the only ones in occupation were ours.
It had been designed in what might be called the Soviet Black Sea taste -- that is to say, the layout was of an elaboration and grandeur that could only be justified by its fulfillment in costly and sumptuous materials. It had, however, been run up in a hurry and on a shoestring; instead of fine timbers and rich marbles there was plasterboard and gritty cement; in the spacious hall the evergreen plants grew out of oil drums painted green. In my bedroom the divan was so placed that in order to go to bed one had to move the wardrobe, and to open the wardrobe it was necessary to move the bed. The overall effect was exasperating.
Below the terrace of the hotel was the beach which I was to come to know so well. By the standards of beaches anywhere, the Durres strand was beautiful, stretching wide arms north and south along the tranquil Adriatic. It was the kind of beach made to be photographed in color for a holiday brochure, gay with umbrellas, littered with decorative girls in minimal costumes, alive with waiters gaily bearing trays of sparkling drinks. Today the beach was deserted, as uninhabited a stretch of sand as I have ever seen outside the remoter stretches of West Africa. No gay umbrellas broke that flat expanse of ocher, no girls in bikinis lounged on the searing hot steel chairs of the terrace. The one waiter spent much of his time hiding in the shadowy interior, emerging only after emissaries had been sent to pry him from his meditations. For miles and miles, it seemed, there was no one to be seen but the handful of fretful tourists and the occasional policemen, plodding moodily along the sand, sweating and chafing in their heavy serge under the powerful sun.
For anyone with no greater ambition than the acquisition of a roasting suntan and a sea-numbed brain, there was, I suppose, little wrong with the beach at Durres, but for anyone who asked however little more from the Albanian experience, it was anesthetically dull. On each side of our hotel stretched the other establishments -- smaller hotels, villas, rest homes, vacation bases for the syndicates and government departments, and every one of them totally empty. New as they were -- some, indeed, were barely completed, with unglazed windows and unplastered walls -- somehow they had already acquired a mournful air of neglect and rejection. The seventeen of us in the Adriatika echoed and rattled around its emptiness like dried peas in a can. Every day the waiters philosophically set the restaurant tables for three hundred diners; every day they served the same seventeen customers.
The food was almost, if not quite, indescribably terrible. I am no gastronome at the best; moreover, I have, over the years, eaten in so many unpropitious circumstances and from so many truly awful kitchens that I have come to consider myself almost as much a connoisseur of bad food as other men are of good. But here in Durres was something that transcended anything I can remember. It is very hard to define its nature, other than to say that it was Balkan food taken to its final and desperate conclusion: pasta that had been cooked, or apparently so, many days before, then passed through some compressing process; vague and improbable cuts of antique meat subjected to brief and inadequate heat; hollow tomatoes filled with a kind of herbal sawdust. It puzzled me that there should be no fish at all, until the explanation dawned: there were no fishermen. There were no fishermen because there were no boats. With Italy only fifty miles away across the Adriatic, who would let a fisherman over the horizon, since he would most assuredly never come back?
So, for my stay in Durres I lived almost exclusively on bread, which was extremely good, and apricots, which were capital, and konjak, which was better than nothing. One crushing disappointment clouded the week: here was the first place in the whole world where I found one totally undrinkable wine -- which is not said lightly, since I can drink almost anything.
DURING all our activities, it that is the word, we were attended by, and conscious of, quite effective numbers of what in such societies as this are inaccurately called "secret police." They sat around in corners, they brooded in pairs at the ends of bars, they lurked about the lobbies in a fashion almost ostentatiously furtive. They were always to be found grouped around tables in those inhospitable and drafty parts of hotel foyers where no normal guest ever lingers, and whenever one caught their eyes, which happened extremely rarely, they dropped their gaze to the tabletop. They were by any standards the most conspicuous secret policemen I have ever observed in a. fairly long experience of their craft. They were dressed always in shirts and suits only marginally less worn and frayed than everyone else's, and they were only just detectable better shaved. The one thing they had m common was their footwear -- leather shoes presumably of government issue, so constructed that they gave out a harsh and penetrating creak with every step.
These individuals had several names; they were called "Sigurini," or sometimes "spooks." All societies conducted on this system invent euphemisms for their watchdogs; for some reason, in Albania they had come to be called "Historians." It was not a bad name, combining respect, distaste, and a loose kind of accuracy.
The Historians rarely ventured into the dazzling light of the seashore, preferring to sit together in their mysterious silent communion indoors. I therefore spent most of the time in the sea or on the beach. In one direction lay a small pier, or jetty; in the other direction you had only a couple of hundred yards to walk before you came to the soldiers. They lounged around a concrete blockhouse, cradling their machine guns and spitting cherrystones. Beyond that point we might not go, "because," I was told, "we have not yet cleared up the minefields from the war." It seemed a curious reason. After dusk a battery of floodlights broke out from a cliffside across the sea. Somewhere along that coast had been the location of the submarine pens built years ago by the Soviet Navy. The Russians had pulled out months ago, but, according to legend, not before the Albanians had managed to sequester two of the subs. But that was miles away to the south. A couple of hundred yards was the limit of my investigations, and being in disgrace already, I was not disposed to push my luck.
Opposite the hotel, in the sea-roads outside Durres Harbor, an occasional ship moved in or out. One ship never moved, because it was half" sunk and rested at an angle on the seabed. Not long before our arrival the inevitable had happened: one of these infrequent visitors to an almost deserted port had chosen by some incalculable mischance to cross the path of another, and against all the imaginable odds they had collided. The wreck lay there all the time I was at Durres; it is doubtless there still.
Nevertheless, Durres was the lifeline. Last year the Albanians had managed to import a cargo of grain; it had been bought by the Chinese from Canada, paid for in clearing rubles, shipped across the Atlantic in West German ships. Such was the link with the outside world, as complicated as it was tenuous.
By now I was aware of the grave disability I had been subconsciously dreading since the hour of my arrival in Tirana: I had nothing whatever to read. This was not, as so often happens, bad management; by confiscating my books at the customs, Albania had deprived me of all my resources. There was nothing to read in the hotel, nothing whatever, of any kind or in any language; the art of conveying thought by the written word might never have been invented; Caxton had lived in vain. I might have filled in an hour or so by trying to worry a word here and there out of the local newspaper, the Zeri i Popullit, but, mad as it sounds, I was not allowed to have one. Carrying incredibility even further, when I asked our guide-cicerone to translate one or two of the headlines for me, he said that this, too, was not possible. Since it passes human belief that he could have feared that anything other than the Ark of the Covenant had slipped into a publication as heavily censored as Zeri i Popullit, I could only assume darkly that this was part of my punishment for that unforgivable "isolated." If so, it was etEective; I took to gnawing my nails for want of something to read. What I wouldn't have given even for Tristram Shandy.
Therefore, I was immeasurably relieved when the authorities suddenly told us that we could go on an expedition. They would take us. to Kruja, a hill township of great historical importance, some twenty miles up in the Central Mountains. We must stick together, they said, and not stravage about the place, and if all went weil, we should be back by cvcning. The trip to Kruja seemed like liberation after the days spent marooned on the Durres beach.
WE WERE all packed into a very old Ikarus bus that seemed rather less than usually decrepit (it had two new tires, I noticed, a Barum from Czechoslovakia and a New China) but would nevertheless, I am sure, have passed no test known to the Western world. I observed with some alarm that the play on the steering wheel was so immense that the driver appeared to steer the bus as if it were an ocean liner, whirling the wheel around and around on every curve. For the first time 1 was able to see that the country road behind the hotel was arched across every hundred yards or so with banners, calling down blessings on the several objects of official approval. The Albanian word for "dive" or "Long live" is "Rroshte," and very onomatopoeic it looked with those two golden r's on the scarlet cloth. "Rroshte Partija e Punes Shqibereje!" the banners said, meaning "Long live the Albanian Party of Labor" (which the Party might well do, there being no other), and "Rroshte Marksisem-Leninizmit!" and "Rroshte Choka Enver Hoxha!" (Another oddity of the Albanian tongue is this word Choka, meaning "Comrade"; it was pronounced "Shocker" and gave an extremely fanciful sound to every greeting: "Good morning, Shocker!" "In the words of our great leader, Shocker Hoxha....")
The drive to Kruja was about the most electric experience I had known for some time. The road, which was narrow, rugged, and covered with loose stones, wound in hairpin bends upward through scenery of the most breathtaking loveliness, which could be appreciated by nobody, so riveted with anxiety was everyone's gaze on the fearsome precipices around which we roared and slithered. Something of our dread must have communicated itself to the driver, a wild-eyed mountaineer of unbounded gaiety and confidence; as he wrenched the creaking bus around the bends he would sing: "Hup-la! Hup-la!", and at moments of acute and petrifying peril he would turn around to the passengers with a demoniac grin of reassurance. I was genuinely glad when we soared up through the last terraces of olive trees and acacias and pulled up with a screech in the main square of Kruja.
Kruja was indeed impressive, a strange and wandering little town clinging by its eyebrows to the slopes of a majestic mountain; all red tiles and whitewash, rosebushes and open drains, streets of enormous, cart-defying cobbles, and at the summit the remains of a most looming and dramatic fifteenth-century castle. Kruja has a special place in the Albanian memories of historical pride, because it was for years the home and fortress and headquarters of the incomparable national hero, Scanderbeg. The great Scanderbeg made the Kruja fastness the enduring center of Albanian resistance against the Ottomans in the 1450s. He had been one of the sultan's most celebrated generals, until he abruptly rejoined his own people against his old master. For thirty-five years, then, his "eagle's nest," as it was called, of Kruja held out against the Turks, defied four sieges by 120,000 of the sultan's men. In the end it was conquered only by famine, and after Scanderbeg's death.
Even now, five centuries later, the place looked impregnable. From every corner of the township the view extended across miles of savage mountains -- ridges like saws, valleys like scars.
We were given an hour to kill. It was so hot, and the opportunities for any conceivable sort of mischief-making so slight, that the Elistorians gathered in the shade of a tree and smoked beneficently. I walked up and down the precipitous main street of the town and wondered at the extravagant number of barbershops, always full: did these heirs of the bandits ever do anything except get their hair cut?
By and by I came to a place like a café. It was marked in large letters outside: "Klub." Reckoning that the conditions of membership were unlikely to be onerous, I went in and asked the neat little waitress for an ouzo, not because I particularly dote on Albanian ouzo (which, unlike the Greek kind, turns with water into a threatening shade of green) but because I found it the least ambiguous thing to order, and because it cost just eight leks -- about five cents.
The Klub was full of silent whiskery men, also drinking ouzo and grouped about in attitudes of studied abandon suggesting that at any moment they might rise and sing some operatic Robbers' Chorus. There was the reaction to which I had become accustomed: every eye in the room swiveled simultaneously to fasten on me for one long reflective stare; then swiveled back and never returned.
It seemed remarkable, in this land of Labor Above All, what an immensity of time the citizens appeared to have for the simple occupation of sitting around. Every little coffeehouse, at almost any hour of the day, had its half-dozen baggy-trousered workers dozing over a minute drink. When, one wondered, did they fulfill their norms -- or were norms in Albanian society pitched at a level that allowed for unlimited leisure? Or was it, as I came to feel, that at least a proportion of every group anywhere were Historians?
At this point I found that I had run out of matches, and I pantomimed my neighbor at the next table to beg a light. He produced a box, which with the friendliest of smiles he urged me to keep. He could have given me nothing to divert me more. Up to this time I had seen but one variety of matches, a brand called Jumbo, made in Poland, but whose label announced itself most mysteriously as coming from an Indian firm of distributors in, of all places on earth, Mauritius. This had seemed rum enough, but my new variety was even more extraordinary, since it was called (also in English) the "Channel Island Match," and its label bore an unmistakable map of Jersey and Guernsey, the most improbable sources of matches in the world.
As I pondered this, a uniformed policeman walked into the Klub, his top boots creaking like rusty gates, and sat down at a table. At once the silence became in some curious way more silent. Without anything perceptible having taken place, one was aware of a different kind of immobility. Moreover, in some manner impossible to explain, it became instantly clear just which of the customers in the Klub at that moment were Historians and which were not.
The policeman ordered nothing, and very soon he walked out, and within a few minutes I heard the bus in the square klaxoning for our return.
WE WENT back to the beach at Durres, and life returned to normal with one variant of electric excitement: on that Saturday we had visitors. Albania, it seemed, had un weekend too, and for an hour or two our desolate playground took on a small but encouraging semblance of controlled festivity. Up and down the strand there were little parties of Albanians with the day off, drinking in the sun, feeding their babies, knocking rubber balls around. On our exclusive hotel terrace appeared the VIPs -- a party of bronzed and confident Czechs who produced a hamper of food and ordered a round of limonados. Then there arrived a party of a dozen or so Chinese who established themselves at the extreme end of the terrace in a tight enclave, which the hotel staff isolated even more by removing the intervening chairs. And finally, without any ostentatious greeting, a quiet and civil man in a bathrobe said with a smile: "J'ai le plaisir de vous dire bonjour."
In the People's Republic of Albania today only three Western missions remain: the French, the Italian, and the Turkish. They are the vestigial diplomatic corps, the Robinson Crusoes of foreign affairs. Their establishments -- a trio of small villas in Tirana -- are exiguous, their movements narrowly restricted, their housekeeping problems fearsome. One of them was our visitor on the Durres beach. He had heard of our presence; he had had the consummate and excellent considerate civility, for which I pray one day he will be rewarded with the highest possible preferment, to bring down a bottle of diplomatic whiskey.
Before he left, the lonely diplomatist sighed a little and said, "Life could be worse for the three of us, but it would be untruthful to conceal that it is dull. Indeed, deadly. There is no possibility of an American recognition. One wonders, idly, if the British might make some accommodation, someday. I am not passionately exercised over the politics. But it would be wonderful to have, at last, a fourth for bridge."
The next day the authorities came for me in their bus to take me to Tirana. At last there was a plane -- for Bari, and on to Rome.
One final argument remained. Since my return ticket to Amsterdam was useless now, it was necessary to pay for a new one, and, said they in a tone at the same time somehow tense and careless, in United States dollars. In dollars, I said, reprovingly, surely not for you? It is the custom, they replied impatiently. Fifty dollars and sixty cents.
Now, it so happened that I am permitted to wear dollars on my person; moreover, I had in my possession the precise sum. At this they demurred; they were not, they said, allowed to accept coins. How, then, I asked, do I produce fifty dollars and sixty cents without the use of coins? You give us, said they, the next piece of paper money.
My only remaining piece of United States paper money was a five-dollar bill. From this, I asked, I get change? Certainly, they answered. In what? Why, they said, beginning to lose patience, in leks. I have to give you five dollars, so I get four dollars, forty cents back in leks? And what do I do with those leks? Well, they replied testily, there is this difficulty that you are not permitted to export leks. So, said I, by no means composed, you propose to confiscate my change and chisel me out of four and a half dollars; I'll be damned on that for a deal. It is the rules, they shouted -- but already the bus was hooting, the Historians were making urgent signals, we were late. They snatched my fifty dollars and crossly gave me my ticket, but they stuck to their point: they didn't take coins. Albania owes Great Britain three million pounds for those mined destroyers; I owe Albania sixty cents.
I was taken back through Durres, through the outskirts of Tirana, past the plodding lines of the people I had never known, the people who looked and acted as their fathers had looked under Mussolini, under Zog, under the endless succession of sultans and kings and doges who had ruled and exploited them; all the dominations they had overthrown, to fall into yet another. They may never have been free men, but they looked like free men. They had the highest birthrate in all Europe, and their children were clearly loved. There they lived, and not, perhaps, obsessed with the curiosities of inter-Marxist schism. When I smiled, they smiled back momentarily.
When I reached the airport the plane was waiting. A Historian took me swiftly
aside -- the first I had spoken to. He said in bad French, "I should have
offered you konjak. I am sorry about the books."
Copyright © 1963 by James Cameron. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1963; Volume 211, No. 6; pages 41-50.