BE HERE NOW: Flags
Before I embarked on my trip, I was interested to see when trawling Couchsurfing and Warmshowers (the cyclist’s equivalent) that many prospective hosts across Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania in their profile information added two words which stuck out from amongst the other biographical details: ‘no politics’ (variously spelled). From this I inferred that there seemed to be a new mindset among ordinary people – away from the teetering rhetoric of politicians and bureaucrats – regarding the tumultuous events of the past 25 years in the western Balkan region, but whether it was letting bygones be bygones, or simply sweeping the past under the carpet, I could not tell.
History is a battleground of interpretation, and in an arena where the struggle for selfhood in relation to the past is eternal as representation becomes re-presentation, it was fascinating to see the way the people I met and passed engaged with their history and their conception of identity. The first time I noticed this was at the border of Serbia and Macedonia. I mentioned to the English-speaking border guard that I had heard Skopje was very beautiful, more out of a wish to be polite than anything else. “No, it’s very ugly. Lots of big ugly statues.” I was perplexed, yet not altogether unsurprised when she bid me thank people with a Serbian hvala rather than a Macedonian blagodarya.
I was soon to see what she meant. Macedonia (whose name is a matter of contention, and one of the reasons Greece adamantly opposes its prospective membership of the EU), which spent 44 years under communist rule, seems to have reached back beyond contemporary history to its Hellenistic, and later Christian heritage. Gigantic statues of Philip II of Macedon, and his even more famous son, Alexander the Great, dominate the skyline of central Skopje, a city watched over by a 66-metre-high cross (one of the largest in the world) perched atop the adjacent Vodno Mountain.
You know what they say: big sword...erm...big scabbard? Skopje, Macedonia.
The modern attempts at classical architecture, with Ionic columns, mosaicked public squares and the bronze murals depicting scenes from antiquity all give a sense that a greater sense of permanence and continuity is being sought. The Church of St. Clement of Ohrid, one of Macedonia’s most lavish Orthodox churches, also attests to the search for a historical thread which transcends the comparative temporality of the remains of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, despite the acronym stamped upon the country (FYROM) at Greece’s behest.
And I thought the Catholic Church was into ornaments. Skopje, Macedonia.
Names are a manner of forging identity in Albania, as I was to see in the town of Bajram Curri, perched at the valley entrance of Valbonë National Park. The town takes its name from one of Albania’s key figures in the history of its independence from the Ottoman Empire, achieved in 1912. A statue of the town’s namesake stands overlooking the valley below, rifle in hand, a monument to the time between that of independence and the invasion of the fascists in World War II and the rise of communism.
The communist legacy in Albania is something the country still seems to be wrestling with. Whilst it was clear that some of the older generations still feel some nostalgia for the simpler, more familiar times of communism, the majority of the country’s sentiment is summed up well by the title of the exhibition covering the period in the National Museum, to which two huge rooms were dedicated: “The Communist Terror in Albania”. Yet despite this backlash against the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who between 1946 and 1985 turned the country into an isolated, paranoid enclave largely insulated from and hostile towards Europe and even other neighbouring communist states, many of the physical remnants of the regime are still lodged uncomfortably in the physical landscape of the country. Scattered across the capital and all across the country are the remains of the 173,000 machine gun bunkers placed to defend (at the time) a country of just over three million people.
A postcard of paranoia. Nënshati, Albania.
The statues of the communist idols, unlike those of the openly-displayed Albanian independence figures such as Qemal Stafa, Bajram Curri, Ismail Qemali and Abdyl Frashëri, stand tucked away behind the National Art Museum: here two Stalins and an armless Lenin face the back of an overgrown lot, not in the public eye, yet not entirely hidden from view.
The most overt remnant of the era, however, stands on one of the Tirana’s main boulevards. Known as the Pyramid of Tirana, it once housed a museum detailing the legacy of Enver Hoxha, but after democratisation in 1991-2, it became variously a broadcasting centre, a market, and now sits a decrepit, defunct space in the city centre, a giant concrete climbing frame topped with barbed wire.
A young man named Samir (who had been introduced to me by my fantastic Couchsurfing host, Lexxi), in a bar aptly named Bunker 1949, told me that Albania cannot sweep its communist history under the carpet, and that the Pyramid should indeed be a museum or public space once more, dedicated to educating people about the realities of communism in Albania, instead of standing useless like so many of the country’s bunkers, now covered with graffiti and filled with human shit.
Yet perhaps the strangest figure in all this history, and perhaps the one with the greatest visual impact on Albanian and Kosovar nationalism, is that of Gjergj Kastrioti, more commonly known as Skanderbeg (‘the great Iskander’, a title of respect begrudgingly conferred by the Ottomans). His family symbol, the two-headed black eagle on a red background, I had seen everywhere since my arrival in Kosovo, where Albanian national flags were in more plentiful supply than Kosovar ones. This flag, it seemed, was not only an icon of national pride within Albania, but within ‘Greater Albania’, where the majority ethnic-Albanian community of Kosovo was focussing less on its own flag (a symbol of Kosovo in relation to Serbia), but portraying itself as definitively Albanian, not simply not Serbian.
Skanderbeg museum and castle, Krujë, Albania.
Whilst Skanderbeg is of course an important symbol of resistance against the Ottomans (a spirit which would later come to fruition in resistance against the Axis forces during World War II), he was ultimately one of many competing clan leaders in what is now called Albania (other notable figures include Lek Dukagjin, whose Kanun remains the basis of an illicit traditional law in many northern rural communities today) who was protecting the interests of his own fiefdom. The permeation of his crest and his helmet (a goat’s head atop a rose-embossed white metal helm) as symbols so much greater and more permanent than the red star or the hammer and sickle was clear in every major town and city I rode through, and it struck me that these were a matter more simple than political nationalism, but one of home. With EU membership a growing prospect on the horizon, the already diminishing population is expected to further its diaspora into other countries, and thus such symbols remain a blazon of home, which I have seen both in the UK and the USA. Perhaps the further you reach back through history, the easier it becomes to negotiate the vagueness of history and use it to your own ends: such also seems the case with Macedonia. Or perhaps I should just shut the hell up and get back to talking about riding bicycles.
The titular inhabitant of Skanderbeg Square, with the Et’hem Bey Mosque in the background. Tirana, Albania.