Yasser Arafat’s Death in Tirana


Rebellion of Mirdits against the Ottomans, Albania, Kel Marubi, 1907

by Oliver Farry

I went to Albania to try and get back with an ex-girlfriend, though that is only half the story. The trip had been planned in advance; Anna, a Swedish girl I had been seeing for about eighteen months, gave me as a birthday present a plane ticket to Tirana to accompany her on a visit to her parents — her father was then working there for the EU. That was six weeks before we were due to go but the day after the birthday the relationship came to what seemed to me to be an abrupt end. It was a banal incident of lateness brought on by boozing with friends during a week I was staying with her in Paris that ended it all. I was late replying to her text message, I was late going to meet her after she finished work, then I misread a text message and inferred I would be better off going home and meeting her back at her apartment. It was the weekend of a World Cup qualifying match between France and Ireland, which I thought might serve as mitigating circumstances but Anna had had enough, enough of being used as a hotel, as she said, and it was over between us. I didn’t like the recrimination too much but I had no grounds for protest, really; I was in the wrong. I was living in Dublin at the time, so, after a week occupying the couches of Parisian friends and futile attempts to get her to change her mind, I returned home a single man, consoled only by an excellent scoreless draw at the Stade de France, already forgetting that Albania had been ever so briefly dangled in front of me.

After almost a month of no contact from Anna — I had by now assumed that it was a relationship from which no sign of life was likely to be recovered —  she got in touch. In a voice that was half-contrite, half-reproving she asked if I still wanted to go to Albania. My flight from Dublin to Paris had already been booked so I arranged for a few days off work, and made no preparation to speak of for the journey.

Albania was a country about which, like most people in the West, I knew little. When I was growing up it was a byword for wilful isolation, a land shrouded in mystery, which we all imagined to be the apotheosis of civil and political paralysis. When I was attending Irish-language summer school in Connemara as a child, my mother would joke that the letters home, franked by the school postal service, had come from Albania, after being steamed open and checked for any English-language text. Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog, famously had a US administration concoct a war in Albania to take the media glare off the fictional President’s Clintonian priapic indiscretions. The implication was that one could pass Albania off in the West as the subject of any tall tale, such was its obscurity.

The only people I knew who had ever visited Albania were my friend Ronan and his girlfriend Emily. They had taken a day trip from Corfu to the southern coastal town of Buthrotum, and while they were quite taken by the impressive Roman and Ottoman ruins they had no time to see anything more of the country. Distant relatives of my mother had visited Albania for some unknown reason in 1987, when the country was still in the iron grip of its own brand of classical Stalinism, and they had their picture published in the Dublin Evening Press for their troubles. I never got to meet them however to inquire as to their motives to visit that strange country. I also knew journalists that had covered the war in Kosovo, but this didn’t count, as far as I could see. So Albania was as terra incognita as it could get, without leaving Europe.

The trip got off to a bad start, entirely through my own fault. We caught the train from Châtelet-Les Halles in good time to make our flight and all went well until we reached Charles de Gaulle and I insisted on getting off at what turned out to be the wrong stop. Thus came the first setback in my attempt to insert myself back into the dead relationship. My mistake forced us to take a shuttle bus to the correct terminal, barely in time for boarding. But the flight itself was delayed for almost an hour, and we lingered in the departure lounge, mired in the usual dark cast by airlines when flights are delayed. On the TV screens in the lounge, the 24-hour news channels covered the death of Yasser Arafat, who had breathed his last a few miles away the previous night.

The delay made Anna even more anxious and vexed, as we were going to have a narrow enough window as it was to make our connecting flight in Budapest. I tried to reassure her that everything would be all right, that our connecting flight would be honoured as the flight had been booked and sold as one ticket (which may well have been untrue). All through the flight she urged me to inquire the same thing again and again of the flight attendants because, as she hissed at one point, ‘you’re more polite in French than I am’. Each question I asked was greeted with the same reassuring-but-perplexed answer. In Budapest, we had to rush to make our flight, though Anna did find the time to stop by the information desk of Malév Hungarian Airlines to ask to whom she might address her complaint.

The Balkan Alps looked surprisingly familiar as we crossed them, flying southwards to Tirana, located in the low coastal plane that occupies but a small part of the country. Likewise, the shape of the coastline, whose hooked promontories and shallow inlets were reminiscent of Dublin Bay.

Rinas Airport, the country’s only international airport, and now renamed after the most famous Albanian ever, Mother Teresa ‘of Calcutta’, was small and under-appointed but no different to any provincial airport in Europe used by low-fare carriers. Waiting for us was Gjerj, the private chauffeur often hired by Anna’s father, and who, like most of the people in the country, drove a second-hand Mercedes. I later found out that private cars were denied to all but Communist Party members until 1990 and that the lifting of this ban saw a flood of cars imported by returned emigrants from Italy and Germany. The most popular, by a country mile, was the former Party favourite, the Mercedes.

The drive from Rinas, about fifteen miles south of Tirana, was initially picturesque, with small farmhouses and adobe-coloured mosques dotting the jagged landscape but as we neared the city it turned more desolate. The number of houses, naturally, multiplied but most of them looked to be vacant, either as yet unfinished, or empty shells surrounded by rubble. The ones that looked as if a bomb had hit them were apparently illegally built in the chaos that followed the economic collapse in 1997 and were now being forcibly dismantled by the government and Tirana City Council. Many of those houses that were currently occupied were huge gaudy haciendas with gated fronts.

The retro smell of harsh exhaust fumes – from fuel with lead levels long banished from Western European vehicles – choked the air along with the dust kicked up by a thick flow of afternoon traffic. The sight of buildings in various states of completion – or incompletion – gave me the impression that the country was in the grip of a lengthy slow-motion earthquake, which, upon later reflection, proved to be a clumsy but apposite metaphor for the past seventy years of Albania’s history. My first real glimpse of the city was cruelly tempered by my first glimpse of the river which splits Tirana with more geometrical precision than is really warranted for such a glorified stream. The river, the Ishm, appeared all of a sudden to the left of the main highway – though I suspect it might have been there all along, as it was noticeable more for the long uniform embankments flanking it than for its own size, being no more than seven feet wide. Further into the city the river makes a fair stab at being picturesque, disappearing into the distant mountains in a perfect display of pictorial perspective and where the embankments have actual grass growing on them. Here however, it was bleaker; the embankments strafed with refuse – though most of it, it must be said, was considerately knotted up in plastic carrier bags.

Anna’s mother Lovisa was waiting for us at the corner of the street on which she and her husband, Lars, were staying. She was probably not expecting Gjerj to bother running his car through the hilly unpaved street but he implored her to get in and carried us the full hundred yards to the apartment building. I was surprised, naively of course, to discover that this street was in one of the more upmarket areas of town, despite its lack of road surfacing. There were two embassies on the street, the Macedonian on the corner where Lovisa met us, and the Iranian, an intriguing Jean Nouvel-ish structure hidden behind a yashmak of poplars. Our own lodgings were in a brand-new apartment building that was as hideous as cheap contemporary architecture can get within its own budget. On the upper levels it was standard-issue rough-cast functional but the ground-floor was lined with brightly-coloured Hunsterwasser spooled columns. Beside the main entrance was a casino that never seemed to do any trade. Though the building was similar to modest apartment blocks in many Mediterranean countries, by local standards it was quite luxurious, to the extent that one of its residents was the former President Sali Berisha, who was toppled after the country’s 1997 economic collapse. Lars met him in the lift one day and with a typically Scandinavian forthrightness remarked to him that the country had made great strides since then. Berisha was not terribly impressed, though, by way of consolation, he would return to power, as Prime Minister, less than twelve months later.

The area also seemed to have some local cachet, to judge by the adjacent headquarters of the national television service – guarded by a single armed sentry in ill-fitting uniform, presumably in the event of those spontaneous uprisings that always target TV transmitters first. There was also the newly-built Sheraton hotel and the Qemal Stefa Stadium, where Ireland had struggled to get a scoreless draw the previous year — it was the first time I had ever seen what sportswriters habitually call a “crumbling old stadium” that actually was crumbling. But there was no paving on the streets and though at this stage of the weekend the weather was pleasant enough, a good nineteen degrees, far warmer than where we had come from, I had a bad feeling about what it may be like if the weather turned bad.

All over the English-language TV stations, like BBC World and CNN, the news was dominated by the death of Yasser Arafat and his subsequent burial in Ramallah. His remains had been flown to Cairo from Paris, where he had been receiving treatment for several weeks, around about the same time as our flight’s departure that morning. Anna and I imagined that our flight had been delayed because of priority being given to the flight to Cairo but Arafat’s body was flown not out of Charles de Gaulle but Villacoublay, the French military airfield near Versailles. Anna’s parents, being politically minded by profession and inclination, gave a running commentary on proceedings, which soon began to annoy me. Lars announced, after an onscreen reference to terrorism, that “the real terrorist regime” is the Israeli state. Though I wasn’t completely at odds with that view I felt patronised, as if I were a teenager with voting intentions to be moulded at the dinner table. Lovisa agreed with him and this annoyed me too but I said nothing, as my chief plan for the weekend was to re-ally myself with their daughter. I even began to muster a grudging sympathy for Israelis, who so often bear the brunt of righteous European indignation for doing things that the same Europeans would probably do in their situation.

As for Arafat, he was someone whose hero status had taken a bit of a battering in later years, his and the PLO’s standing among Palestinians eroded by the unrewarded compromises of the Oslo accords and his image vitiated by personal vanity and the rampant corruption of his political entourage. There were, however, two televised images of him that remained graven in my mind. One was the defiant ex-revolutionary losing his cool and throwing off Ehud Barak’s embrace at Camp David in September 2000, an uncivil act but a diplomatic breach showing a rare instance of genuine frustration that I found admirable. Then there was Arafat’s bemused face, captured in a low-angle close-up, at the New York Opera at Lincoln Plaza in the mid 90s, filmed while Mayor Rudy Giuliani was ordering, via an impromptu press conference, that this “terrorist” be removed from the building before the performance could begin. The supremely unctuous Giuliani had no problem fêting Gerry Adams at this time but, unlike the IRA, the PLO had few supporters in New York City. As we watched, over supper, archive footage of Arafat being interviewed in his halting, heavily-accented English, I was reminded of a remark made by the mother of Juliette, a Parisian friend of mine: ‘if only everybody spoke English like Yasser Arafat, it would be so much easier to understand.’

The Arab world was awash with conspiracy theories for many years after that Mossad had poisoned Arafat, that he had been in good health shortly before his removal to Paris for treatment. The Israelis, for their part, put it about that he had died of AIDS and that the Palestinian Authority had hushed this up. In 2012, an investigation by Al Jazeera found his clothes to have traces of polonium on them, though medical experts continued to insist that his death was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. Last November, his body was exhumed, tissue samples removed for use in a French murder investigation, and Arafat was then laid to rest again.

The Palestinian struggle has never been off the television screens for long since it kicked off “in earnest” in the late 1960s. By contrast, Albania is known for little other than crime, prostitution (with, regrettably, some justification) and for being obscure and unknown. Where Arafat’s was a face known to people the whole world round few people outside of the Balkans would be likely to know who Enver Hoxha was, much less what he looked like. Yet Hoxha was, in his own lifetime at least, a more successful historical figure than Arafat, even if all he did succeed in doing was ruining his country’s economy and its standing with anybody in the world other than Libya, Cuba and North Korea.

Enver Hoxha, aged 18, 1927

Hoxha was a former French teacher and tobacconist, whose Socialist Labour Party of Albania seized power in 1945 following the liberation from the Nazis who had ruled Albania since the capitulation of the ruling Italian fascists two years earlier. The very word ‘tobacconist’ itself conjures up a distorted image of Chaplin’s little barber thrust into a position of absolute power. Hoxha employed a rigid strain of orthodox Stalinism melded with a paranoia that was aimed mainly at Tito’s Yugoslavia, situated to the north, beyond the Kosovar mountains. This resulted in thousands of bunkers being constructed around the country, each one allotted to an able-bodied male over the age of fourteen, to be commandeered in the event of an invasion. Considering that the country had been invaded twice in the previous decade, and that the Yugoslavs already held Kosovo, with no intention of giving it up, his paranoia may not have been so irrational. The paranoia however soon crept into the most remote recesses of everyday life, in a way that made the ideologically-driven excesses of other Eastern bloc countries seem commonplace. Long-haired foreign men were forced to have a trim courtesy of the state barber at Rinas airport; the country became the world’s first atheist state in 1967 and all the churches and mosques were closed and used as cinemas and church halls. The regime’s favourite prescribed cinema was the oeuvre of Norman Wisdom, which has resulted in the British comedian’s enduring stardom in the country; other than that there was little contact with the outside world. Hoxha’s unwavering Stalinism caused him to break first with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, in 1959, and then in 1978 with China. While the country’s economy, which in the inter-war years had been limited but functioning, went to pieces, the Party’s propaganda machine perpetrated the belief that the country was one of the world’s wealthiest.

A photograph of Hoxha, taken by Kel Marubi, son of the country’s first photographer, the naturalised Italian Pjetër Marubi, in 1936, shows the then parliamentary representative for Gjirokastër giving a speech at an unspecified official ceremony. Hoxha is speaking on a balcony — possibly of the Parliament building in Tirana — surrounded by a dozen other people. A retouched version of the photograph reappeared after Hoxha’s rise to power in which he gives the same speech on the same balcony but this time alone, the other delegates having been spirited out of the frame in what is a desperately cack-handed retouch job. It looks more like a collage, with only the image of Hoxha retaining its original likeness and texture. The rest seems to have been drawn in using HB pencil. There is practically no effort made to hide the artifice in the revision. Hoxha has turned his erstwhile colleagues into ghosts; more so than even in Stalin’s photographic editing, this photograph is a boast and a warning to all that see it, an unselfconscious and brazenly manifested act of mendacity. Marubi died in 1940, and his son Gegë carried on the craft but he later discreetly withdrew from photography upon the entrenchment of Hoxha’s regime, just as August Sander did over a decade earlier upon the Nazis’ coming to power. Hoxha would continue to feature in many photographs – even if his cult of personality was relatively mild – always favouring the healthy revolutionary sheen familiar from the cheeks of Chinese peasants and workers in countless Maoist propaganda posters.

Enver Hoxha, representative for Gjirokastër giving a speech in Shkodër, Kel Marubi, 1936

The above photograph, retouched by the Hoxha regime, c.1950s

But I would be lying if I said I knew all this as I strolled up the avenue of the Martyrs in central Tirana, the closest the city gets to a pretty boulevard, lined with poplars and birches, and which runs between the two main squares. These are University (or Mother Teresa) Square, with its elegant sandstone University building and weeds peeping up between the untended paving stones, and Skanderbeg Square, where the seventeenth-century Ethem Beg Mosque stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the brutalist masses of the Opera House and the National Museum. Most of my intelligence concerning the country came in the weeks and months after my visit, by means of books by Ismail Kadare, the country’s most famous author, and others and online searches. Walking up the main boulevard, past the pink late-baroque Parliament building, built shortly after the country’s independence in 1913, my main concern was my relationship with Anna, which did not seem to be getting any better.

I continued to make faux pas such as forgetting to hold open for her the car door on the side where there was not a puddle stretching the entire width of the street — the rain had finally come and begun to make walking difficult. She continued to offer me advice on how to win her back, under the guise of altruism — the advice consisted of thinking about her more than I had been doing. I increasingly felt that she was making up the rules as she went along and that the goalposts were being moved permanently out of my reach. Anything I learned about the city – or the country – for the few days I was there, I absorbed unconsciously, or by chance. My mind was not really at work when we stepped into the lobby of the Hotel Dajtli, the high vaulted ceiling of which had an icily decadent air to it, nor when we inspected the works in the National Gallery, where I failed to spot, despite being forewarned by our guidebook, the painting out of which former leading party member Mehmet Aliça was painted following his fall from grace and mysterious death in 1981. I was however surprised at how good some of the art was, considering that 90% of it was conceived as Party propaganda. There were some beautiful woodcuts of defiant model workers and even a number of abstract expressionist tableaux treating of revolutionary themes in the most oblique fashion. I had been expecting crude socialist realist panoramas of heroic peasants and dedicated apparatchiks – though perhaps these healthy Tom of Finland figures had once featured there but were since removed.

The realism was confined to a temporary exhibition at the back of the museum, featuring the work of an Albanian painter, long-time resident in Italy. The theme was largely religious, Catholic, suggesting the artist probably hailed from the northern regions, perhaps around the city of Shkodra. Religion is back “in” in Albania after decades of official proscription. The picturesque terracotta-roofed mosques I had seen on the way in from the airport, Lars told me, were all recently established thanks to funds donated by foundations in the Gulf States. He had been annoyed by the appearance of a local Mufti at his office earlier that week, attempting to influence him, he claimed, though he did not say in what way. Lars, being used to Sweden, where this sort of thing tends not to happen, was not impressed by any display of civic enthusiasm on the part of the religious, however benign it might be.

The most happening new part of town, is Blokku (or the Bloc) the two square miles in the centre, just west of the river, straddling the avenue of the Martyrs. It was forbidden to all but party members during the communist era, and is the location of Hoxha’s own house, a surprisingly modest detached Bauhaus style building, about which the most remarkable thing was the underground tunnel which connected it with Parliament. For a man whose political regime was established so firmly on secrecy, the frugality and openness of the architecture seemed strange. It now housed, among other things, an English-language school, something that would surely have the deeply Francophile former lycée teacher executing a wide arc in his grave.

Around the corner from Hoxha’s house, we found a German restaurant named Berlin that had been recommended by the only guide-book we could find for the country, published by Bradt, specialists in destinations neglected by other publishers, not to mention most tourists. It took us a while to find as most of Tirana does without street signs and thus there is little of the urban topography of the city recorded here. We stepped across a foot-deep trench, bridged by a narrow plank in order to enter the restaurant. It may sound from this perspective that the city was a complete mess but it was really just one big building site, everything going on at once, no respite, people digging and boring and erecting without too much concern for what they might be impeding. At times I wondered what might happen were the money to run out – and given Albania’s wholesale economic collapse in 1997, it was not inconceivable that it might happen all at once – I thought of a skyline populated by ‘buildings’ like the one that could be seen from Lars and Lovisa’s apartment, a fifteen-storey tower block as yet only a skeleton of bare concrete levels, garnished by a tattered banner of the construction company flapping in the pale pewter glow of the stadium floodlights. But as with most building sites, or even roadworks, if you look at them they never seem anywhere near being completed. Construction remains a mystery to most people, and Tirana with its cutaways and trenches and concrete shells seemed the most bewildering and unenvisageable city in the world. It was like trying to imagine the fresh skin that would follow a dry, cauterised scab.

We spent a night in the Adriatic port town of Durrës, which had been hit by an actual earthquake in 1979, but which was still not quite so scruffy as Tirana. The seafront was marred by untrammelled hotel development though, far too many hotels, you suspect, for a country where the average personal income was €100 per month. As well as the beach, Durrës had a Roman amphitheatre, which, strangely, benefited from accidental excavations thanks to the earthquake. Anna and I found a restaurant open in one of the new seafront building developments, beside the American Bank of Albania — its fascia swathed in a gaudy stars-and-stripes motif and which, by this stage of the weekend, we had taken to renaming ‘the Albanian Bank of America’. Once inside we found we were the only diners there, and probably the first of the evening. It transpired the restaurant had opened its doors only the previous night; the owners, two young locals returned after ten years working in Florence, treated us rather embarrassingly like royalty. On the way back to the hotel Anna and I argued. It was an argument that seemed to definitively put our relationship to sleep but by the time we returned to Tirana the following afternoon there was reconciliation.

Back in Tirana, the rain continued. It was warmer than northern Europe, still 18 degrees, but it was eighteen degrees lost in the downfall. Anna and I walked around Blokku, buying souvenirs, scarlet T-shirts with the double-headed black eagle rampant, and bottles of raki that we were assured would be a poor substitute for all the homemade stuff that we had been offered in restaurants. There was a break in the weather so we sat on a café terrace on a small square behind the Parliament Building, drinking coffee and not touching the glasses of water that accompanied it, as Lars had warned us not to. We returned to the street and turned onto the main boulevard; Anna stopped to take photographs of a group of men that were weighing out fresh trout on the pavement. I remonstrated with her, as she had not asked their permission. I was sensitive as to how people might react to strangers with cameras after decades of close surveillance. Anna dismissed my objections and nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to us. We had wanted to go to the western part of the city, where most of the restaurants and bars recommended by the Bradt guide were located but the rain started again as we were crossing Skanderbeg Square. Suddenly a blast came from behind the mosque, and a few pink sparkles lit up the watery sky. The squibs kept firing, marking, we guessed, the feast of Eid-al Fitur at the end of Ramadan. It was an ostentatious display that impressed nobody. Few people stopped to watch and the local youth in new pressed Levis and leather jackets passed nonchalantly in the rain, not even bothering to raise their heads. Ismail Kadare remarked in his non-fiction book Albanian Spring that the Albanian people had trained themselves to not notice anything for fear of incriminating themselves or simply falling into disfavour with the authorities. Now despite the recent rise in religious activity, the fireworks display to mark the end of the most important Muslim month was acknowledged by barely anybody, just like Anna’s sneaky photography. For a country that has such a bad (and largely undeserved) reputation for criminality, there appeared to be none here, or at least to foreigners, who were left alone and only approached when they appeared to be genuinely lost. As I looked up at Tirana’s newly-built tallest building, named after a British telecommunications company, with its familiar logo dominating the sky from its perch high above Blokku, I wondered how this ingrown resistance to noticing things was faring in the face of advertising and consumerism.

We made our way back to the apartment, negotiating one by one the reference points that had fitted into our minds, the Enver Hoxha memorial conference centre, designed by his daughter and son-in-law; the headquarters of TV Shqiperia with its bored, unfearsome sentry; the stadium, still lit up and still no game, and finally the shell of the tower block and the tattered banner still aflutter in the wet breeze. We changed into dry clothes and ordered pizza to be delivered, which took a long time to come but was good when it arrived. We watched more coverage of Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah and listened to the opinions of the pundits, which were all drearily predictable, as if the language of eulogy had long been exhausted. Before bed we watched an old episode of The Fast Show, which Anna had never seen before, on BBC Prime. She loved it and I think that the Albanians, too might have been tickled by Paul Whitehouse’s physical resemblance to Norman Wisdom.

On Sunday afternoon Anna and I said goodbye to Lars and Lovisa, Anna naturally with greater emotion, even though she was going to see them back in Sweden in little over a month. Gjerj drove us to the airport, back along the same route lined by houses, past, present and future, cradled below the black mountains. A train crawled along the single track towards Durrës perpendicular to the airport road. We paid 100 lek for our exit visas and when we transferred at Budapest we were moved up to first class. We did not fight for the rest of the weekend and as we were disembarking at Charles de Gaulle, I told Anna, who was dressed in a keffiyeh and an Army surplus pea-coat that she looked like Leila Khaled in the PLO’s hijacking heyday – an ill-considered thing to say on a passenger flight but which caused her dark eyes to twinkle with pride. In Paris we met friends for drinks in Stolly’s in the Marais. A trio of English photographers, who did not seem to be on a night off, took pictures of us without asking permission but we didn’t mind. They said that they would send them on, though we never heard from them.

I returned to Dublin almost convinced that I was back with Anna once again though understandably wary. I answered questions from curious friends, most of which consisted of the whereabouts of Albania.

Anna and I continued to call one another and I was still intending to move back to Paris after Christmas though our plans to move in together had been put on hold for the moment. Three weeks later however the calls from Anna had diminished to a trickle. I had trouble getting in touch with her and when I finally did, she told me that she was seeing somebody else. I was naturally not too happy about this, but she countered my bitterness with a chiding remark that she was “entitled to a bit of romance”. Our paths would cross only fleetingly over the next couple of years before she returned to Sweden to settle down and raise a family.

So I was left with a trip to Albania, and the most superficial of authority on life there. I wanted to make a little cash out of my trip as I sometimes do, by selling generic travel articles to one of the papers back home. But it was difficult to find an angle on Albania, especially considering that the country did not at the time even have a tourist office. I did not even have any images that I might submit, Anna’s poorly-lit shot of the fishermen being now out of my range. I thought of one line that I could build on, perhaps for a travel article on the Balkans as a whole, not that I had at this moment in time travelled any further in that region: “Albania is a land for those who like their countries raw”. But I got no further than that.

Cover photograph Young Muslim Woman by Pjetër Marubi, 1884

About the Author:

Oliver Farry was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1975. He lives in Paris, where he works as a journalist, writer, translator and editor.