The Unofficial View of Tirana 80


Monument commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II to Tirana.

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

The Pope is coming to Tirana and I won’t be there. I am stationed for the semester in Singapore, but nevertheless I will attempt to continue to write about Albania even though my distance from the real events on the ground may impede a thorough understanding. But perhaps this distance is also refreshing. So the Pope is coming to Tirana, on Sunday.

Every Prime Minister needs a Pope to meet. The last Pope to visit Tirana was John Paul II, in 1993, just after the fall of the communist regime. The visit of John Paul II, himself hailing from a fallen communist regime, was one of the milestones in the rehabilitation of religion in the Albanian sphere and marked a symbolic end to the atheist policies of the former communist regime (during the Cultural Revolution in 1967, Albania had declared itself the “first atheist state in the world”). The visit was commemorated by a nondescript monument on the square in front of the former Enver Hoxha Museum, a.k.a. Pyramid. A concrete wall with semi-abstract Matisse-like(?) openings and a steel metal construction crossing one of the defunct decorative fountains support a massive iron bell, which was apparently cast from smelted Kalashnikovs. Its meaning fully escapes me. Whenever there is a protest on the Boulevard, there is always someone climbing onto the structure ringing the bell with his feet. In a previous installment of this blog I think I referred to the bell sound as “apocalyptic.”

The planned visit of Pope Francis on Sunday was preceded by a visit of the current PM Edi Rama to Rome in April 2014, rather quickly after his election, perhaps in an attempt to appease the largely PD voting Catholics in Northern Albania. As soon as Rama posted the festive images of his audience in the Vatican, Berisha was quick to respond with images from Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1993, together with the recently sanctified Mother Theresa. Rama may have met a pope, but Berisha had met a pope and a saint. This was followed by another Facebook post, in which Berisha shakes hands with Pope Francis, announcing his visit to Tirana, as if to say that he himself had organized it. Such a sour loser…

PM Edi Rama and his wife received by Pope Francis, from Rama’s Facebook (April 25, 2014)

From left to right: Mother Teresa, Liri Berisha, Pope John Paul II, Sali Berisha, from Berisha’s Facebook (April 27, 2014)

Berisha meets Pope Francis in the St. Peter, from Berisha’s Facebook (June 15, 2014)

At the same time, Rama may think that bringing the Pope to Tirana, as in 1993, marks an important break with the politics of the past. Insofar Pope John Paul II symbolically opened Albania’s doors to capitalism and a specifically conservative type of Catholicism with money-grabbing policies akin to Berisha’s, the fresh air and “no more scandals” attitude brought in by Pope Francis and his “leftist” view on the Catholic faith (such as indicated by the recent canonization of Pasolini’s “The Gospel according to Matthew” and the embrace of liberation theologists) may very well resonate with Rama’s own projected image as leftist, “third-way” reformer (and yes Tony Blair is still around).

Mother Theresa Square before its “return to identity.”

Mother Theresa Square, without communist fountain (previously in lower right corner), from Minister of Culture Kumbaro’s Twitter (Sept. 2, 2014)

Interestingly enough, there is also an architectural parallel between the 1993 visit of John Paul II and the visit of Francis 11 year later. Whereas the monument with the papal Kalashnikov bell crosses and interrupts the fountains in front of Enver Hoxha’s museum, the impending visit of Pope Francis has led to a full destruction of another defunct fountain from the communist period along the main axis in Tirana, namely the one on Mother Theresa Square, where a mass gathering is supposed to take place celebrating the sanctification of Mother Theresa; as if the visit of the Holy Father is meant to effectively undo the unholy waters of communism… (even though the restoration of the square brings it back to its original fascist glory. This “return to identity” (which is executed under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and has fully excluded the opposition-led Municipality of Tirana) of the square is accompanied by a certain rehabilitation of Gherardio Bosio, who created the Tirana city plan based on the shape of the fasces, formed by the Boulevard of the martyrs, with the Mother Theresa Square and University building on top, and the blade of the axe formed by the Qemal Stafa stadium. So ironically, a Papal visit symbolizing the return of progressive politics leads to return of pre-communist, fascist architecture.

Thoma Thomai’s statue of Mother Theresa next to the University building on Mother Theresa Square

The airplane-shaped statue of Mother Theresa after being removed from its original spot.

At the same time, it seems that the only effective reminder of Mother Theresa on the eponymous square, a rather small statue tucked away along the side of the grandiose fascist University building, surrounded by the smell of urine and cigarette buds (maybe actually quite appropriate considering her penchant of “helping” the poorest of the poor) will be removed and relocated to another position outside Tirana at the entrance of Mother Theresa (“Rinas”) Airport in spite of previous reassurances given by the director of the Institute for Monuments, Arta Dollani. It will replace (and I can already tell you it will look ridiculous) the curious “Airplane Theresa” statue, which now as landed somewhere waiting for future restoration(?).

The rationale for these displacements remain for now unknown, but the historical and architectonical shifts caused by Pope Francis’s visit will certainly not remain limited to the above. The real fight is waged behind the curtains about the hegemony over the protocol: who will receive the Pope, where, when, and for how long? President, PM, and former PM will are already staging a silent war over the program, and the actual day of His Holiness’s visit, on September 21, will most of all show clearly the current political power balance at the opening of the new parliamentary season.

About the Author:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a Dutch philosopher, writer and conceptual artist.