Albana Shala is the Chair of UNESCO’s International Programme for Development of Communication (IPDC) Council. She is an expert with more than 15 years of experience in the independent media development field and is currently Programme Coordinator at Free Press Unlimited, a Dutch organisation supporting independent media in more than 40 countries. In that capacity she has organised and participated in a wide range of international multi-stakeholder conferences on media and internet freedom in the Netherlands, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central America. The ethical use of Internet, safety of journalists and media partners, and privacy issues are among the fundamental challenges of Ms.Shala’s work in conflict and crisis regions. Ms. Shala is interested in linking media development with research and promoting UNESCO’s knowledge driven media development. She holds a Master degree in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Stani: I do not have a nationality, or rather, my nationality is human
Interview with Lazër Stani, writer, essayist, journalist
By Albana Shala
I meet Lazër in my dreams. Sometimes I meet him in my house in Tirana, where we drink tea at the kitchen table, translating together a poem by Akhmatova. Sometimes we meet in a cafe and talk about a story without a title, inviting it into the light so that we can baptize it right then and there. Sometimes we meet and walk along the coast, sometimes we take a mountain path that winds through the forest to his birthplace in Pult. More often than not we meet at the Library of the Academy of Sciences in Tirana.
Sunlight falls upon the covers of old and new books in this classical library which has become a dream library. The books watch us for the hundredth time. Smiling, they murmur amongst themselves:
“I told you they would come again, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but a long time has passed and I thought they would meet somewhere else.”
“They recognize our power. That’s why.”
“Speak for yourself. You fascinate them, mesmerize them. When they turned my pages they would often become sad, seemingly unwilling to go back among the people.”
“Well here they are, back again, for all of us. This is more important.”
In the dream library Lazër and I turn into children who want to learn to fly at all costs. We read and read and talk passionately about everything we come across, perusing again and again beloved books, each time discovering new things while feeling utterly at home in that labyrinth of human knowledge.
Our friends, persuaded by our commitment, share with us all their secrets, one by one. At the end of our encounter they give us wings and bless us on our way,- out into the big wide world.
There we meet another child, Luljeta, who in my dream already knows how to fly. She is my dearest childhood friend and Lazër’s life companion. Flying, she drizzles verses on the wings of birds, filling our sky with words that fall like stars.
I wake up. I call Lazër and we agree to meet in a real café – Café Picadilly, near the Writers’ League in Tirana. The city has been washed clean by the afternoon rain. The trees and flowers in the courtyard of the café threaten to engulf us with their lush exuberance. We try to talk about ‘important’ things, but we can’t. Nature wants only worshippers. We agree to meet on the web. Perhaps without realizing it, Lazër, we have grown up and are now getting old. We have become parents and life companions, property owners, public officials, councilors and chairpersons.
Are these roles you dreamt about filling when we were young?
The laws of life and ruthless time work on us; they change us every single day. A person cannot really know when he or she first began to dream. We cannot know if we invented the dream or were born with it written in our genes. Slowly, from our first moment of awareness, we follow it, struggling ceaselessly to realize it. But the dream remains always distant, unattainable, though it seems close enough to touch. It is like a game of sky where you see the mountain breaching the horizon. You say to yourself – as soon as I get to the top of the ridge I will touch the sky, but when you reach the top you realize the sky has fled to the next crest. I wrote once that a man cannot relinquish his dreams; neither in literature, nor in real life. There is always a gap between our dreams and our lives. We live at a lower level than our dreams and it is this that makes us persevere, trying to manifest them as long as we draw breath. We do not lose hope.
I only know that my childhood dreams have always been distant. They did not end with the slope of the hill in front of my house, or with the mountain across the valley, they did not linger under the umbrella of the sky settling on the crown of mountains that surrounded my birthplace. Once, I climbed with a friend up to the highest peak, gazing from there at the wide horizon, down to Shkodra Lake and beyond to the Adriatic. I was possessed by a feeling of grandiosity, a surge of spiritual triumph. It seems I had always suffered the pressure of a narrow horizon.
I loved maps as a school boy. It was by means of maps that I travelled all over the globe, from the Arctic to the South Pole. I imagined walking every inch of the cities, the villages, the mountains and plains of our planet. And when the world seemed small, I turned my gaze to the sky, to the distant stars. I understood then that solitude is the universal law of the cosmos; the nearest star is thousands of light years away and the stars too are condemned to eternal solitude. I did not understand why the Creator had condemned us to loneliness. Years later I became convinced that loneliness is not only the law of the universe, but also a law within us, written in our genes. We try to liberate ourselves from it by every means available without ever really succeeding. I believe it is from here that literature, among other things, stems.
To concretely answer your question: In the ongoing struggle, which simply translates as years lived, I have achieved many things. I have studied and I have learned, I have made a home for myself and my family, I have been married, raised children, I’ve experienced loss and have seen many beloved people depart, I have written books and left some evidence of my existence.
But as I have already observed, the dream always recedes, like the horizon. It always retreats to the next crest and this provides me with an incentive to go on living.
What has made you free and individual?
I have often thought about this: what makes me free? I have arrived at various conclusions to this question down the years, but I have always been convinced that a man or woman is born with his or her own freedom intact. I do not mean the consciousness of being free or the courage to defend it when it is threatened. We were brought up in hard times for freedom, living as we did under one of the harshest dictatorships ever conceived. And yet, I think I have been a free man. I have written a story “The idiot travels to America” which explores this issue.
I resisted the biggest threats to my freedom by nourishing in myself the idea of escape. When I stood in front of maps, I did not understand why I could not travel to another place, just because it belonged to another state and other people lived there. Our planet belongs to the people who live on it, not to governments or dictators who raise fences and build impenetrable walls. I used to think about running away at a very early age, although I never did run away. It was a secret that excited me and allowed me to explore endless possibilities in my imagination. It also made me somehow detached from reality so that I did not pay close attention to my career or the place where I actually lived. I lived with myself and for myself.
I remember the anxiety and the temptation of one October day, when I was sitting on the bank of the river Buna. On the other side there was an old church which seemed deserted. On our side the churches had all been razed to the ground. All I needed to do was swim a hundred meters and I would be on the other side of the border, in another world, mysterious and unknown. A little further up the bank three soldiers were basking in the sun, guarding the border, relaxed, smiling and playful. It was painful to imagine them becoming ruthless killers, had I dared to jump into the water in an attempt to reach the far bank, the foreign side. It was a cold day and the ground on either side of the river was frozen. I was warmed by the idea that one day I would cross that border, dead or alive. So I went back to my voluntary – that is compulsory – labour of corn husking, but the excitement had captured my soul, like the excitement of a first love.
Later I shared this secret with my friend Ndoc Deda (Shtëpia). For many years we spent hours, nights on end, discussing the idea of escape, making plans, convinced there was no alternative. What prevented us leaving was my grandfather. Soon after we graduated he got sick. I promised Ndoc that I would run away with him when my grandfather passed away, the first autumn after his death. I loved my grandfather and I felt I could not abandon him. My grandfather died and one year later my friend ran away, but I stayed behind in Albania. I was never to go. Our borders fell and in one way or another political freedoms were recognized. Running away did not make sense any longer.
But the freedom ‘instinct’, as I like to call it, does not function only in one direction. There are many unfree people living in free societies. I think I am a free person who pays the price continuously for my freedom. The cost of freedom is heavy in every epoch and in every society, but it is only the feeling of freedom that makes life bearable.
To what extent do you feel Albanian?
I feel thoroughly Albanian. I do not have and I cannot have another identity, even if I wanted to. I come from an old Christian Albanian family. Generation after generation we have been Albanian, since time immemorial. I write in Albanian, I speak Albanian, I was born and brought up in Albania, what else could I be? Of course, being Albanian is not a choice: I was born in Albania and therefore my identity card asserts I am ‘Albanian’. Does it mean something? Certainly those eight letters mean something. A foreigner reading my passport tries to understand what it means, he uses his geographical and historical knowledge as well as information from newspapers, but this superficial significance does not concern me. A man is more than a geographical notion. His is a personal history, particular to him and incomparable with the stories of others, unrepeatable. In using comparisons and analogies we often arrive at mediocre conclusions, if not entirely mistaken ones. For me the significance of being Albanian is something quite different: it is my history and the history of my family, the words that I muttered first, my forefathers resting in their graves, it is the culture, the history, the myths, the legends, the dreams, the whole life project. I love Albania and I live where I want to live.
To what extent do you feel European and a citizen of the global village?
Geographical labels do not mean much. I am Albanian and European at the same time. Perhaps other Europeans make a distinction between the two, but I do not. European civilization is rooted in the Mediterranean, the Greco- Roman civilization and the values of Christianity. As an Albanian, I come from a nation that merged these two civilizations. A nation, a people, giving and taking not only Emperors, Popes and distinguished military commanders, but also words of initiation, culture, myths, legends and history. The Middle Ages brought real drama to Albanians, changing the Albanian archetype simultaneously with the European one. At the same time I am aware that it is not only birthplace that makes one European. It is culture and a system of recognized values.
If judged by my literary preferences I do not have a nationality, or rather, my nationality is human. On my desk there are always two books – the poetry of Borges, ’L’oro delle Tigri’ and his ‘Poems of the Night’. Books with poems by Yehuda Amichai, Cesare Pavese, Salvatore Quasimodo, C.P. Cavafy, short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Amoz Oz , Julio Cortazar, Roberto Bolano, Franz Kafka and many others make up my dear library, which has only one identity – the culture of mankind. And I certainly feel part of that culture, more than any other.
To what extent do you feel a man, a highlander, modern and emancipated?
It is difficult to talk about oneself. Now and then we received guests at our home when I was a child and I remember one of them once said to my grandfather “You are a brave man!”. My grandfather responded immediately with “Lord, do not test me!”. If by being a man one understands being master of one’s destiny, I think I have always been my own master, both in good and bad times, especially when facing difficulties, when there was no-one at my side, when I became a stranger to the world, even to the people I loved.
Kafka wrote “Metamorphosis” about the drama of the individual., Pavese has some beautiful lines in his poetry “Ancestors”:
Siamo pieni di vizi, di ticchi e di orrori
– noi, gli uomini, i padri – qualcuno si è ucciso,
ma una sola vergogna non chi ha mai toccato,
non saremo mai donne, mai schiavi a nessuno
And I can also say that I never have been ‘a woman’ and I have never been a slave. As for being a highlander, it is a term which refers to a native or inhabitant of the Highlands. In Albania highlanders have a special quality, they are less genetically diluted by the incursions of invaders and culturally they have kept alive the ancient archetype, due to their centuries of isolation. But you cannot judge people on their birthplace. I had an amazing childhood in the house where I was born, where life and death were in a fragile balance. It was a life full of stories – never-ending narratives, myths and legends. They made life beautiful, full of mystery and hope. However, I instinctively knew that as soon as I was old enough and master of myself, I would leave the Highlands. And that is what happened. I think I took much that was good from there, but not its vices. In my writings my birthplace takes a lot of space. I always return to it, as if to an impossible paradise, one which we lost with the sin of Eve and Adam.
Finally I believe I am emancipated as I am a free man.
Pavese’s poem sounds quite anti-woman. What about being a parent?
I am a good father and strongly bound to my children. I am not only their parent but a friend, an interlocutor. One day my daughter Lea told me: ‘You are my dearest person on earth’. Lea does not usually express her feelings and I often joke with her that she is made for politics and diplomacy. She is not like her older sister Lodia, who expresses herself more emotionally. This makes me think that I am a good father, although I wish I could do more for my children.
What about being the husband of a wonderful poet?
You should ask my wife and your friend about this. In the classical sense of the word I do not think I am a good husband. Life is hard and spouses fight for territory. In a “successful” marriage individualities dissolve, a couple becomes one composition, as happens with composite chemical substances which then gain new qualities. My spouse and I have kept our individuality, we have not amalgamated, but we have still managed to stay together all these years.
What about being a writer?
I write but I do not know if I am a writer. If I write some good pages or one really good book in my life I would be happy. I do not consider myself a martyr to literature. It does not make sense to me to live only for literature, although literature gives meaning to my life and makes it possible.
Do you believe in any of the great ideologies?
No, I do not believe in any ideology. Ideologies have brought a lot of misfortune to humanity. Take the communist ideology and its catastrophic consequences throughout the world during the 20th century. An ideology that is propagated in a very seductive way is a powerful instrument in the hands of criminal minds, otherwise called dictators. An intellectual mind is not prone to belief, it is prone to doubt.
Is there something you believe in?
I believe in the power of love. Something I do not love I cannot do.
And in God?
People need to believe in something. Faith is peaceful, a comforting solution, which relieves us of our stifling doubts, our unanswered questions. As a child, one is very curious and inquisitive. I was so as well. While growing up and becoming mature, a man looks for answers to his questions, ready-made answers in science, in religion, in philosophy. The opposite happened to me.
The years have not brought answers, but questions. Now I have more questions and fewer answers than before.
I believe humanity is still in its infancy when it comes to knowledge. Despite the progress of science and technology, despite the development of culture and philosophical thought, we still lack convincing answers to the fundamental questions: where do we come from, who are we and where are we going? The mystery in the world is colossal, compared with the few things we know, and I am convinced that after a thousand or ten thousand years, if humanity still exists, our limited knowledge will make us look ridiculous. Do I believe? I know that I do not believe in most of the explanations that we have been given; I know that beyond our knowledge there is mystery, there is the unknown. What is this mysterious unknown that has power over our lives? Is there a universal project, and are we humans part of this project, designed by someone in the same way as we design computer games? Or is there another explanation – something more essential, something more elusive and inaccessible? There is no single answer. Even biocentrism, the most recent and provocative theory put forward by Robert Lanza, does not provide an exhaustive answer, but he arouses interest and challenges us not to dwell in the shallow waters of our knowledge. I believe that there is something beyond coincidence and chance. Let us call this power divine, as people have historically identified it.
What about the Russian language and Russian literature? What influence did they have on your work?
I initially started learning Russian by chance, when I was in my first year of high school. When I finished high school I could read the language and enjoyed it. The language itself did not have any influence, but it was through reading Russian that I managed to read the major works of world literature, which in those days could not be found in Albanian. In particular I was able to read much forbidden modern literature in translation. Throughout my twenties, I had access to world culture only through the Russian language. These were important years for me.
Who are the most important people in your life?
My family. In my childhood there was my grandfather, my mother, my father, my youngest sister. My grandfather was an extraordinary man. I was brought up with much love and care – in one sense my family pinned their hopes on me. They loved me so much and hoped so much for me that my fear of disappointing them is the biggest fear I have ever experienced. Once I disappointed my Mother. I have never felt so bad in my life. She did not say a word, but I read her deep disappointment in her eyes, the sorrow in her face.
It had to do with my exam results in 6th grade which were all average. I took an oath to never disappoint her again and from that time on my school I didn’t. Let bygones be bygones. Whether beautiful or sad, the past remains the past and you cannot live life over again. The system was a mistake, a historical accident which was barbaric, primitive, criminal. Luckily it collapsed but we are still suffering the consequences. I always felt disconnected, as if I had nothing to do with it. That was my way of surviving.
During the last few years you have been busy with documenting the past in the Museum of Memory. What is your intention?
We remember so that we can live in freedom! This has been a fundamental priority when curating the Museum of Memory because, unfortunately, dictatorships and dictators are not a unique phenomenon in society. They have repeated themselves since antiquity right up to modern times, causing untold murders, terror, suffering, as well as the usurpation and violation of fundamental freedoms and human rights.
We Albanians have a bitter experience of this. We suffered under one of the cruelest dictatorships, one which not only planted death and poverty, filling the country with prisons and concentration camps, but which turned the entire country into a prison. We are trying to capture and show this dimension at the Museum of Memory, mainly targeting the younger generation who are much uninformed or have access only to propaganda about our dark past. It is one thing to say that communism was bad, that our communist leader was a dictator, that innocent people were killed, imprisoned, locked up in camps so that the country ended up in misery, and it is something else to provide people with the facts about the crimes of communism and the misery of Albanians through documents, photographs – evidence that can be touched, seen, felt. Certainly, our project is only one small step, but perhaps effective as part of our effort as a society to detach ourselves once and for all from our past and the logic of the totalitarian mentality.
What has to change in Albania, if something needs to be changed? How do you want Albania to be in 30 years?
It is up to the Albanian people. If Albanians do not change, Albania will not change either. The Albanian people have to gain a vision of the future which is now completely absent. The Albanian has to understand that the world does not end at his garden fence and life does not consist only of today and the day after. Finally, the Albanian has to learn to think with his head and not with his guts, to feel with his soul and not with his stomach. I have to say that I do not believe I will see Albania become the country I have always dreamed about.
Finally, what else do you want to share with the readers?
My short story ‘Baggage delay’. Our history is unfortunately a history of delay.