By Besnik Mustafaj
The first time I was in Greece was in November 1991, almost a year after the fall of Albanian dictatorship. In the meantime, I was elected as a Member of Parliament in the Albanian Assembly, a new and unknown burden for me. Politics was never part of my dreams for my future until a few months ago, leading up to the historic overthrow, a velvet revolution but accelerated revolution; I only found myself in its front row simply because the writer within me, which had already gained a certain maturity, had become conscious how uncompensated was the lack of freedom to continuously express myself in every given moment. According to my initial prediction, enthusiastic participation in politics would end with the arrival of freedom.
A mistaken prediction. On the eve of Spring 1991, when I was strongly encouraged to run on behalf of the democratic party for the Albanian Assembly against the party of communists, who were attempting to accommodate themselves with new historical circumstances, I gained uncertainties because of my understanding that politics would help me understand more quickly the ingredient of freedom as a real concept.
I had spent my childhood, youth, and my early years of manhood in a country, which was no doubt my fatherland, a fatherland surrounded from inside with barbed wire, and where Albanian border guards kept their weapons pointed at their countrymen, ready to shoot everyone who would attempt an escape from the squeeze.  Who was the enemy of the fatherland in such circumstances?
This question becomes exhausting for the conscience of the writer and it is impossible to see in his literature the drama from above, the tissues of which are organically political. One way or the other the writer will always take sides: with the squeezers or the squeezed, which means the writer is unavoidably involved politically and his vision is gripped within the brackets “for” or “against,” just like in steel pliers.
Every writer who has written under a dictatorship while believing that he is staying away from politics only has lied to himself. Dictatorship starves right at its embryo the species of an apolitical writer. The writer, molded under dictatorship, therefore, whether willingly or otherwise, will essentially remain political even after the takeover from totalitarianism. Existing as a writer in the emerging historical settings, it is urgent for him to understand well that he can’t abandon his essentials in order to be metamorphosed in someone else. This doesn’t mean that he continues to be the same as before. To the contrary. With the coming of freedom, the pliers are dismantled once and for all — the pliers “in favor” or “against the regime,” under which he has been engulfed just as in the iron bed of Procrustes.
The euphoria, which is natural in these historical moments, such as there are in vital turns in national history — and this euphoria is a straw fire — the dazed writer discovers that the darkened gripping he suffered, just taken away yesterday from steel pliers, indeed was also a comfort for him. While escaping from torture, he has lost peace altogether. He has no more situations to be “against,” which means that he is now inexperienced with every way of functioning, and results in being very complicated in himself being untrained.
But without resolving this situation, he cannot make peace with himself. As a result of this discovery, his shock is so enormous that he cannot avoid the question whether the arrival of freedom marks the fulfillment of his most sacred dream or his decisive exit from his sacred dream. Week after week and month after month, this question also was becoming torturous for my conscience as a writer.
At that time, I could not take off my mind the subject of a Greek poem, inadvertently encountered years ago in a modern Greek poetry anthology, published in French by UNESCO. I couldn’t remember the author and can’t remember to this today. The poem described a tiger born and raised in a zoological garden. In his cage of six square meters the tiger run 60 kilometers a day. One day the keeper forgot to close the door of the cage. The tiger went in the courtyard and began to run around by himself with great fury, but only on a surface of six square meters. He simply could not run straight, because the vast spaces of savannas and a remote horizon with the illusion of earth emerging with the sky did not exist in his memory.
In my turbulent imagination was accomplished unwillingly a resemblance between myself and that ill-fated tiger. I am convinced the confrontation with historical discontinuity for the writer is much more devastating than for politicians or sociologists. He is either taught to change on year zero with great fatigue, or cannot be changed and will crumble and dissolve as a writer. It is not a coincidence that many writers in the former communist countries, very good authors amongst them, entered politics with the fall of dictatorships; they earned a new public stemming from great responsibilities undertaken before their nations, which means they attained a new life from the beginning to the end, but they never returned again in their manuscripts of novels, poetry or theater plays. Their most brilliant example is Vaclav Havel.
I couldn’t envision all this during that beginning. I only hoped that my participation in politics would help me overcome sooner and soothing the jumble and plentiful erosive insecurities which were only growing; they were corroding because of new imperfections that I discovered in the dazzling face of freedom. The sooner and soothing overcoming of the jumble and insecurities would be a gained time and, as I thought, this time indeed would have been gained for the writer within myself, who had already passed his thirties and definitely believed that writing was the essential purpose of his life.
On the other side, it must confess that I did not have the slightest idea on what contained the mandate of a member of parliament, which I accepted to run in an electoral district of the capital, and which I won without a headache: I only did a rally and nothing else. I did not even break a sweat to provide a portrait of myself in order to print a simple poster, as did my other colleagues, which is also the proper way. In a nutshell, I was completely careless towards voting results. Lack of knowledge for the new charge did not trouble me and I was not even afraid of failure. I had it clear in my mind: I did not enter politics with the intention to go a long way. Also — I should confess twenty years later — In my soul I did not have the inflaming spirit to become a “public servant.” In all this muddle, that was wadding my head, for a few months I did not even realize that I had stopped writing. I did not genuinely feel the need to withdraw myself in the solitude of a novelist, even for a brief time per day. This was too much, unendurable.
To vent this chaotic state, ambiguous and hoping to escape from it, at that time I commenced writing the essay “Albania: amidst crimes and mirages.” Its emphasis was the crimes of the communist past, the mirages of the democratic future and myself, a thirty year old Albanian, above all a writer, with my present between two epochs, that is struggling in order to understand the meaning of a historical discontinuity, which was not properly an aesthetical discontinuity. Where am I going? I asked myself many times the same as I asked during my first trip in Greece, to participate in a meeting of parliamentarians from the Balkans, organized in Salonika by the European parliament in partnership with the Greek parliament. I had a thousand and one reasons to be grateful to this occasion that was taking me to our ancient neighbour, with which communist Albania had a long and open hostility, until the diplomatic relations between the two countries were established only a few years after the fall of dictatorship.
We, from inside the encirclement of barbed wire, with the willpower to protect ourselves from manipulation, totally blamed our government for this hermetical closure towards our southern neighbour. Greece was de jure in a state of war with Albania since 1940, when Mussolini’s Italy, which had invaded Albania one year earlier, used the Albanian territory to attack her. This fact was strange, therefore, right from its origins and nonetheless continued to be valid even after the establishment of diplomatic relations. The legislatures under the regime of colonels that ruled Greece with an iron fist undeniably would not abrogate it. The paradox was that this absurdity was not erased even by Greece’s democratic legislatures after the fall of military dictatorship; they were changing the destiny of their country by integrating it into NATO and later to the European Union. But with us, the smallest neighbour of the Balkans, the most economically weak as well as politically unfortunate, why do the Greek democrats, either from the left or the right, continued to keep alive the ghost of war? We, Tirana’s young intellectuals, never raised such a question to ourselves frightened that with a cold logic perhaps we would find a slight truth in the official rhetoric and, therefore, the blame for our dictatorship would be softened ever so little from the burden of historical responsibility for the fierce seclusion were we lived. Another discrete reason to enjoy this voyage was the company of Donika, my wife. At that time she was thirty-one and it was not only her first visit in Greece but also her first trip outside Albania. Above all, we would travel by car. Besides the precarious infrastructure of the road, while passing through villages and small Greek towns, we would see firsthand the lives of average people, something that was delightful for Donika, as well as for myself.
We arrived in Salonika at dusk. It was a mild weather for a fall twilight, and there was no wind. Hurriedly, we checked our room in the Hotel, like those who don’t have a minute to lose. The window of our room looked towards mount Olympus. But we, before enjoying those ancient monuments, were eager to explore the city. We had about two hours available before the welcoming dinner arranged by the Greek authorities for the invited parliamentarians. My wife rarely drinks coffee, but this time, for a reason that a woman doesn’t commonly have to explain, she desired one before we took a walk. We took a table at the Hotel’s bar. The waiter, a man on his forties, with a short and flattened body – I will never forget his outer shell – moved promptly towards our table with petite and swift steps, I would say cheery steps, with a very amiable air, he spoke to us in Greek. He had a hastened speaking, with syllables pegged one after another, a vocal revealing of his walking panache. I was going to share with my wife in Albanian my happiness that the waiter, the first Greek with whom we exchanged a few words in the land of Odysseus, he spoke to us in his mother tongue, and neither my wife nor I understood a word. But in that beginning of our freedom, we did not want the difference to be perceived, which we believed we had with the people grown in freedom. Deeply, deeply in ourselves, before all, we were in search of resemblances with them, as a remedy to gain personal confidence, for which we had a great need, the same as for breathing air. At his first approaching in Greek, the waiter had offered us an amazing gift. He had thought we were Greek. However, we presumed that his question was referring to what we wanted to drink.
– Do you speak French? I asked, attentive to facilitate the communication to my wife.
– Of course, – he responded immediately with a fluid French that was as cheery as his Greek. – Here you are in a international hotel, and the service staff is carefully selected in harmony to the customers’ high level.
-I would like a Turkish coffee, – Donika interjected, with a certain familiarity which is not her habit towards a stranger. – Can you make it?
– I am sorry, madam? What did you say? – the waiter responded meanwhile his face turned bitter as it seemed so terrible that he could not believe his ears.
My wife would have repeated the request, even with the same ease, even if he could not make the Turkish coffee. But her word suddenly froze in her lips, when she saw the server’s vexed face. She turned to me, and, fully concerned, asked me in Albanian, whether she had done something wrong. Through her thin nervous vocal cords had emerged all the uncertainty of a person who is in a foreign bar and orders in a foreign language for the first time. Even worst, in a third language, in which she was not well-trained.
-No,- I responded quickly only to calm her. I couldn’t understand what happened. Why did the waiter became upset?
Donika lost her desire for coffee and asked me to go outside. Her face had turned pale as it could not sufficiently breathe.
The server was still there with his eyes moving hastily and throwing flame sparkles to my wife. He saw us leaving the table and did not invite us to stay any longer. Openly, he was not looking for reconciliation. He only asked me with his fluent french, already frozen, what language I spoke to madam. I felt very embarrassed from his presence. Nonetheless, I responded without asking myself why this curiosity.
– We are Albanians. – I looked from the corner of the eye to see how his visage blazed.
-You cannot come in our house and provoke us, – he raised his voice and went to the bar counter while flexing his flattened body. Many guests turned their heads towards us. He articulated something else in Greek but not particularly addressed to me and my wife.
I didn’t know what to say in order to take off myself the stain of a shadowy blunder. The idea that the waiter may have been a little foolish was worthless. I took a candid peak throughout the hallway and instinctively raised my shoulders hopeful that my body would help better express my embarrassment. I did not encounter a single understanding expression. Which means that in the eyes of witnesses, we were provocateurs. My wife placed both of her hands in my arm in such a manner that was difficult to distinguish whether she was leaning on, or was vigilant in case I would explode. I discerned that her face had become even more pale, and she seemed like a young girl terrified by a bad dream. I did what I could do: Embraced her shoulder and warmly dragged her straight to the main door. In that moment the server, still angry, perhaps delighted from my surrender, had a ruse to emphasize the lesson that he just gave us. He threw behind our backs:
-Here you are in Greece, and is served Greek coffee or Espresso. Root it in your minds: Greek Coffee. You may drink Turkish Coffee in your turban country. Or go in Anatolia! 
His voice got a whiff of nausea, up to a time when I though that I heard a character of Nikos Kazantzakis. Every thing in my brain was clarified magically. These old resentments, while outside the time in which they sprouted, – at least what I assumed with “Time”, – in my view they were not only improper, but also ugly and caricatured. According to history, the Greek-Turkish quarrels were settled more than seventy years ago. What hindered this man, born and raised in freedom, to rid himself of those resentments? My wife dragged me hurriedly towards the main door. For sure she was afraid from another outburst by the server, whose look I felt as an annoyance in my neck. He seemed one of those men with endless poison, from whom would not be a surprise to receive another barrage of fire before we disappeared. I would not be impressed any more. He hastily lost the power to offend me with such aliases as “turban head,” that he spit out for my country, because the majority of the population are Muslims or I don’t know what else his mind would concoct, however untruthful. The problem that I just discovered was not that he was unaware about Albanians, his first and earliest Balkan neighbors. The problem was the lack of willingness to learn about us. Who could explain to me why this lack of willingness in this man raised in freedom?
We would see each other again within less than two hours, but in other circumstances. During the welcoming dinner for the parliamentarian guests offered by our hosts, for a reason that only the protocol knows, I was at the same table with a Greek minister. And there was the same waiter, serving us again. I behaved as if I didn’t know him and avoided his eyes the whole time, even though I had almost a malicious curiosity to defy his look with mine. I controlled myself only by saying that it was not acceptable to act like him. But that didn’t mean I would fulfill my inner oath until the end. Right before the end of dinner, according to the rules of service, he neared our table of eight to take the order for coffee. He got everyones’ order, except mine. He spoke on my behalf.
– I know that our Albanian friend wants a Greek coffee. – He spoke in English. No one besides me recognized the hidden vibration of provocation within the cheery sonority of his voice.
– Turkish coffee, – I answered coldly. And added: Without sugar, please! I want it bitter. – I waited a moment for my response to sink in. Whereas, on his side, perhaps he waited for the Greek minister’s intervention to handle me appropriately. A brief silence fell, enough time for me to feel guilty about my unprompted provocation, which was, to my mind, an involuntary awakening of my ancestral demons for revenge.
Proud, even though I felt guilty about all that could cause guilt from my intentional order for a Turkish coffee in circumstances where the coffee, while prepared identically, would result in the same taste, – was only allowed to be Greek, and lucid thanks to my guilty conscience, I seriously asked myself how my literature would be more mature in freedom.
- The “squeeze” refers to the extreme isolation of the Albanians during the communist regime.
- The present Turkish territory or the western most area of Asia Minor
Translated from the original in Albanian by Peter Tase
Besnik Mustafaj was the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Government of Albania, 2005-2007; former Ambassador of Albania in the Republic of France, 1992-1997; former non-resident Ambassador of Albania in Spain, 1992-1994; former non-resident Ambassador of Albania in Portugal, 1992-1997; author of three novels and two volumes of poetry. Mr. Mustafaj’s works are widely published in France, Italy, Albania, Germany and Bulgaria.
Photo Source: Peter Tase’s personal photo archive