Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

'Against a Wall': Albania's Women Political Prisoners' Struggle to Be Heard

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

'Against a Wall': Albania's Women Political Prisoners' Struggle to Be Heard

Article excerpt

-Memory in Albania

I first lived in Albania during the period 2003 to 2005, teaching history at the state universities in Tirana, Albania's capital, and Elbasan, another major city. Before that, (since 1997), I had lived and worked in nearby Romania. There were many similarities between the two former communist states in southeast Europe, culturally and historically, but one striking difference was in people's attitudes towards their country's past. In both countries people discussed the recent past with great sadness over long coffees, but in Romania 'communism' and the atrocities it had involved seemed separated by a decade of new things and people had discursively distanced themselves from the actions of that time. In Albania in 2003 people remained entirely serious about and close to events that had happened before 1991, when communism had fallen. People understood exactly how the regime had developed in their local area. Communism was not of another time, but of the now; the past and present merged.1 In Albania, dictatorship was personal. Everybody knew someone who had been persecuted, even if it was just that they had seen a neighbour's public trial. Everyone had feared it could happen to their own family.

These differences have created some specific challenges and opportunities for someone carrying out historical research in Albania. Post-communist Romania has opened its government records to scholars and the former politically persecuted. In contrast, Albanian archives are closed to researchers unless they have strong personal contacts with the administrative staff, or know someone even more closely connected with powerful people in various political networks.2 Because of stagnation in Albanian academic and publishing hierarchies, there is also a dearth of local studies of the communist period.3 The small but strong community of researchers working from outside Albania on the subject have had the same problems of restricted access to archives.4 The greatest sources for historical knowledge about communist Albania, therefore, are the memories of those who lived through the regime, who paid keen attention to what happened around them as a matter of survival.

I returned to Albania for a few weeks every year between 2005 and 2009, and I realised that both people I knew well and strangers wanted to tell me about what they had lived through under communism. I decided to record oral histories of everyday life and, since 2010, I have conducted in-depth interviews of between three and more than one hundred hours with sixty-five different people. I have also spoken less formally with many more, recording their responses in writing. Because I am a foreigner, people know I pose no political or personal threat to them or their families, and people have taken extra care to explain things or relationships that may have been unfamiliar to me. My openness to questions about my (queer) gender and sexuality has given me the chance to demonstrate free conversation in response to respectful and sincerely curious inquiries before I asked people to field my own questions of them. I was unsure what historical texts I would write as a result of the interviews, but I was determined, and remain so, to act ethically; everyone I write about is provided with a copy of anything I write, in Albanian, before it goes to print. In this way, I aim to honour the right of people to control their own life stories, and how, whether and when these stories are publicly told.

In 2010 I met a woman who had been a political prisoner in the women's prison of Kosovë e Madhe të Qarkut Elbasan, located fifty kilometres from Elbasan, and about one hundred kilometres from Tirana. We have worked together and alongside each other over the last three years, becoming good friends in the process. We have both written manuscripts; hers from personal experience, and mine from the database of oral history I have collected. We have also collaborated to produce an oral history of the women's prison, supplemented by maps drawn from her memory, photographs I have taken on my visits, and material culture (such as poetry and embroidery) that she produced in the prison at that time. …

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