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The City and the Writer: In Kruja, Albania with Luljeta Lleshanaku

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Kruja as you feel/see it?

Kruja is a small town in the middle of Albania. It leans on a mountain and faces the sea and is surrounded by a range of hills covered in olive trees. The town is identified with its castle, which became famous during the fifteenth century as the headquarters from which the leader Gjergj Kastrioti (George Castriota Skanderbeg) led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. Other traces of the past include the old bazaar and some tekke (houses of worship) that were ruined during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and then rebuilt, though they don’t have the same charm they had before.

After leaving Kruja for Tirana (where I’ve lived for the past twenty-five years), my perception of the city is more nostalgic and emotional than real. I see things that don’t exist anymore: men with their arms crossed behind their backs, noisy crowds of birds on the cypress trees during the summer, the layers of bountiful snow covering each other during the long winter, the golden butter at the farmers market, the cold cinema where I used to go every Sunday to watch the same movie, the small tomato gardens, women talking to domestic animals in the same tone as they use with their children, the drunken man who used to disturb the deep silence of the night, the blacksmith with dark skin and blue eyes, the hermit living in a cave, the solemnity of the madwoman walking on the street, the ice-cream shop, the Soviet bus with its huge engine cabin in the middle. Atypical characters who were sinful as much as innocent. Saints, heroes, and devils. All memorable!


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The cruel procession and denigration, in front of three thousand people, of two young boys caught illegally crossing the border of Communist Albania in 1987. It felt similar to the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. The message was clear: “That’s what will happen to you if you try to do the same thing!”

But there are several private heartbreaking memories too. I was a child when I came back home from school and found my room turned upside down by the secret police on the day they arrested my uncle for the third time.

I remember three funerals without a single wedding. I remember the dogs barking sadly in front of empty houses on March 7, 1991—the day of a massive exodus of Albanians to Italy. I saw many personal objects that used to be very important, and for which people worked their entire lives, thrown away carelessly in a hurried moment. 


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The statues and propaganda monuments that have been removed. It’s interesting how some of the statues had an even shorter life than a human being.

Another detail is the lack of street names. As in many small towns, you don’t need to label the streets, you don’t even need to assign the houses numbers. Everybody knows everybody, and the postman never fails to deliver. Furthermore, they still treat him with coffee, raki, and a nice conversation, as in old times, for his rare services.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

This town is mostly known for its influential politicians and merchants, due to its close proximity to the seaport. But there are a few artists, such as Mimoza Ahmeti, a successful poet and fiction writer; and Hamdi Meça, a children’s book author.


Is there a place here you return to often?

It takes only fifteen minutes by car to go from the town to the top of the mountain. The view from there is wonderful: the cities, the farms, the streets, the Adriatic Sea. Everything is so clear and small, as though you are holding it in your palm. This view from above always has a cathartic effect on me, and in that moment all my worries seem banal and meaningless.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

No, there is no such place. But life exists outside in a Mediterranean style. There are many outdoor cafés and people spend a lot of time out in the sun. You can sit outside and hear people having truly deep, even philosophical, conversations early in the morning that include charming doses of skepticism, sighing, and deep pauses in between thoughts. There are always a cast of characters around you to discover, and I sometimes find that more interesting than a literary space.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes—it is the city of antennas, which becomes more evident when it is snowing. Each house has its own television antenna, its own radar to connect with the world. These antennas compete with each other in shape, length, and position. Many primitive ones have been replaced several times by the modern ones produced in factories, but they are still there. They represent a self-manipulation, an urge to escape, and this urge is nowhere more obvious than in small cities and villages. That’s why, for the local young people, escaping becomes their life’s motivation and it reveals their strength.


Where does passion live here?

In the smell of cinnamon in the neighborhoods, which is the result of the Bektashi Sufi ritual of eating ashure, or Noah’s pudding, a kind of dessert made of a mixture of grains, fruits, dried fruits, nuts, and spices, especially cinnamon. It is served frequently during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

In Kruja, you can find the best ashure in the world. The way they perfected it makes it even more interesting and mystifying—it was cooked illegally when religious practices were forbidden when Albania was declared atheist. When I was a child, my mother cooked it in the barn during the night to avoid leaving any possible evidence, as if she were committing a crime. Everybody did the same thing, and the next day the roads smelled like cinnamon.


What is the title of one of your works about Kruja and what inspired it exactly?

There is not a single poem, not a single book, but several books inspired by my experience in Kruja, especially my last three books: Fresco, Child of Nature, and Negative Space (New Directions and Bloodaxe, UK).

It is difficult to define what made Kruja so special in my eyes, so powerful in my imagination. It could be the political circumstances, it could be the landscape. But what I can say for sure is that there is something biblical in the human landscape of small towns, in their tendency to make a drama out of nothing. Everybody has a name and every day something happens, even when nothing really happens. There is something romantic in the way these towns treat themselves as being the center of universe.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kruja does an outside exist?”

That reminds me of a conversation I had with a Slovak engineer on a train from Vienna to Graz. He said: “Each time I go back home, my village looks smaller, my house looks smaller, even my mother looks smaller!” I have exactly the same impression about my home. It probably means that this city is inside me now, not the opposite. It is a kind of intimacy. The rest of the world offers us nothing else except a new perspective to look back to our home.


Luljeta Lleshanaku is an Albanian poet. She was a fellow of the IWP in Iowa and then graduated with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has worked as a journalist, television author, university lecturer, and researcher. She is the author of eight poetry collections published in her language and twelve books published in other countries. She has received numerous awards, including the Kristal Vilenica Award, the PEN Albania Award, the Tirana Book Fair Award, the Prishtina Book Fair Award, the KULT Award, and the Silver Pen from the Ministry of Culture of Albania, and she was a finalist for the European Poet of Freedom Award in Poland and the 2016 Balkanika Award. Her poetry collection Child of Nature was a 2011 BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) finalist in the US, and her collection Haywire: New & Selected Poems was shortlisted for the 2013 Popescu Prize by the Poetry Society in the UK. 

Published Jul 20, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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