Inside Albania, London Magazine, March 1987

Now that I reflect on it, it was probably my years of service to the combined causes of communism and secular humanism, added to the flattering accounts of his career that I planted in the bourgeois press over the years, that prompted the late Albanian president Enver Hoxha to grant me the unprecedented privilege of an invitation to visit his country as the guest of the Albanian people, all expenses paid. Out of respect for an agreement which we came to make toward the end of my visit, however, I have refrained from publishing this account, indeed kept it locked within my breast as firmly as the famous granite to which Enver Hoxha often used to compare Albanian socialism in his long speeches, until after the President's death. The reason for this will become plain in what follows.

That the invitation came at all was to me, at the time, quite as surprisingly as how it came. This was in March, in the last grim, grimy days of winter. It was delivered to the door of my New York house by an employee of the Albanian mission to the United Nations. I was preoccupied at that time with the arrangements for a lecture tour I was to make of the Deep South, to spread the gospel of secular humanism and communism down there and to cement relations with certain groups in the region.

The man who arrived at my door on that cold March morning wore a stone-coloured raincoat belted tightly against the wind over an ash-grey suit, with a blue cardigan visible underneath it, a white nylon shirt and a shiny green tie with red lozenges. He wore a brown felt hat with a sprig of feathers in the band, and stood on my doorstep as still as a post, framed in the open doorway, with the traffic grinding angrily past behind him. I stood on the worn hall carpet, in the gloom, and looked out on this tall, thin man. His features were dark and gaunt. He squinted at me suspiciously, and spoke in mechanical, accented English.

'Mr Forbes?' I confirmed my identity.

'I am from the United Nations Mission of the People's Socialist Republic of Albania. I am ordered to ask you to read this message and to wait for your reply. ' He handed me a brown envelope impressed in the comer where the stamp usually goes with the damp shapes of his thumb and fingers.

'Please read it immediately,' he said stiffly, rising up on the balls of his feet to deliver this ultimatum.

I left him standing in the doorway, and a gust of wind followed me down the hall as I took the envelope to my study to read its contents. The invitation had been written on an archaic typewriter on unheaded paper and read:

Comrade 0. Forbes:
PSRA President Enver Hoxha, Beloved Great Leader of the Albanian people, asks that you should be the guest of the Party of Labor of Albania for one week 18-25 March inclusive. Inform the attaché of the Albanian Mission to the United Nations if you accept this invitation.
Fraternal greetings,
(Here it was signed by a name I did not recognize.)

I rubbed my temples: my thoughts scudded between them in the dome of thought, the fabled grey area. After a moment, I decided the lecture tour could wait. Here was an opportunity too good to miss. I moved to the typewriter, and wrote a letter to the unknown person who had signed it, gratefully accepting Comrade Hoxha's gracious invitation and stating that the week following would be, for me, an ideal time to come to Albania. As I sealed my reply into an envelope, my eye caught the opening paragraph of the column I had been writing for our tendency's newspaper when the doorbell rang.

At this writing, the forces of reaction are swirling about us, threatening the very existence of this paper and the tendency that supports it. I look out over my typewriter keys and see a world that stands to lurch irrevocably into the hands of those who worship at the altar of capital. It is time to muster our resolve and throw a spanner in the works that cannot be pried free.

Seeing that made me wonder rather guiltily if I were not letting the tendency down by going on this trip at such short notice. The appearance of this odd visitor made me forget completely what I had been doing before he came. My train of thought was broken: what was I about to say? I headed back down the hallway to the man still standing at the door. He took the reply I handed him, in long, gloved fingers, and entered a waiting car I had not noticed before. Although I have not see him since, I now believe (for various reasons) that the man in the doorway was the attaché himself.

Within 48 hours instructions arrived (hand-delivered, but through the mailbox) detailing my itinerary. A visa (the first issued an American journalist in forty years) had been prepared, without my having to fill out a single form. I would fly to Budapest on a Malev airliner, and from Budapest an Albanian aircraft would bring me to Rinas, ten miles from Tirana, where the nation's only civilian airfield is located. My bags were soon packed; and although a majority of the people in the tendency were exasperated by my hasty cancellation of the lecture tour, they gave me a good send-off.

I spent my last day in the United States re-reading Enver Hoxha's book With Stalin: a flinty work that does not stand up well over time. His words smoke from the page as if they had been written in sulphuric acid. He seems to be angry with everyone: he blasts the Soviet Union as 'a dictatorial state of the fascist type' and attacks the Greek communists in repeated tirades, each longer than the one before. Tito is labelled a 'liberal', a 'traitor' and a 'revisionist', and Mao Zedong, with whose country Albania entered an alliance in the 'sixties, is jeered as a 'minion of capitalism'. Only Albania, it seems, a lone voice among the nations of the world, is waging the correct and uncompromising struggle, guided exclusively by the doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin 'and the disciple and consistent continuer of their work, our beloved friend, the glorious leader, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin'.

But then again, there was something rather moving in Hoxha's zealous tone, in the sincerity and earnestness with which he venerates his mentor in this work. I hadn't noticed this mood the first time I read it.

That night, in my dreams, I was in Albania. Enver Hoxha was guiding me personally through a vast library in Tirana. He looked as he did in photographs. We walked hand in hand across the tessellated marble floor of a huge classical atrium, and stopped in the centre. Hoxha told me to look up, and I saw tier upon tier of long shelves of books, each disappearing into infinity within an ornate archway of pale marble.

The following morning, a chauffeur from the UN mission, driving a car resembling the one which had carried off the attaché, brought me to JFK. All the way to Budapest I drowsily sipped champagne and listened to the muffled harmonics of the aircraft as it thrust through the icy air.

I was met at Budapest by an Albanian official who led me through a series of rooms and corridors not normally used, I suspected, by ordinary passengers. We emerged from a side door and walked across fifty yards of tarmac to a small, twin-engined, propellor-driven aircraft which resembled an American design of the 1940s and was probably Chinese-built. The name 'Republika Popullor e Shqiperise' was printed along the silver fuselage, and a handful of meaningless numerals adorned the tailfin. I followed him up a wobbly steel staircase and entered the plane that would take us to Rinas.

We were the only passengers. Two seats, those nearest the passenger exit, were distinguished from the others by signs hung over the anti-macassars which I presume meant 'Reserved', because we sat in these seats. (I should say that I neither read nor speak Albanian.) My anonymous minder insisted I take the window seat. There was no question of any alternative arrangement. We buckled ourselves in, and the plane took off. No refreshments were served during the four-hour flight.

Because my minder spoke no English, and I spoke no Albanian, we spoke broken French. But because we found this difficult, we hardly spoke at all. He wore a dark brown suit of heavy wool with wide lapels, and a beige shirt with an ample collar fastened at the neck but with no tie. His hair was as thick and curly as rams' horns, and his skin dark. His bushy eyebrows, dark, deep-set eyes, wide nose and mouth were burdened by an unstinting expression of intense fierceness. He sat with his swarthy fists pressed into his thighs for most of the journey, as if he were extremely angry about something (or, like Ulysses S. Grant, 'he had determined to knock down a brick wall with his head, and was about to to it'). I had no idea what was on his mind, and hoped 1 had not unknowingly offended him. I was afraid he might burst into a rage at any moment and beat me with the fists he was pressing against his thighs, but he never stirred from his seat, and I felt compelled to do the same.

I looked out the window at the mountains that had made Albania difficult of access since Roman times. They were rugged, austere, densely-packed ridges with little flat land between them. I saw no trace of a town or village until the grey buildings and white lights of Tirana came into view, and a few minutes later we landed. By now a dusty pink sun was setting in the west.

There was a car here to meet us, an Albanian-built limousine. It waited on the tarmac near the end of the airstrip. I expected to pass through an immigration check, but did not, and my passport was not stamped. Instead, my escort waved me towards a waiting car. In the distance I saw the terminal building, with a tall billboard on its roof displaying a large, hazy black-and-white image of Joseph Stalin shaking hands with Enver Hoxha. The airport seemed deserted. My escort spoke to the driver through the car's open window. We climbed into the back seat, and I held my suitcase on my lap. The driver drew in his elbow and started the motor. I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, and the back of his head, but not his face. I asked my escort where we were going.
'Au palais du president,' he replied vehemently, in his strangely accented French. He was still apparently furious.

The car proceeded along a straight road and then began to curve right and left through mountains. From time to time along the route I saw concrete houses and clusters of goats gnawing clumps of dry grass and stripping the bark from trees. When darkness fell, I could see nothing that was not illuminated by the car's headlights, except for the occasional dim glow in the square of a distant window. The sight of homes relieved me. Every now and then milky stars appeared above the jagged treeline. No vehicle passed us on our drive to the presidential palace.

The trip took thirty minutes, but seemed longer, as one's first trip to an unfamiliar house in the dark always does. I had nodded off by the time the car crunched onto the gravel of the driveway of the presidential palace, and as soon as I heard it I felt I could kick myself for falling asleep because I might have missed seeing something.

'Nous y sommes,' my guide growled. The presidential palace was illuminated by spotlights hidden among the ornamental shrubbery and bedding plants. It had been built of rose-coloured granite in an ornate symmetrical Baroque style in the 1930s by the Italians for the late King Zog. Carrying my own suitcase, I followed my guide to the door. Heel and toe gnashed the gravel, up to the great oaken door. Things turned a little unreal; I felt myself arrested in an eternal moment of movement toward the palatial door, as if my past, present and future were absorbed by and dissolved in the scene around me: the round box hedges, the beams of light gushing from the paxandra, the slow crunch of our feet on the gravel as we sought the door.

The door moved ajar, and a wedge of interior light spilled out of it, enlarging as the door opened wider. A male silhouette appeared in the midst of this rectangle of pale yellow light. We climbed the low steps, and I saw a frail grey-haired man in a baggy blue suit holding the door, smiling broadly. Enver Hoxha himself was welcoming me. My minder, or escort, or guide, stood a short distance away, to exclude himself from the ceremony of welcome. Hoxha directed .a nod past me toward him, and he left with the driver.

'Comrade Forbes! How do you do? I am so delighted! Come in.' I was surprised he spoke English. As we shook hands -- vigorously -- on the threshold of the presidential palace I could not help recalling the billboard at the airport showing Hoxha shaking hands with Stalin. Hoxha's grip was full of feeling but not strong: he was not a well man by this time. His cheeks were high and pronounced and ruddy, and he wore steel-rimmed trifocals. The teeth his beaming smiles revealed were long and rather narrow at the root, and well plugged and capped with porcelain and gold. Though they were well-maintained, they were an old man's horsey, yellowed teeth. The lapels of his suit were quaintly wide; he wore a red medal with an Albanian motto on one of them. Turning as smartly as a soldier at drill, he ordered a servant I had not noticed (standing discreetly apart) to carry my suitcase upstairs.

'Follow him,' Hoxha said, still grasping my hand, and issuing the command so earnestly and fervidly I fancied Hoxha was a disciple arid the white-coated servant, standing on :the second step waiting for me, was his prophet. 'He will show you to your room. When you have rested, come down for a drink.

In my room, I looked through the curtains of the only window, but saw nothing in the darkness. On my bedside table were copies (in English: rather thoughtful) of some of Hoxha's other books (mostly speeches): Among the Common Folk, Imperialism and Revolution, It is in the Party-People-State Power Unity that Our Strength Lies, Study Marxist- Leninist Theory Linking it Closely with Revolutionary Practice, Reject the Revisionist Theses of the xx Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Anti-Marxist Stand of Krushev 's Group: Uphold Marxism-Leninism! Enver Hoxha prepared our Martinis himself: a judicious blend of gin, ice, a shaving of lemon rind and a mere trickle of vermouth, which he shook violently in a silver shaker.

He sat closely beside me on a divan and toasted my health. He had changed into formal dinner attire, a costume more dapper than the baggy suit in which he greeted me, the kind of suit he always wore at public appearances. He wore black patent leather evening pumps and fine black silk socks. One knee crossed the other as he sat, and his extended right foot occasionally brushed against my shin as he spoke. I proposed, in turn, a toast to the Albanian revolution, which greatly pleased him.

I state the obvious when I say that from the moment of meeting Enver Hoxha I was nearly bursting with questions about the country he led so absolutely and ruthlessly for so long, and which had been an impregnable fortress and a mystery to the West for the whole post-war period. But for the moment I though it best to stick to small talk, con- sidering it impolite to launch directly into them.

In the middle of an arid description of my trip, the same white-jacketed servant who had shown me to my room appeared, and announced in Albanian that dinner was served.
Over the back of the couch on which we were sitting, and with two fingers thoughtfully pressed against his lips, Hoxha asked the servant a question which brought forth a one-word reply. A scowl spread over Enver Hoxha's face as he turned away, and he uttered a loud, disgusted grunt. He compressed his brow so firmly I thought he was trying to make it drop off. There was a long moment of grave, frowning silence before Hoxha spoke again.

'My wife refuses to come down from her room. I apologize for her absence. I don't know what is the cause of this behaviour. She has been like this for the past three days.

'I hope it is nothing on my account.

 'No! No. Perhaps she will join us later.'

We went in to dinner, which consisted of a kind of corn soup, followed by sole and a spicy lamb dish. Hoxha described how the lamb was prepared in Albania, and told me the dish's name in the native language, but it escapes.me. The wine was excellent: the fish was served with a good Macon and lamb with an equally acceptable Burgundy. We finished the meal with small, sweet, sticky pastries and fruit, which we took from a bowl in the centre of the table. He took a furry green kiwi fruit and said, 'Have you ever tasted this kind of fruit?'

'Yes,' I said. He told me its name in Albanian. 'It is a custom of our people to do this for a guest,' Enver Hoxha said, peeling it in his own hands with a knife.

'Take it, my hands are clean.' There was still no sign of Mme Hoxha by the time we retired for Turkish coffee and eau de vie, but as I sipped my coffee I noticed a framed photograph on the mantlepiece of a woman I guessed must be her: olive-skinned, stern, plain, with thick black hair and a string of pearls around her neck.

Hoxha selected an album from a large collection, housed in an antique cabinet. He placed a record on the turntable and the room filled with the unmistakable sound of the Duke. I was amazed that this man who had denounced Western values so vehemently should have a taste for jazz. But then maybe jazz can be considered a music of resistance. It's possible that he saw it that way.

When he started pouring large measures of Scotch from a decanter I knew it would be safe to ask a few frank questions. He sat down, and I leaned forward to speak. He blinked at me benignly. 'Mr Hoxha, why did I see no one at the airport, apart from my escort and the chauffeur? Is a foreigner so contagious?' It wasn't what I meant to say: the effect of the wine and liquor.

'Every Albanian has his part to play in the construction of socialism in Albania,' Enver Hoxha said abruptly. 'If you did not see anyone, they were probably about other tasks. There is no place here for loitering and rubbernecking at foreigners. ' He said nothing else.

'What about the Cultural Revolution? Was that a success? We know very little about it in the West. ' This question yielded a longer answer. He gave a fascinating, frank and detailed account of the results of that programme, its successes and failures. Education for the rural masses, for example, improved, and primary health care was extended to reach virtually the entire population. Enemies of the state, Titoist cliques mainly in the cities, were rounded up and given, in Hoxha's words, 'the punishment they deserved'.
'And Mehmet Shehu, your closest colleague and Prime Minister. Did he really commit suicide on the eve of the Politburo meeting in December 1981, or did he go the way of the Titoists?'

Hoxha grimaced malevolently, arched his eyebrow cunningly and grunted with displeasure at the name Shehu.

'The traitor Shehu was a spy. He tried to poison me. But the coward lost his nerve at the last minute, flushed the poison down the lavatory and shot himself. His lackeys all received a just punishment. (This was the official line.)
 
I asked him more questions about events in Albania since the end of the war, when the country sealed off its borders. Hoxha was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. He wanted to talk about America, and indeed aspects of its culture I thought would hardly be of interest to a Marxist-Leninist of his stripe. Was I familiar with the work of Robert Lowell? Who was the better singer, Leontyne Price or Jess ye Norman? What was my opinion of the westerns of John Ford?

I told Enver Hoxha I would very much like to see the country in daylight, and meet ordinary citizens, perhaps visit a collective farm or a factory .He looked disappointed.
'There will be time for that. Tomorrow I want to discuss with you your dissertation.
That was flattering: he had obtained and read my doctoral dissertation on relations between the ALP and revolutionary movements in the United States; but I could tell that, for whatever reason, he was swerving aside from my request.

We parted and retired. The next morning, as planned, we discussed my dissertation. He had read it quite carefully. At the end of the discussion I pressed him again with my request to go outside and see the Albanian countryside, which I had barely seen and was of enormous interest to me.

He was reluctant to grant this request, but in the end I prevailed. At seven o'clock the following morning Enver Hoxha accompanied me in his car on a two-hour journey north to a severe mountainous region inhabited by a thriving race of giants.

I first spotted them from a distance, labouring in a field on a hillside. I could detect then only their being oddly out of proportion to their surroundings as they worked, swinging scythes in a long row in a field of wheat. I thought this magnification was an illusion, caused by psychological disorientation: I had been inside for two days; the Mediterranean sun cast a white-hot shimmering light; we were speeding by in a car through an unfamiliar landscape. But when the car left the winding road, turned down a dirt track, passed a military guard of normal size in a booth, and entered their hidden farm, my impression of the bizarre size of people of his area was confirmed by seeing all around me male and female human figures each about nine feet tall, going about their business. Enver Hoxha did not speak when he saw my amazed expression as I stared at the massive figures that surrounded us, their arms swinging, their legs scissoring like ladders, but he gave me an eloquent sideways glance that burned its intention onto my memory: .We are a secretive people in a land of marvels. We had driven to the edge of a group of large concrete buildings, more urban in design than rural, like low apartment buildings. There was a barn to our left full of farm machinery, and one or two other large one-storey buildings. This was plainly not a surprise visit: in honour of the Great Beloved Leader, red banners bearing his name and slogans ('Rrofte Shoku Enver Hoxha': 'Long Live Enva Hoxha'; 'Shkiperia shkemb graniti!', 'Albania is a granite rock'; 'partia mbi te gjitha!': 'The Party is above everything!') hung from most of the buildings. A man my own size in overalls opened the door of the car on the President's side and he stepped out. I let myself out. A group of about a dozen giants stood docilely together a short distance away, watching us attentively. The man in overalls shook hands with the President, and then with me as I sidled up from the car, not completely sure what was expected of me. Enver Hoxha stopped before the assembled giants and made a short impromptu speech. After this, one of the male giants stepped forward and uttered a loud motion of welcome to the Leader, to which Hoxha bowed politely. Then the giants applauded and raised a chant, in booming voices, of 'En-ver, En-ver, En-ver ...!' and subsided. The delegation consisted mostly of males, with fewer females. They wore labourers' clothes of loose blue denim, the men caps, the women kerchiefs, like peasants anywhere. The men wore bold handlebar moustaches. Their facial features were coarse and chunky, and their long melancholy heads the size of cow's heads. They dispersed heavily and slowly at the director's order, like a pack of elephants.

Enver Hoxha, the director (Mr Shima) and I proceeded on a tour of the facility .It was a branch of the Institute of Agricultural Research, a mirror of the great progress made in the service of production, for the radical transformation of agriculture, setting it on the road of complete intensification, I was told. The name of the farm was 'Skanderbeg,' after the fifteenth-century Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg. Mr Shima showed us a laboratory where the hybrid seedlings were made, a long room full of wooden racks of test tubes, flasks, rows of jars, scales, and more unnamable chemical arcana.

After the tour I pressed Mr Shima about the giants. He told me that towards the end of the struggle against Nazi occupation, a group of fighters discovered the giants living primitively in this remote area, undisturbed for centuries, with little outside influence. They spoke a language of their own which has been suppressed in the interest of assimilating them with the Albanian people. Their survival was emblematic of how socialism had improved the lives of all Albanians: the state had created a specialized health clinic at the farm, without which the giants might have died out totally: their unique medical problem is that the force of gravity on their huge bodies puts a terrific strain on their bones. (They also tend to suffer from calcium deficiencies.) Hip fractures are especially common because the pelvis bears most of the body's weight. Many of the older giants had under- gone operations to implant plastic hips as a result of such injuries.
In the evening, the entire population of the farm, about 100 giants of all ages, and half as many persons of normal size, gathered in the community centre. I gave my usual talk on the goals of communism and secular humanism in America, which was interpreted to them by a translator standing beside me. The huge eyes of the giants regarded me patiently but without comprehension. They understood me no better with the interpreter than they would have without him. I might just as easily have been giving a lecture on Japanese ceramics, or aviation, or particle physics. To them, attending the lecture meant fulfilling an obligation, like going to church on Sunday. Even the children (six-foot children, bulky and doe-eyed) sat silently on the rough wooden benches of split tree trunks, not even fidgeting.

Afterwards, one of the giants came forward to thank me for my speech. He rose from his bench and walked slowly toward the lectern, his head swaying about a foot from the ceiling. By the time he drew near his belt was nearly at my eye level, and I looked up into the black tunnels of his nostrils. He spoke; the interpreter told me the giant's name was Xhevat; I responded rather timidly. The giant swung his great arm towards me and extended his hand, which I shook. I thought it might crush or devour the flesh and bones of my hand, but it did not, but disappeared from sight for a moment like a baby's hand in an adult's.

As we drove back to Tirana that night, I wrestled with the problem of how, if at all, to announce what I had seen to my comrades in the tendency. I mentioned this to Enver Hoxha and he asked me not to speak of it publicly until after his death. My last night in Albania was not a restful one. Sleep never came even as darkness turned into the grey of dawn, nor as the grey became sunlight. The grey of dawn, the grey of thought, of mystery, or granite and concrete. The bourgeois press would most likely ignore this story.