From Stalin to saints

Tom Blass finds jaunty funeral parlours and newly restored monasteries and mosques in rural Albania

Hurtling along the Drino Valley floor, my taxi driver forced me to repeat after him the names of the villages that we passed through. It was a torture of sorts and to change the subject I pointed out a rash of bunkers, the concrete pimples that polka-dot the countryside, and from which Albania's former dictator Enver Hoxha believed his loyal citizens would one day defend the motherland unto their death.

The driver transferred his energies to a pantomime of machine-gun spraying and the steering wheel was left to trace the contours of the contorted road by itself. I wondered whether I had made a fatal error. But within an hour he had deposited me alive at my destination, planted a (manly) kiss on my cheek, and given me back half the fare.

It was a generous, kind gesture but, had the journey proved terminal, the likelihood is that I would still have remained well catered for. Funeral parlours in Albania are commonplace, jaunty establishments. They leave the door open and the radio on and are more ubiquitous, say, than fast-food restaurants, and about on a par with pet shops, lending the impression that Albanians die more often than other people (having eaten fewer hamburgers and bought many canaries). Statistically this is highly improbable, and the more likely explanation is that both private enterprise and public mourning, in a ceremonial sense, were denied them for so long.

Hoxha's rubbery visage has been so comprehensively scoured from the nation that it would be quite possible to travel the length of Albania without having acquired any greater knowledge of his appearance than you might were you to have spent the same period of time in Leatherhead. But he left his mark on everything.

For example, at a tiny, wonkily walled cemetery tucked high in a cleft in a valley above Lake Ochrid, Hoxha-era graves are identifiable by their similarity in appearance to a lopsided bedstead. A single post indicates the space where super-Stalinist rationalism tried but failed to take a surgical saw to common-or-garden superstition. In the post-Hoxha years, the country has reverted to being a sort of spiritual bazaar - as it had been for so many centuries under the Ottomans. It is small and mountainous and its deep valleys provide footholds in which all manner of cultural and religious idiosyncracies are able to survive and even flourish.

In the south, under the heavy influence of a large Greek-speaking minority, the juxtaposition can be startling. On the outskirts of Permet (a model town under communism and no less pleasant for that), a billboard portrays a Sufi saint and an Orthodox patriarch standing beside each other, leaving the casual visitor in no doubt - or possibly, much doubt - as to the local inhabitants' religious affiliations.

Hoxha clobbered all the religions equally hard, destroying mosques, churches and tekkes and persecuting imams, priests and babas with a zeal that scared even Stalin. In steep, stern, stony Gjirokastër, where Lord Byron and Ali Pasha once chinwagged and where both Hoxha and Ismail Kadare (Albania's most famous living writer) were born, the very young imam of an ancient mosque explained that it had been spared destruction but not the indignity of a forced reincarnation as a circus.

In Pogradec, the warden of a church drew me a diagram to show the damage a tractor had caused to the floor tiles during the building's forced tenure as a garage. While we were at the Bektashi tekke, a tiny Ottoman mosque-like structure within a palisade of cypress trees, the dervish showed me the graffiti left behind by soldiers when the tekke had been commandeered as a barracks. The dervish was only 22, and if any proof of his powers was required it was, surely, in his ability to plant olive trees without grubbing up his white satin dervish suit.

His precocity, and that of the imam, suggested that communism had knocked the teeth out of the gerontocracies, inadvertently rejuvenating the religious institutions and promoting the mutual forbearance that comes of being similarly oppressed by a godless bully. Albanians are now almost boastful about their tolerance. Mixed marriages are frequent. "I can marry whoever I want," a Muslim girl told me in Voskopoja. She spends her weekends helping to restore a demolished Orthodox church, and learned English from American evangelists, "but I'm still a Muslim". And within any one fis, or clan, any combination of religious affiliations is possible (although clan membership itself lends labyrinthine complexity to the task of self-definition and marriage).

In the south, once (and some say still) coveted by Greece as its "lost province" of Northern Epiros, these ecumenical tendencies extend beyond religion. The bouzouki is as likely to be heard on the radio as the local bassoon; the first is exuberant and spirited, the second lilting, soulful and engorged with mournful lament, and both are suitable accompaniments for a ter rifying mountain bus ride. To my chagrin, the French first lady, Def Leppard and a local US Christian rock station also stole airtime, the station churning out songs with all the rhythmic complexity of a regurgitated bun: testament to the growing number of imported evangelists.

But it is in Pogradec, on spring days by the foreshore fringing vast, mercurial Lake Ochrid, that a life lesson is played out which truly transcends the denominational. Ochrid is famous for a unique and, as I can vouch, not very delicious species of trout, as well as for once having been Hoxha's favourite holiday spot. By the time the morning mist has lifted (denuding the mountains of Macedonia of their hazy shift in the east) the town's old men have gathered in clusters of grey tweed to play dominoes.

Some of these men, squeezed into flat caps and slightly too-small trilbys, must have been as old as Albania itself (95) - must have lived through revolution and occupation, Hoxha and pyramid share schemes, and the chaos of transition. They looked well, considering: ancient, but not incapable of garnering another century or two beneath their gaberdine belts before taking the final taxi ride to the radio-blaring funeral parlour.

Then it struck me that perhaps, when the very last hand of dominoes has been played and lost, they simply slide gently of a twilit evening into Ochrid's vastness, metamorphosing into trout and bypassing the politics of death. Given what they have lived through, would such an end seem so strange?

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery