Albania is a land of legends and mystery, a country of traditions set deep in the mountains, the infinite quest for travelers who marveled at the rugged landscape before them. Some of them wrote about their experiences, their encounters with people on the road, in a tavern, their sentences an open map for those who wish to follow on their footsteps.
On Wednesday, May 16th, at Librebook in Brussels, the writer Safet Kryemadhi offered a literary journey into the country lodged in the southwest of the Balkans. Along with editor and journalist, Kate Holman, Kryemadhi presented two of his books: Balades Littéraires en Albanie, and the most recent one, Traces de Faïk Koniza.
“I wanted to explore the links between Brussels and Albania,” said Kryemadhi. “The more I learned about Koniza’s life, the more I knew this would be part of a larger story. Albania’s renaissance at its core, including the diaspora, but also much more.”
Koniza arrived in Brussels in 1897 and found a home on Rue d’Albanie, in St. Gilles, where he lived until 1902. Considered a spokesman for the revival of Albanian identity and its language, Koniza founded the acclaimed literary journal Albania. He became friends with Guillaume Apollinaire, who is known to have praised him as “the most erudite Albanian in Europe.”
Kryemadhi is interested in the records of the people who have traveled through Albania. In his books he collects the impressions of writers such as a Valery Larbaud, Alexandre Dumas, Rose Wilder Lane, among many others. “I found it fascinating, the way Albania marked them,” said Kryemadhi. “For instance, Edith Durham, the British writer. It is known that after visiting the country, she would walk the streets of London wearing a traditional Albanian costume. That’s how much those travels changed her.”
History is at the core of Kryemadhi’s work. He unearths anecdotes that would have otherwise remained unknown, for instance the five-day reign of the German impostor Otto 1, or the story of Stiépan Zannowich who in the 18th century pretended to be Prince Castrioto, a descendant of the national hero Skanderbeg. He writes about the Arbëreshë people, also known as Albanians of Italy or Italo-Albanians, who fled Albania between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries after the arrival of the Ottoman forces in the Balkans. Since the time of the Romans, the history of the two countries has been linked through commerce, war, the movement of people, and cultural exchange. “Raymond Queneau wrote a fictional story,” said Kryemadhi. “It was a reversal of fortunes, so to speak, because in the story, Albania declares war on Italy.”
Mountains are an integral part of his descriptions of the country. “Whenever there was an invasion, a conflict, the people who resisted fled to the mountains. It was their refuge. For me it is not possible to conceive Albania, in a literary context or otherwise, without the mountains.” There’s also the Kanun, a book that contains a set of traditional Albanian laws. It was primarily oral, published in writing only at the beginning of the 20th century.
Born in Belgium, a son of the political migration, Kryemadhi wants readers to experience Albania first hand. “There’s a lot of prejudice and stereotyping, especially from those who have never been to the country. And the curious thing is that after those people come back, they are forever fascinated by it. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve written these books.”
At the end of the event, several poems in Albanian and French were recited by Anila Dervishi and Mirela Vishnja, accompanied on the guitar by Afrim Jahja. Glasses of Raki me Arra, a traditional brandy made of nuts, was offered, as well as red and white wine from Berat.