Having blogged a few weeks back about the tragedy of Tani Prroj, it seems that all kinds of things have been happening. It has made waves. Out of that terrible evil have come glimmers of good and redemption.
- A big rally against Blood-feuds took place the other day in Tirana, organised by VUSH (the Albanian Evangelical Alliance). The photos and short clip gives an idea of the crowd (filmed during the singing of the national Anthem)
- Various speakers addressed the crowds – but Elona, Tani’s remarkable widow, spoke powerfully and movingly, about the situation despite her profound grief. She made clear that she forgave the perpetrators and that wanted the cycle to stop. The rally was a powerful call for the tradition to end, and justice to be done, right in the heart of the capital.
- On a much smaller note, it has been really encouraging to me (and will certainly be to Elona and the children) to see that readers and friends of this blog have raised well over £3000 for the family – a wonderful testimony to global Christian ties that cross boundaries and even non-acquaintance.
Of course, after the intensity of these weeks, now the real agony begins as the reality bears down on the family. PLEASE PRAY hard for Elona, and the two children (both under 10) who are struggling to come to terms of life without their father.
And while we’re on the subject, a major article (and quoted below in translation) was written in one of the main Albanian newspapers by Besnik Mustafaj (right). He is a former Albanian Ambassador to France and Foreign Minister.
On October 8 this month, the center of Shkodra, in the pedestrian path that Shkodra proudly call “Piaca” in the middle of the day, exactly at 13:30, was killed a man about 30 years old, a father, an Albanian-servant of God, whose name was Dritan Prroj. I have not had the chance to know him. And from his short life mostly just know the circumstances under which he was massacred and those learned from the press. Even know who was a member of the “Evangelical Alliance in Albania…
He was an Albanian pastor at the church “Word of Christ” in his hometown, a choice that he certainly has made himself and sufficient showing his good nature, said more clearly, for his love for people. He was completely innocent. But his life was not snapped in between the age of the most beautiful by accident. It makes our pain and his loss to us even more severe. Killer is a guy 21 years old. I do not deserve mentioning his name in homage to Dritan Prroj. But one thing must be said: he has committed a barbaric act. Killer is in jail now and will probably rot all his youth there and possibly the age of the husband. Woe to the soul the suffering that awaits him!
Dritan Prroj certainly knew that the disaster had caused five years ago his uncle in the family of killers. His family came from Dukagjin and he must have known that Canon. But Dritan Prroj has judged as belonging to adjudicate a citizen of 2000, an Albanian to be honest, a man of God: he is not stuck. Hiding in the house would make Dritan Prroj part of a fault where there was no finger. He has continued to make his own life to help his family, his fellow believers church where served. Dritan Prroj not knowingly be admitted so in tune with his assassin, has refused to do his evil game. Contrary. Blessed his soul to the memory that has left!
Dritan Prroj, refused to hide in the house and this is a adorable and bravery. He paid a very expensive price, it is true. But this is not a reason to think today penance he should be preserved. Why should be preserved when he was not guilty? And by whom should be preserved in the end, when he did not make anyone worse? I guess he guarded by himself, yes, probably preserved by himself not to lose the way of justice. One thing is clear as the light of the sun: from the barbarity of this kind does not save by hiding. Until the last moment of life when even stopped to tell his name to the killer, Dritan Prroj has proved that there was a quiet man with a clear conscience. Such people, who have the audacity to disagree with evil, our civilization needs as much as air. In this sense and this is a superb sense, Dritan Prroj is a hero for our time. We, all of his compatriots, we must turn our eyes for a moment with deep humility towards the hero. Who said that the time of heroes has gone?
Evangelical Alliance in Albania gave to Dritan’ funeral the event that it deserved. And it would like, I am sure now, even the deceased. They walked in silence, dignified city center, upholding placards with calls. I turn to the conscience of our society as much as state law, including leaders of religious communities to join all the weight of each word of his work on behalf of the need to end feud , this “national disaster”, as called Fitor Muça, president of the Evangelical Alliance.
Among those who joined the calls were relatives of Dritan Prroj. And this is a fact particularly important. The significance of his example would be incomplete without their presence at the event where combined into one policy as the work of citizens, morality as obedience of believers and culture like behavior of people who love life, to serve a purpose common: order and social peace. I believe that the presence of relatives of the deceased at that escorts have understood the relatives of the killer, as I found out in Tirana, as an advertisement that between their family and Prroj there will be no revenge. This ominous chain is broken here. Glory to those who breaks the chains like that!
Believing with all my heart and mind in these words that I say, I feel obliged to explain better my opinion. May God forbid anyone to make the mistake and ask to the Prroj family to forgive the killer. Prroj family has no right either to forgive or to punish. It has power only to believe the killer in the hands of justice, in the hands of the law, who strongly wish to show in this case too harsh. With my heart in hand I feel no compassion for the lost youth of the killers, as I do not feel compassion for the endless torture of his parents’ mind today and in the future. I am convinced that 21-year-old boy would not do this if he would not been pushed and encouraged from his close circle of his family. Now it is late to ask them if they really wanted their son to do all this tragedy and to take an innocent life. A few years ago they remained without a son, and that time they were to be comforted, now they are left without two sons. Lord grant them the knowledge to understand how great fault they made to themselves and to the Prroj family!
Besnik Mustafaraj, President of the Albanian Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations
I’ve visited Albania to speak on Langham conferences 5 times now – and one or two delegates have been to every single event. One of them is Dritan (known as ‘Tani’) Prroj. I actually alluded him in a post a few years back, although of course not by name.
His story was one that i found impossible to relate to, let alone comprehend. The ‘system’ of blood feuds (if you can call something as irrational and evil as this a system) goes back centuries. (Wiki has some helpful background to blood feuds in general, and the Albanian form, Gjakmarrja in particular). It is all to do with family honour and revenge. One male from a family gets killed – the victim’s family is duty bound to do the same to the killer’s family. And so it goes on.
Some restrictions were laid down in various codes, like the medieval Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini – so you could not take out revenge on women, children and specifically those doing ‘the Lord’s work’. But still, in various places in northern Albania (where it is most common), it seems that hundreds of school children cannot go to school out of fear and their mothers have to be very careful. It’s truly insane. Whole communities have had their men wiped out in the interminable chain of revenge.
A Terrible Legacy comes close to home.
Tani came from northern Albania – the town of Škodra – which is the epicentre of this legacy. He was pastoring a church in the town – the Word of Christ church. But his uncle had murdered someone some time back. So Tani knew that he was a target. Thus, for 3-4 years, he could never set foot outside his house during daylight. In order to come events such as our Tirana conferences he would have to leave under cover of darkness. He led the church from his front room. Leaders in the church would come to him during the week to be mentored, trained and built up. Then they would run things on Sundays in his absence. It’s impossible to conceive of the psychological effect this must have had on him, his wife Elona and their 2 young children (quite apart from their extended family and the church).
But I’d got to know Tani over the years – as I say, he never missed any of our events. And in 2008, he made it to a 3-day retreat I led for 6 pastors in Tirana. We prayed for him and the family specifically for relief over this issue.
So 3 weeks ago, when we were in Vlore, Tani, Elona and I chatted over coffee – and he said that about a year ago, he remembered that he had sensed the Lord’s peace and providence way back at his conversion. And this was renewed, such that he had the courage to give up the hiding and start carrying on their ministry openly. So for the last year or so, having made the deliberate decision to reject their fears and restart normal living. Very excitedly, the told of the amazing fruit from the ministry in their town, with many being struck by the church’s commitment to supporting those in suffering and difficulty. They’d seen a number of people even baptised. Fantastic and not especially common in this part of the world.
And then on Friday afternoon i got an email. Tani had been murdered that day. Leaving a widow and 2 fatherless children. Senseless. Irrational. Evil.
Friends were at his funeral yesterday (Sunday) and it was a very powerful service. Hundreds were present and heard explanations of the hope that the family profess.
What can you do?
- Pray that out of this evil there would be redemption – that this would somehow break the chain of such madness.
- Pray for the family. That in the bitterness of it all, they would … somehow … cling to the merciful grace and providence of their Lord.
- Give. On the encouragement of some friends, I will do what I can to channel any money to Elona and the family as a way of both supporting her and demonstrating our solidarity with her, across cultures and oceans.
Because of the need for simplicity and urgency, please can you either:
- Send me a cheque (made out to me)
- Give me cash if you bump into me – but please don’t send cash in the post if you can possibly help it.
- Pay online directly through Paypal (it can be in US$, € or £ if you do it this way)
Which every way you use, please LET ME KNOW YOUR INTENTIONS by email (if you know it) or by contacting me through this blog). I fully realise that for those who don’t know me it sounds totally iffy that you’re paying me. I will send you a receipt, and send you proof of the transfer when it’s all done. But I wanted to get this done as quickly as possible and this seemed the simplest and least bureaucratic. The only expenses involved will be the cost of the transfer and currency exchange and nothing else. So 99.9% of what is raised will go to the family at this terrible time.
It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird. Read more
Am in Vlorë, a dusty and concrete port city situated in a beautiful area of southern Albania, for a Langham conference (here’s the sunrise from my room yesterday). All seems to be going really well, which is no small relief.
I was chatting to a friend this morning, who told me about a classic example of good intentions going pear-shaped when crossing cultural divides.
Emerging from decades of suffering under the world’s only officially atheist communist regime, Albania was in terrible shape in 1991. The church was barely existent – and the national economy was a disaster. No wonder, then, that as people came into pastoral work, financial support was a huge problem. And naturally, overseas churches wanted to help. But such help can really backfire, unless there is real care and cultural sensitivity.
My friend told me about a church in a small, relatively remote village, which would have an annual summer camp at the seaside. The venue was very basic, to say the least. Basically a field, without many facilities or toilets etc. But it was a great event, and it was an annual highlight for the church community for several years.
A church in the US (though it could have been from anywhere, since churches from many other countries have done similar things) developed a relationship through this fellowship and sought to help. So a couple of years ago, they kindly sent over a sum of money (not a large amount from an American perspective but huge for Albania). This enabled the church to book a small hotel – and everyone, naturally and wonderfully, had a great time.
But this was a one-off gift. Generous, well-intentioned, but limited. And there was no way that the church could repeat the booking. However, having tasted the (relatively) high life, no one wanted to go back to their field.
Consequently, the church has not had any camps since. Their gain had been great but short-lived; in the longer-term, their loss was huge.
Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania – not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare’s books (some of which I’ve posted about before). And his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I’m due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion – only a few decades after Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis – not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children – but when this is going on, it’s impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit? (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. [Incidentally, this insight definitely provoked all kinds of thoughts about how people handle the bible – and whether it is itself an indication of maturity or the lack of it – but that’s another story!].
Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools’ Alley.
“Guess what?” he said, as he came through the door. “The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It’s round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping.” He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
“But how come they don’t fall off?” I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
“I don’t know,” Ilir said. “I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, ‘Soon it’ll be a slaughterhouse.’”
“Yes. That’s what he said. The world will drown in blood. That’s what he said.”
“Where will all the blood come from?” I asked. “Fields and mountains don’t have blood.”
“Maybe they do,’ said Ilir. “They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we’d been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, ‘Now you’ll see what happens when they slaughter nations.’”
“Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?”
“Right. Like that. Nations.”
“Who’s going to slaughter them?”
Ilir shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood… Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don’t know why). Something mooing all on its own. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) – but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long. (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. Yet the book doesn’t end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn’t end with Enver Hoxha’s triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people – we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he’d have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare’s rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime’s victory. But that is part of the book’s brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he’s in – and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book – and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass – but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) – and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently irrelevant snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.
Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain’s equivalent of George Orwell, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.
This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos.
- The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite).
- The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s
- The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great.
They’re very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems – the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one’s initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical – but then if you’ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the ‘purest’ in history), you’d be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates:
That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light. (p217)
I reviewed Kadare’s gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon’s Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha‘s brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story’s worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.
A Daughter Sacrificed for a Father’s Ambition
The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, ‘The Guide’, who’s clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl’s father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can’t fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else – but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana ‘higher up’.
But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves’ classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet this book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors’ radar. The narrator can’t help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.
The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.
But this is where Kadare’s genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No – it was the king himself who devised the plan – such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He’d had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn’t he?
Which is of course what, in the narrator’s eyes, Suzana’s father had done. He’d sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda – and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he’s prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he’d been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp…
The other myth that the narrator ponders is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania’s indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles – hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag.
One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear. There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings – but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn’t think this would be a problem. (p37)
The eagle’s flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected.
When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that.
It’s not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back. (p41-42)
This tale’s significance is obvious. It’s interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he’s been given the parade invitation, does that mean he’s also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too – Suzana’s father has paid with others’ flesh, and his own – and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader…
The Power of Literature
Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 – and his recipient’s speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it’s worth checking out prize chairman John Carey’s speech in awarding the prize too). There’s one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says:
To explain myself briefly, I’d like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante’s master Virgil tells him: “Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!”
That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a “dead storm”, you’ll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature.
That’s a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man – or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…
How do you make a concrete jungle less foreboding? Well you cover it up of course.
Tirana is in some ways an artificial capital. Not long after Albanian independence from the Ottoman empire, the capital was moved in the 1920s from Elbasan to Tirana (presumably because it was more central, despite having been little more than a provincial town before). No doubt there were great plans and dreams for this new city – and there were one or two grand attempts in an Italianate style for national buildings. But the political chaos pre-war and the Communist takeover post war led to architectural travesties. The Communists were not known for building geographically sympathetic and aesthetically pleasing buildings (although it has to be said that they did a MUCH better job than Western Europe at preserving their architectural heritage – eg Prague & Budapest).
The result is that Tirana is an architectural nightmare. Everywhere you look, there is concrete and a high-rise. The city is surrounded on all sides by beautiful mountains, offering a tantalizing dream of life beyond the smoke. But inside there are few pleasures to be had.
So – in the last few years there have been one or two municipal competitions to come up with the best designs to paint on these buildings. I had an hour or two to wander around – and so took some random pics of a number – now beautifully assembled into a rather beautiful collage. Beautiful. Can you spot the buildings that have included the block numbers into their design?
So I’m back in Albania for the 3rd visit, but this time, we’re just 7 in a hotel on the outskirts of Tirana. The idea is to train up a number of folks who can help to pass on some of the vision, skills and materials for this kind of ministry around Albania. It is wonderful to be able to spend decent lengths of time with just a few, rather than doing the usual conference thing of a few superficial chats here and there. Breakfast this morning was certainly a challenging time. Over the staple of garlicky sausage and coffee, i was grilled on the knotty issues of tithing, the millennium and the theology of the modern nation state of Israel – and that was before we got onto any of the nitty-gritty stuff of our time together: preaching!
- Extraordinary Banking: couldn’t resist taking a quick snap of this advert in the arrivals hall of Tirana airport. In case you can’t quite catch it, Raiffeisen Bank is spreading the word of its wares, in English no less, by decalring ‘Banking with us is an extraordinary experience’. Well in these financially turbulent times, I’m sure this is not a particularly unique selling point.
- World Wrestling: well it just so happens that where we are staying is also one of the main hotels hosting the teams competing in the World Wrestling Games. So far, only the Albanian team has been present. But we are promised all kinds of other groups. Each table has a country label on it – slightly alarmingly our table sits in between India and Pakistan. I don’t rate our chances for being able to prevent scuffles or international antagonism. Pray!
- The horrors of the Blood Feud: I’d heard about the centuries old Balkan culture of blood feuds, but had never come across it until now. One of our number has tragically been caught up in it. A member of his extended family murdered someone from another family – which was in turn a reprisal for a murder by that family of one his own relations. And it goes back generations. What it has meant is that our friend has not been able to go out of his house unaccompanied for the last 3 years. The other family has put a 5-figure Euro price on his head. He has therefore had to train his leaders from inside his house and hasn’t been able to go to church for years. He can only get out of his city to come to events like ours if he leaves in the early hours of the morning. It is a terrible predicament and one that seems humanly impossible to escape from.
I took this on Monday evening from the conference centre just along the coast from Durrës, Albania, where I was involved with the latest Langham Partnership conference with Chris Wright. And as Chris reminded us, it is highly plausible that the Apostle Paul visited Durrës – perhaps he even went for a sundowner stroll along this beach…?
In Romans 15, Paul mentions that he preached all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum (which is ancient Albania). In Acts 20, we find that Paul travelled through Greece. As FF Bruce points out in his Acts commentary, we have no idea how long Paul travelled or where. His ministry was certainly extensive and ambitious, constantly moving on to the next place. After all, we do know that he had set his sights on Spain and perhaps beyond, as goals after visiting Rome.
We also know that his good chum Titus visited Dalmatia, just up the coast a bit from Albania, in what is now Croatia. And if we are right in thinking that he packed Titus off there, as scholars Bruce and Duncan suggest, then it is more than plausible that their parting point was Durrës – it marked the western end of the great Roman Road, the Egnatian Way. (This map shows Dyrrhachium, the ancient name for Durrës, in the top left)
Now in one sense, it doesn’t matter one jot who was there first and when (cf Paul’s attitude to those he did or didn’t baptise in Corinth). What does seem to be true, though, is that even by as early as AD58, there were 70 Christian families living in Durrës. Amazing when you think that Albania endured one of the toughest atheistic regimes in recent history. All this served to remind me yet again of the fluidity of empires. For the history of Eastern Europe has been nothing if not turbulent, as my last few days made clear.
After Communism 1 – Czech Republic
- 1939-1945 – THE NAZIS: The castle functioned as the HQ for the Gestapo’s activities in Czechoslovakia. During this time it also housed around 50 orphans of Czech political leaders killed by the Nazis.
- 1953-1990 – THE COMMUNISTS: The castle was then occupied by a Research Institution which worked closely with the Czech equivalent of the KGB, developing military and espionage equipment, and the State Police had offices in the castle buildings. It was discovered in 2000 that the castle had been also base for a major operation to capture people who attempted to escape to the west across the border into Germany. Many were beaten and tortured and some were shot within these very walls.
- 1997-? – THE CHRISTIANS: The castle was bought in 1994 by the European Baptist Federation, who had wanted to move their seminary from Switzerland to somewhere more accessible for Eastern Europeans. And now it is a truly international community, seeking to train people to the highest level for Christian ministry of all sorts.
It is clear then that NOTHING is ever set in stone in human history, however monolithic and unassailable a particular regime seems at a particular moment.
After Communism 2 – Albania
It is easy to forget that Albania was one of the first countries in Europe to have a Christian church. But as alluded to the last time I was here, things are very different these days. I can remember people talking about the country when I was at university, and then it seemed to be a byword for closed and oppressive regimes. The thought that 20 years later, I would be able to saunter in quite freely with a suitcase loaded with Christian material, on more than one occasion to boot, was unthinkable. The church is growing fast, in this extraordinarily beautiful part of the world. To have a gathering like the one in this picture (I can assure you that everyone was happier about being there than they look!) would have been incredible dangerous.
Incidentally, to get a sense of the vortex of trying to work out what is reality under a communist regime, read Albanian writer Ismail Kadare‘s chilling but brilliant book, The Successor, obviously based on the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. But even here, there is a fine twist of fate (not that I believe in fate, of course). For today, there is a church that now meets every week in Hoxha’s house in Tirana, of which one of the leaders is a member of the Langham Albania conference committee.
I’m not naive about this – history is full of fluctuations – after all, many Christian buildings are used for very different purposes as well, as I mentioned last June. The point I’m making is simple. Things change – the status quo never lasts. Shake that up with the concept that nothing is impossible with God, and you begin to find the grounds for confidence and hope for the future.
The statues of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Hoxha and more recently Saddam no longer stand. Remember Shelley’s great poem:
OZYMANDIASI met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says:
” ‘In the pride of your heart
you say, “I am a god;
I sit on the throne of a god
in the heart of the seas.”
But you are a man and not a god,
though you think you are as wise as a god.
Am now sitting in a wireless hotspot in Vienna airport killing time while i wait the London connection. Blink and it’s all been finished.
But its been a great time. Have met some fantastic people as ever – something that delegates of Langham conferences the world over seem to have in common – perhaps it is a pre-requisite. Many of these folks are working in very tough and isolated circumstances, with inevitably demanding pastoral challenges. But there was a humour and lightness that characterised the conference, so much so that one could be forgiven that many of them don’t have a care in the world. Very challenging.
Very exciting to see the joy at receiving books from Langham Literature – familiar books to many ministers in the west, but these were translated into Albanian through an amazing local Christian publisher called Romeo (he’s the bearded guy in the middle of the back row)
One or two weird things since being in Albania:
I was happily wearing my cherished Oakes hoody (a treasured possession which i have worn in many countries – a gift from the guys at the Christian youth holiday centre in Sheffield, run by some good friends, Dan & Billy Thaw – check out their website). When up comes this American guy who says that HE knows the Oakes and htat some good friends from the US have gone to work there. Can’t remember either his or their names – but weirdly small world (cliche alert)Grim photo though (here with one of the interpreters, Gensi) I spotted a petrol station on the way to Tirana Airport (which, interestingly for a 70% Muslim country, is called Mother Theresa airport) – it’s brand name was KASTRATI – the mind boggles. It always seems to happen (see Peru trip last November) – I’ve been here during elections – candidates’ posters absolutely everywhere. Didn’t see any of the candidates themselves this time though.
Here in sunny Albania for only 4 days – seems bonkers to come all this way for such a short time (well it’s not that far – just took a while to get here after having to go via Vienna). Been here for 24 hours, staying in a small hotel in the hills on the outskirts of Tirana – the city seems completely surrounded by what are known as the Albanian Alps. The photo collage is the view from my room!
First impressions are that people are incredibly warm and welcoming. Here for a Langham seminar with around 60 pastors and church leaders. Food is nice (strong Italian influences, which is after all only a short distance away across the Adriatic). Scenery stunning, while the country is clearly undergoing major but urgently needed development and investment. A few stats that have got me thinking:
Albania has 3 million citizens of whom 1 million are reckoned to have left the country 70% are Muslims, but the vast majority of them are nominal (then 15% are Orthodox, 10% Catholic) New Protestant/Evangelical churches were non-existent at the fall of Communism – there are now 200 churches around the country. The fascinating thing is that the majority of these are from a Muslim background. They now account for 1% of the population – which is incredible bearing in mind that in 1989 there were more or less 0% (though of course you can’t actually have less than 0%). A number of the key movers and shakers of these churches are here at the conference – including the head of Campus Crusade Albania, the IFES movement in Albania and the head of the Evangelical Alliance.