Where History and Fiction Are the Same

By Mary Elizabeth Walters / May 25, 2017

Where History and Fiction Are the Same
Mary Elizabeth Walters

“Mary, Mary, you have to come to the Regional Office right now!” All but dragging me from the office, Jonuz, the director of a local Albanian NGO, rushed me across the street and up three flights of stairs, where a hallway filled with white trash bags greeted me. With dawning horror I realized that the trash bags were filled with the archive’s documents. After walking through the gauntlet of precariously piled bags, I reached the archive room itself. The head “archivist” casually strolled over the folders and papers left strewn across the floor. A local without any archival training but with the correct political connections, he proudly announced that the documents were being relocated. He boasted that the Kukës Regional Office Archives were the most complete local archive in Albania, spanning 1942 to the present. Unlike many Albanian archives that were burned during the post-Communist transition in the 1990s, the Kukës archives survived that tumultuous period. While the archives had never been pristine, I watched as well-meaning Albanians mixed together 74 years of history.

Left: An archivist steps through history at the Kukës Regional Office Archives in Albania, where records were strewn across the floor during their “relocation.” (Photo by Mary Elizabeth Walters.)

From an American perspective, the juxtaposition of pride in the archival holdings and the careless handling of those same holdings is bizarre. In the context of Albanian understandings of history, the behavior of the archivist in Kukës makes much more sense. Historia in Albanian means both “history” and “story.” In this, Albanian is not unique: the same phenomenon occurs in both Italian and Spanish. What is interesting about the Albanian case, however, is the difficulty most Albanians have in differentiating between history and a story. A librarian in Kukës, for example, shelved a novel of an AK-47-toting Robert E. Lee together with a biography of George  Washington.  When asked why,  she was bewildered: “But they are both historia.” Both books are set in the past and are therefore historia. That one was fact and the other fiction was irrelevant to her understanding of history. If history is just a story—probably a fictitious one—told by those in power, then taking care of archives has little value.

The reasons that many Albanians conflate history and story lie in their own history. Written Albanian is relatively new, with the fifteenth century marking the first known written fragment of Albanian and standardization efforts not beginning until the end of the nineteenth century. Modern “standard” Albanian was only formalized in 1972. For most of its existence, then, Albanian was predominately a spoken language, and thus the history of Albanians was passed through oral traditions. Even key “documents” such as the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a code of laws and norms that loosely governed much of northern Albania since the fifteenth century was passed down through oral tradition until finally written down in the     late 1800s. For large periods of the 500 years of Ottoman rule in modern Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro, writing or owning writings in Albanian and teaching in Albanian were illegal, reinforcing Albanians’ reliance  on  oral transmission.

Left: The Kukës Regional Office Archives, one of the few archival institutions to survive the Communist transition in the 1990s, stores 74 years of history in trash bags. (Photo by Mary Elizabeth Walters.)

Following Albania’s independence at the end of the First Balkan War, Albanian historians focused on creating a national narrative, stretching the nation’s roots back to the ancient Illyrians. As with many national mythologies, reality suffered at the hands of a triumphant narrative. The push to construct a cohesive nationalist narrative increased after the Communist Party came to power at the end of World  War II. Perhaps  the most glaring whitewashing of recent Albanian history by historians both under Communist rule and today are the narratives constructed around Albania’s extensive jail and forced labor camp system during the Communist period. From 1945 to 1991, Albanians had a roughly one in 20 chance of being sent to either jail or a forced labor camp. At least 5,500 men and women were executed and another 100,000 sentenced to prison or forced labor. During the Communist period, all prisoners were depicted, when mentioned at all, as traitors and enemies of the country, while current historical narratives describe them as the true heroes of Albania. Since most Albanian families had at least one member imprisoned, both previous and current historical narratives contradict their lived experiences.

Albanians today have never encountered historical narratives, either public or academic, that bear any similarity to their experiences. For most, history truly is just another story. Academic Albanian history, moreover, is written in the style of literature, with characters and a flowing narrative, little in the way of argument, and no citations. Albanian society has little value for history as anything other than a self-reaffirming story of its  own identity. Documents, and the archives in which they are stored, are little understood and therefore deemed unworthy of the time or financial investment needed to preserve them. Albanian history is a rich tapestry of oppression, strength, and fantastical stories just waiting to be discovered, and, yes, sometimes that history is stored in piles of trash bags in small remote towns or in the memories of villagers who have never traveled more than 30 miles from where they were born. Albanian archives exist, tucked away in half-forgotten rooms like the one in Kukës, where they can be paraded forward at key moments to verify, by their mere existence and not through the documents themselves, the current historical narrative told by those in power.