Redeeming History from the Dungeons of the Past: An Interview with Alketa Xhafa Mripa

Alketa Xhafa Mripa

Alketa Xhafa Mripa

“Art is a universal, global language. No matter where you come from, or what nationality you are, or faith you practice, it speaks and has the potential to reach everyone,” says Alketa Xhafa Mripa. “Art gives people a voice.”

Between 1946 and 1992, the entire nation of Albania was left without a voice—it had been stifled by the brutal dictator Enver Hoxha and his totalitarian Stalinist regime. One Kosovar Albanian artist and activist has undertaken a project to give Albania’s victims of communism their voices back. Alketa Xhafa Mripa’s latest project, entitled “Even Walls Have Ears” (Edhe Muret Kanë Veshë), will take the personal testimonies of the survivors of Albania’s communist regime and project them in public for all to see.

The project’s physical medium is a highly symbolic one: “Walls! Walls, instead of being used for defensive purposes to avoid subjects and impede persons, will serve as platforms for living memory and healing. Projectors will be set up throughout Albania in popular public spaces on May 8, 2018—for one night only—to project the quotes and stories of interviewees for all to see. Survivors, their families, and the people at large to finally watch these long-repressed words and stories shine and come to life. Quotes and phrases will light up the historical monuments and cultural buildings in seven cities throughout Albania: Tirana, Shkoder, Durres, Korce, Gjirokaster, Tepelen, and Berat.”

The history that Xhafa is seeking to uncover is a dark and deep one. The surveillance regime established by Hoxha and his successor, Ramiz Alia, equaled—or perhaps even exceeded—that of the East German Stasi. In addition to the usual dictator’s mortal fear of free thought or expression within his demesne, the hyperparanoid Hoxha was also convinced that NATO was preparing to execute an amphibious invasion, à la D-Day, across the entire Albanian coast. “It is believed that one in three people were spies between 1946 and 1991,” says Xhafa. “For decades, households throughout the country were ‘bugged’ either by an actual device, or by eavesdroppers. If you were overheard, or reported by a neighbor or a passerby, you could be imprisoned, tortured, shipped off to a labor camp, or even executed.”

“Even the walls have ears!” The title of the installation derives from a proverb used by Albanians during the Hoxha years. The meaning was clear—don’t speak out, don’t even voice the truth. You never know when an agent of the state or an informer is listening. For decades, the daily hopes and fears, struggles and discussions of Albanians simply went unspoken. It was these everyday emotions and thoughts that Xhafa wanted to recover from oblivion. “My project is a public engagement art piece, which seeks to promote freedom of speech throughout Albania, as a means of beginning a larger dialogue about a period that remains strangely understated and not much talked about,” she says.

Sokol Mirakaj showing a rare photo of himself and his brother, taken in the camp of Tepelena.

Sokol Mirakaj showing a rare photo of himself and his brother, taken in the camp of Tepelena.

In the past few years, Albania has opened a new Authority for Information on Former Communist Police Secret Files, a government agency that catalogs and houses the voluminous surveillance files of the communist-era secret police, the Sigurimi. But the subject is still ignored and considered taboo by Albanians both inside and outside Albania. The history of the era is not widely acknowledged, or even known. “As we traveled all over Albania to collect survivors’ stories, I was surprised to see how students, and today’s generation more broadly, are unaware of the magnitude of Enver Hoxha’s persecutory intent and how broadly the communist regime targeted of groups for intellectual, political, and religious reasons,” Xhafa says. She hopes that her project will bring about a “greater awareness of Albania’s repressive past at a community, national, regional, and international level.”

“There is a real danger with ignoring such mass suffering,” Xhafa says of the increasing climate of forgetfulness—sometimes, even nostalgia—about Albania’s days under communist rule. “Peoples’ lives were stolen. Albanians were persecuted, slavery happened, mass executions happened, torture and abuse happened at every level of life. Today, little is done still for Albanian citizens who suffered under the communist regime to feel acknowledged, to feel seen or heard, and it’s about time that changed.”

The installation as a whole was inspired when a friend, Kristale Ivezaj Rama, applied for her great-grandmother’s surveillance dossier. “My friend asked me how I would engage the public at large—especially the aging survivors—to be part of the conversation and making of the art. So, I came up with this kind of public engagement installation,” Xhafa told me. “Documenting the stories of the voiceless is what I believe I do best. I create art to say what words cannot. I do get inspired by real stories, stories of fear, stories of patience, courage, hard work and love through hardships and struggle.”

Interviewing the poet Ylber Merdani in Korce, at his house together with his wife Shpresa Merdani.

Interviewing the poet Ylber Merdani in Korce, at his house together with his wife Shpresa Merdani.

“The most important aspect of the whole project is listening to the truth, so we wanted to listen to the stories of survivors and their families, while catching them alive. As we are painfully aware, the clock is ticking: many of the survivors will not be among us for much longer, as they are in frail health.

“We were so fortunate to have met Neim Pasha, one of the last of the eight survivors of the Spaç prison revolution that took place in 1973.” Spaç was the site of a notorious forced labor camp built for mining pyrite and copper. The 1973 revolt was one of the first spontaneous instances of resistance to the Hoxha regime. “Just two weeks ago we interviewed Neim, who was diabetic. As he struggled through deep emotion, he worked up his remaining strength to sit at the edge of his bed and share with us his most heartbreaking memories. He spent 25 years in prison for his political opinions; for eight of those years, he was kept in solitary confinement.”

“Mr. Pasha gave his final interview to us,” Xhafa says. Pasha passed away in March 2018, following his interview with Xhafa’s project. “This affected us deeply, but it made his story even more precious to us.”

Although the projections will only be displayed in Albania for 24 hours, the exhibit is part of a larger unfolding campaign called “Remembrance to Heal and Prevent” that is supported by the Authority for Information on Former Communist Police Secret Files, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Italian government. Xhafa says that the stories she has gathered will one day be translated into English and turned into a book.

“With art at its core, Even Walls Have Ears is a celebration of freedom of expression and a confrontation of years of abuse carried out by the dictator’s terror apparatus and its traumatic impact. Documenting and sharing—by way of installations like this, through the spoken and written word, or by documentaries and social media—the narrative memories of survivors is of importance for living witnesses, who besides documenting their past and their family’s past, break the silence on sensitive issues still affecting Albania today.”