Mud Sweeter Than Honey
Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania
trans. from Polish by Zosta Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Review by Antonia Young
Margo Rejmer has gathered together testimonies from a wide range of Albanian society to give a picture of life under the extreme communism of the dictator, Enver Hoxha. His power grew ever stronger as he aged, during his over 40-year ruthless and paranoid grip. We might bear in mind that this is the record of survivors: we cannot hear from the 6,000 killed by the regime and the 7,000 who perished in labour camps or from those who went to prison, but never emerged again.
The most brutally treated were the religious - particularly Catholic - leaders and the bourgeoisie. In an overlapping category were intellectuals: artists, writers and poets, journalists and editors. If they diverged from portraying the country, its workers and their projects positively, they were imprisoned as revisionists. Everyone was suspect and liable to be reported, even by their closest family members.
In a typical case, nineteen-year-old Neim Pasha was sentenced originally to 12 years in prison as punishment for two of his uncles (one of whom he had never known) who had escaped from Albania. Pasha was not freed until he was 40.
In another example, Pal Zefi describes the extraordinary prison riot at Spaç when prisoners managed to raise the Albanian eagle flag without its communist star. Varying accounts state that the flag remained in place for two hours, or two days, but the outcome was that four prisoners were killed and all were subdued by horrendous torture.
In another case, the eminent writer Fatos Lubonja, famous for three books recording his life under communism and his seventeen years of imprisonment for his secret writing, provides a chapter entitled “Circles”. In nine sections, the chapter describes his years of imprisonment. The “circles” detail his isolation, hunger, cold, pain and despair. They also detail how, once freed, he met one of the judges who had sentenced him and three of his friends to death. Lubonja was the only one to survive, the others were killed. At this later meeting in the 1990s, the judge conceded that he knew the charges were fabricated but claimed he had no choice. Lubonja is quoted as accounting for Albania’s current lack of progress: “We are still in the childlike state of regression, failing to learn how to take responsibility for each other”.
Readers may find it remarkable that, other than Enver Hoxha’s ruthless widow, Nexhmije (who was imprisoned for four years following the fall of communism), not a single person has been held to account for the atrocities committed during the forty-one years of communist rule. The long term impact of how it affected present-day Albania is beyond the scope of this book.
In spite of the collectivization of farms, those who lived on them record constant hunger. Mari Kitty Harapi was from a successful and well-educated bourgeois family. Like most of her social class, she was sent to a collective farm as a labourer. She was once permitted to visit a brother in prison, only to be told on arrival that he’d been shot.
For thirty years Mehmet Shehu was Hoxha’s second in command. However, Hoxha came to fear him as a threat. Shehu died, supposedly committing suicide. Following this, Shehu’s wife died in exile. Their three sons were all imprisoned; the eldest committed suicide, one survives and is a writer.
Many of those interviewed described not only the appalling conditions of both work and the prisons and labour camps, but also horrendous torture at the hands of the prison guards and labour enforcers. Rejmer describes how men replaced mules, hauling two-ton carts underground in copper, gold and pyrite mines.
The book gives credit to Hoxha’s regime for electrification and health clinics in even the remotest villages. The author also gives credit for mass education, although entirely geared to indoctrination. This revolutionised the literacy rate from 40% in 1946 (in a population of under two million), to over 85% by 1985 (in a population that had increased to almost three million). While this was used as a method of indoctrination, it did enable many, especially those with a good “biografi”, to benefit.
When Hoxha’s death was announced, there was an apparent outpouring of grief from people still fearing for their lives were they to show any other response. Tearful teachers told the news to schoolchildren, some of whom were surprised at finding less remorse when they went home to their relieved families. Reportedly, even Ramiz Alia, taking over as head of state is claimed to have considered Hoxha immortal, declaring that there should be no date of death on his gravestone.
The fifth and final part of the book, “The Fortress Crumbles”, includes a chapter told by the man who drove a tractor into the German Embassy in Tirana on 2 July 1990. Other than this and the book’s chronology, the chapter headings and even the arrangement of the chapters do not give much indication of either the geographical area of each case or the contexts, such as periods of change during Hoxha’s rule. The regime became ever more vicious and paranoid with time; the slight relaxation in 1972-3 is mentioned in some of the testimonies, but is not included in the timeline.
While there are few voices of praise for Hoxha and his rule, Nexhip Manga, aged 70 when interviewed, blesses the positive side of life under the regime, especially education, noting that even factory hands were expected to have completed secondary education. Another voice regrets the passing of “cultural centres and festivities, work and dignity. Now there is nothing”. Fisherman Xemal Turishta claims that life was better for them under communism than now. The border village, Zogaj on Lake Shkodër afforded a better life for its inhabitants, as long as they didn’t try to escape.
Shkodër Cathedral was turned into a sports hall - visiting in the early 1990s, I found four weddings being simultaneously celebrated inside the partially restored Cathedral. The Franciscan college had been turned into a Museum of Atheism in 1973.
The author acknowledges the collaboration both of her Albanian partner, and of the many individuals who gave voice to this book. There is a map, four photographs, a timeline and a bibliography. The book has won at least two awards: the Polityka Passport Prize and the
Mud Sweeter than Honey is published by the Maclehose Press and costs £12.99.