Arts: Don't cry for me, Albania

Edi Rama has big plans for reviving cultural life in Europe's poorest country. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
THE ALBANIAN Minister of Culture? More a sick joke than a job, you might say, and in a sense you'd be right. Meeting Edi Rama in Tirana last October, when Albania was merely the poorest country in Europe, before the current nightmare began, I had asked him what his goal was for 1999.

"To give my country its first cinema," was his breathtakingly modest reply.

Well, he's done it. On 1 July a six-screen multiplex will open for business in a converted hall in Tirana. It's a small gesture, he admits, but a start; Enver Hoxha's cultural purdah still exists ten years after his hated system's demise.

But this tall, lugubrious 35-year-old is no mere bureaucrat. He's a serious artist in his own right, and his latest project should draw the crowds when it's unveiled at the Venice Biennale on 8 June. The installation is a tent built from drawings by Kosovar children, whose own images will flicker from a video. His works are often political, and take the humble concrete bunker as their theme: "Hoxha planted 600,000 of them in Albania, and they have become our national calling-card. They were symbols of the fear and mistrust we were supposed to have for the world beyond... That bunker mentality lives on today, in the heads of our politicians, and of our so-called intellectual elite."

If that's how he views politicians, how come he's joined their ranks? Here is how it happened. Edi Rama grew up bilingual in Albanian and Italian, and was thus able to read Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Dante and Nietzsche in a language beyond the reach of the Albanian censors. As a young assistant professor at the Tirana arts academy he became a scourge of the corrupt politicians who kept post-Communist Albania in demoralised poverty.

"But when I took part in public debates, it was always as an artist, not as a politician."

His first reward was the sack. Then he was severely beaten by president Berisha's thugs. Discharged from hospital, he decamped to Paris.

Last year he went back to Tirana to attend the funeral of his father, who had been Hoxha's favourite sculptor. "I had arranged to spend just five days there, but a new government had been formed and I was invited to join it, so I decided to stay and see what I could do for my country. I felt I could help make things happen, turn things round a bit."

Astonishingly, he still feels that now, though the challenge is growing every week. "My main problem," he says, "is how to convince our partners in Brussels that culture and sport - which is my other responsibility - are essential instruments for improving the quality of life. They have been focusing exclusively on prisons and courts and the army - all the repressive aspects of the state. And this gives young Albanians the feeling that the EU has no interest in them as human beings; that they merely regard them as a problem to be isolated and contained. They're turning our country into a ghetto. The inevitable result is that people want to escape."

I discovered the truth of this last October; every well-educated twentysomething I met harboured dreams of leaving. Inhumane though the Hoxha system was, it did at least instil a grim sense of belonging. Now that has gone, says Rama, and in its place is a rootless mentality. "We have become a nation of boat-people."

This is why Tony Blair was so ecstatically received, he says. "He showed Albanians that he took them seriously, rather than dismissing them as barbarians. If only we could have singers coming in from abroad. By their mere presence, they would give their audience a sense of dignity. But no singers ever come."

But you're the arts minister. Isn't it your job to make them? "My ministerial budget is only pounds 800,000 a year, which also has to cover salaries. We couldn't dream of paying their fees." Why not give them their flights, and get them to sing for free, out of solidarity? Yes, he agrees, that might be worth a shot. Asked who he would most like to hear in Tirana, he replies without hesitation: "U2. They're very well known in Albania, and much appreciated for their social militancy. They would be welcomed like the Messiah."

Then he wistfully brings out more names: Oasis and the Spice Girls, Sinead O'Connor, Sting, Peter Gabriel. "All Albanians know them from their records; they would be over the moon if they came in person."

Albania's huge and still-growing influx of children - flooding into private homes as much as into the camps - represents in Rama's view a demographical time bomb, which for the present is miraculously not exploding. He is doing what he can to provide drawing materials and makeshift film screen and other facilities but has had an uphill task trying to get the big charities to think beyond medicines and food.

"Spiritual nourishment hasn't figured in their calculations. Only in the past week have there been welcome signs of change." In the meantime he's cleaning out his ministerial stables, replacing old Communist civil servants with young arts professionals. And he's called in the British archaeologist Richard Hodges, currently directing excavations at the Graeco-Roman (now Albanian) city of Butrint, to help.

In a modest way, good things are starting to happen: Italian money has been found to refurbish the opera house and art gallery, and Japanese money for a permanent exhibition of Japanese art. Hodges is currently chasing funds for a machine to transfer Tirana's superb cache of Thirties documentary films on to videotape. They hope in due course to provide the capital city with its first proper bookshop.

Heaven knows what will happen to Albania next month, or even next week. It's possible that all Rama's efforts - barely acknowledged by his nervous fellow-ministers, and inevitably sidelined by the big hitters who have suddenly appeared on his patch - will be swallowed up in some new conflagration. But meanwhile his one-man crusade deserves serious and immediate financial support. Brussels please note.