Visar Zhiti (b. 1952) is the Albanian writer whose life and works perhaps best mirror the history of his nation. He was one of the many to have suffered appalling persecution for no apparent reason. But Visar Zhiti survived – physically, intellectually and emotionally, and he is now among the most popular poets of present-day Albania.
Born in the Adriatic port of Durrës as the son of the stage actor and poet Hekuran Zhiti (1911-1989), Visar Zhiti grew up in Lushnja where he finished school in 1970. After studies at a teacher training college in Shkodra, he embarked upon a teaching career in the northern mountain town of Kukës. Zhiti showed an early interest in verse and had published some poems in literary periodicals. In 1973, he was preparing the collection “Rapsodia e jetës së trëndafilave” (Rhapsody of the life of roses) for publication when the so-called Purge of the Liberals broke out in Tirana at the Fourth Plenary Session of the Communist Party. Zhiti, whose father had earlier come into conflict with the authorities, was one of the many scapegoats selected as a means of terrifying the intellectual community. The manuscript of the verse collection which he had submitted to the editors of the Naim Frashëri publishing company was now seen to contain grave ideological errors and was interpreted as having blackened socialist reality. His works were denounced as anti-communist agitation and propaganda, and there was nothing the poet could say to his interrogators to prove his innocence. None of his fellow writers saw fit or dared to help him. Indeed in October 1979, some of them prepared an insidious report condemning the works of the poet, no doubt to save their own skins. It was this “expert opinion” which led directly to Zhiti’s fall and subsequent torment.
After years of uncertainty under the Damocles Sword of the Party, Visar Zhiti was arrested on 8 November 1979 in Kukës where he was still teaching, and spent the following months in solitary confinement. To keep his sanity, he composed and memorized over a hundred poems. Sentenced at a mock trial in April 1980 to thirteen years in prison, he was taken to Tirana jail and, from there, transferred up to the isolated northern mountains to do the rounds in the infamous concentration camps similar to the Soviet gulags, among them, the living hell of the copper mines at Spaç and to the icy mountain prison of Qafë-Bari. Many of his fellow prisoners died of mistreatment and malnutrition, or went mad. Visar Zhiti was released on 28 January 1987 and was then ‘permitted’ by the Party to work in a brick factory in his native Lushnja, where he kept a low profile until the end of the dictatorship.
In the autumn of 1991, when Albania was in a state of chaos, Visar Zhiti managed to get to Italy and worked in Milan until July 1992. He visited Germany for several months in 1993 on a scholarship offered to him by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was in the United States in 1994. On his return to Albania, he worked as a journalist and was appointed head of the Naim Frashëri publishing company, which had once abandoned him to his fate. He was later employed by the administrative services of the new Albanian parliament, in the building of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party where, as fate would have it, he shared an office with one of the writers who had denounced him many years earlier.
In 1996, Visar Zhiti was elected himself as a member of parliament but, shaken by the sombre realities of Albanian party politics, he soon withdrew from political life. In 1997, he joined the Albanian foreign service and was appointed cultural attaché to the Albanian Embassy in Rome, where he lived and worked until 1999. This appointment gave him an opportunity to make up for lost time, to devote himself to writing and to pursue personal and literary objectives which he would not even have dared to dream about a decade earlier.
Visar Zhiti’s first volume of verse “Kujtesa e ajrit” (The memory of the air) was published in Tirana in 1993. It contains some of the so-called prison poems as well as verse inspired by his first journeys outside the ‘big prison’ that was Albania. The second collection, “Hedh një kafkë te këmbët tuaja” (I cast a skull at your feet), published in Tirana in 1994, contains the full cycle of 110 prison poems composed between 1979 and 1987, verse which survived miraculously in the recesses of the poet’s memory. Both volumes were well received in Albania and by Albanian-speaking readers in the former Yugoslavia. Someone had finally given voice to the hundreds of silenced and broken intellectuals.
Among Zhiti’s subsequent verse collections are: “Mbjellja e vetëtimave” (Sowing lightning), published in Skopje in 1994; “Dyert e gjalla” (The living doors), published in Tirana in 1995; “Kohë e vrarë në sy” (Time murdered in the eye), published in Prishtina in 1997; and, most recently, “Si shkohet në Kosovë” (Where is the road to Kosova), printed in Tirana in 2000. The latter volume mirrors, among other things, the poet’s horror at the sufferings of Kosova and its people during the ten years of oppression and the two years of war leading to NATO intervention and to the final liberation in 1999. Several collections of Zhiti’s verse have also appeared in Italian translation.
In addition to his poetry, Visar Zhiti is the author of numerous short stories which have been compiled in the volumes “Këmba e Davidit” (David’s leg), published in Tirana in 1996, and “Valixhja e shqyer e përrallave” (The battered suitcase of folktales), published in Prishtina in 1997. He has also published translations into Albanian of the works of Mother Teresa, Federico Garcia Lorca and Mario Luzi.
Despite the paucity of literary translations from the Albanian, Visar Zhiti’s verse has been appreciated abroad and he has received notable international recognition. In 1991, he was awarded the Italian “Leopardi d’oro” prize for poetry and in 1997 the prestigious “Ada Negri” prize. He is a member of the Alfonso Grassi International Academy of Art and has taken part in many international poetry festivals in recent years.
At the bars of my cell
How sweetly the nightingale sang
Through the iron bars of my window,
Transforming the very iron
into the verdant branches of a cherry tree.
The floor was covered in warbles
And I, on my knees,
Picked them up one by one
Like crumbs of bread,
like crumbs of life.
(in a prison cell, 1980)[Te hekurat e frengjisë sime, from the volume Kujtesa e ajrit, Tirana 1993, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
A rainy day
But there is a sky above the rain,
Nothing can rot the sky.
Earth has turned to mud. What of it?
The heart of the planet is made of fire, of ardent sun.
It rains. Someone must suffer,
Perhaps the wings of the birds,
Their flights drenched,
But their chirping is golden nonetheless,
Just as in every aeroplane
there is always one beautiful woman.
Perhaps the branches of the fruit trees suffer?
Listen to the murmuring of the burdens
with words like “I love you” on their lips.
The bones of the prisoners are drenched
As are the television antennas.
I have a mountain before me.
There was a slogan on it, written in white stone,
If you do not accept it, they throw you in prison,
make your life dismal, and
If you are already in prison, they sentence you again.
The rain has effaced the slogan, right in the open daylight,
With watery hands it has washed out the letters “A. P. L.”
I stand in awe and amazement – not even humans,
If they drenched it in blood, could do it.
Innocent droplets of rain
Make almost all events
Even within prison
There is a prison.
They throw you into it,
For example, if you do not work.
Lying on the floorboards
Of your coffin cell, you have not eaten today,
Nor yesterday, nor the day before yesterday, nor three days ago,
Nor since the Second World War,
Nor will you eat tomorrow, nor the day after tomorrow,
Nor when you are dead.
“Go ahead and die!” said the guard on the first day,
On the second he squeaked like a torn boot,
On the third he fell silent.
The stains on the wall trembled in his face.
On the fourth day, he said: “Eat!”
“What’s wrong,” he said on the fifth.
Then came the sixth day. In fact
Nothing happened. The seventh day hid
Behind the ninth. The first year of Christ
Before the November national holiday.
The death of the tyrant was delayed.
He was as stubborn as an ass.
The men from the command came
to your cell,
All with their heads bowed, reflecting
In the dish of cold soup.
The dish was the eye of the cyclops.
The mice were eating the bread, scampering about,
Musical notes on the scores of… doctrine.
Dance back and forth,
A cry runs barefoot
Down the corridor.
The cockroaches take fright. Look how they scuttle
Skull-less, out of the seams of memory.
Patches of light from somewhere
Lay in the room
Like vomit from a sick day.
(Saturday, 4 February 1984)[Grevë urie, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
Little prison, big prison
Do you know the two brothers in prison?
There are also three brothers,
And a father and son.
There are also a grandfather and grandson in prison.
A father-in-law and a son-in-law,
A man and his wife,
(His love languishes in the women’s ward
Over hair shorn,
like a blackbird
With wings clipped that it not soar).
There is also a family in prison,
They’ve been sentenced to over a century.
Our whole country is a prison,
Draped in barbed wire,
Sentenced to three thousand years. Before Christ.
Our little prison
In the belly of a big prison
Is like a baby in the pouch
Of a crazed kangaroo.
You may despair,
But be steadfast!
Death impresses no one here
The tunnel caved in
And a prisoner was killed.
(but the chains he was wearing have not yet been killed)
And so, the chain gang returned to camp
With one man less,
With one corpse more,
Undelivered to its family for burial.
(You are neither among the living
Nor among the dead.
You have no life,
Not even a grave!)
The jacket worn by the dead prisoner
Is held in the hands of one of his friends.
Throw it at the feet
Of the officer at the gate,
In charge of the watchmen,
And say: “Count it, are we all here?”
Take the jacket
And shield Albania’s trembling shoulders.
(9 March 1983)[Vdekja këtu nuk trondit kërkënd, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
The prison shower room
We, the prisoners,
Slip out of the black mine
Like twilight shadows from the grave.
We put out our oil lamps,
Throw aside our boots,
And hustle off to the shower room.
Water – the only warmth we have,
Like rain blessed by the heavens,
Pours over our naked bodies.
You wash the exhaustion,
The mire of death off your ribs,
Standing in the steam,
As if in the realm of sleep
You suddenly see yourself
In a dream…
You rub your shoulders,
Scrub your arms, belly and thighs,
Finding nothing foreign on you,
The shower weeps a torrent of tears
Over feeble, wounded,
Could faint for joy,
Fall in love with the water
As it glides over and envelops your body
Like a woman.
And you feel
You have not been abandoned entirely,
Not by the snow which melts
And fills the mighty rivers.
Far from the sea
Are the prisons,
Full of dead waves of life.
Then come the clouds on high,
And then the rain,
Washing the naked nation – a prisoner’s body.
The beloved water licks me with its tongue,
Soothing me all over.
The shadow of the barbed wire,
like a tattoo on a slave,
Stretches sombre on my skin
And I wash and wash,
And fall into another reality,
Now I can fly
Far, far away…
(Qafë-Bari prison camp, July 1983)[Banjoja e të burgosurve, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]