In December 1991 I went to Brussels on the occasion of one of those numerous meetings organized at that period with intellectuals on the future of Europe – meetings where we, the newly ‘discovered’ from the other side of the iron curtain, were still received warmly and with great curiosity. I expected to return through Paris, where I would stay three or four days in order to work with my translator. She had to give my editor a book I had written during that dramatic year, sending it to her one chapter after another by fax. My translator wanted to clear up her remaining doubts about the text.
At that time we Albanians needed a special visa for each European country to which we travelled. In order to spare me the annoyance of incessant visits to the consulate, the French ambassador in Tirana had provided me with a long term multi-entry visa. Thus, with much calmness, I took an evening train in Brussels so that I could arrive in Paris well before my friend José-Alain Fralon, journalist of Le Monde, who would be my host, would have retired for the night. I had some reason to feel satisfied. My luggage consisted of a holdall with only the most necessary things for a trip of only a few days. In that bag were also my notebooks and a copy of my typescript in its final version. As far as I knew, I didn’t have anything else. Furthermore, I was quite sure I didn’t have anything suspicious about my person.
I handed my passport to the policemen who came to look at passengers’ documents once the train had departed. In fact, I never would know whether they were railway employees or members of the French border police. After all, I was at all not curious about such details. But they wore a uniform and this was sufficient to make me respond to their demand with all the confidence of a person who has nothing to hide.
Both officials, however, drew attention to the fact that my passport had acquired so many visas and frontier seals within a period of less than one year. They put questions to me which I would be unlikely to come across if I were not Albanian. But this was perfectly understandable and I answered patiently. During that year, at least two exoduses of Albanians towards western Europe had taken place, and sightings of desperately poor people crossing the sea lashed to ship masts have of course produced compassion, but also fear of mass migration. For my part, I was not worried even when the two uniformed men told me they would like me to give them my holdall. I was still buoyed with the pleasure of new acquaintances in Brussels and at the same time with my expectations of Paris, where I would see my first book translated into French and ready for publication. I gave them my bag and I was paying all too little attention to how they were doing their job. Suddenly, one of them took an envelope out of one of the pockets of my bag. It was a letter with my address on it and I didn’t remember who had sent it to me. The controller read silently what was written on the envelope and then he showed it to his colleague. Both stared inquiringly at me, and I began to feel annoyed. The one who had the envelope was about to open it in order to read the letter. I intervened and sharply reminded him that it was not his right to do so. I didn’t have any idea about what the letter was. I simply could not accept the excess of freedom with my correspondence which these two uniformed men wanted to give themselves. From my position on the seat I could not see the address of the sender. The official did not insist on reading the letter that was within the envelope:
“So, you certainly know your rights,” - he responded with a certain smack of sarcasm.
“I do know them,” - I answered coldly. But I didn’t have any ominous presentiment at that time. Simply the curiosity of these passport controllers about that envelope was getting to me.
They had left my bag to one side and were now looking rather incredulously at the envelope. Then they looked at each other and one of them quietly left the coach. The other, who had taken the envelope out of my bag and still held it in his hand as if he might be afraid of it, was waiting for his colleague, who soon returned with a third uniformed person. I thought he was their superior. There were a lot of travellers in the coach I was in. They seemed generally weary. Or maybe that indifference was part of their culture. However, I was impressed by the fact that they were not paying any attention to the controllers lingering by my seat.
“Who sent you this letter, sir?” – he asked me.
On the envelope to the left of “Le Pen International”, was printed the address of the organization in London. This made his question superfluous. I had only to repeat what they could have read on the envelope by themselves. And I just repeated it.
“My God, is Le Pen international?” – said he, his eyes wide open.
“Of course,” - I answered him.
“Since birth, immediately after the First World War,” - I explained.
“Wow! Not even Jesus Christ was international since birth!” - said the one who I supposed the superior officer, who had been brought in to clarify the situation. The others were acting dumbfounded, as if they had just discovered the miracle of their lives. I shrugged. I didn’t understand what was going on.
“And what is your relation with Le Pen International?”
“Now Albania is a free country,” - I responded. “We have created in Tirana a branch of the organization and I am its president.” I was telling them the truth. A group of writers from Albania and Kosovo had created the Albanian Pen centre only a few weeks after the fall of the dictatorship and I had been elected president of that centre.
“Are you saying that Le Pen has a branch even in Albania?!” – intervened the one who had found the envelope.
“Yes, sir,” - I answered. “As I just said, Albania is now a free country.”
It seemed that the one I had supposed superior at last felt that something was wrong. He softened down. He apologized warmly for having disturbed me and asked me to explain to him what “Le Pen International” was, which I did it as concisely and exactly as I could. The three of them started to laugh, apologized again, kindly wished me a good trip and went away without clarifying anything at all.
It was my turn to be dumbfounded. All the way to Paris I was unable to get my mind off the question why my very simple explanation about Le Pen International had produced such hilarity among the three policemen. From certain unpleasant questions they had put my while they were leafing through my passport I drew the conclusion that their intention had been to make fun of me. My imagination could not go further, although it was logically difficult for me to accept that those French employees, with uniforms and during their own working day, could go to such lengths to create such a farce simply in order to make fun of me without any provocation. Now I possessed all the doubt and uncertainty of someone who does not understand what is happening to them.
As soon as I arrived at my friend’s home, and even before I took off my overcoat, I quickly told him the story. I had not reached the end, before José started to laugh, in volume a burst of laughter to rival those of the three policemen on the train. This was too much for me. The more irritated I became, still completely nonplussed, the more my friend laughed.
That December night, at almost midnight, I learned that there was a politician in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of a nationalist, racist and xenophobic party, who was aiming to be President of France. Until that moment in time he had only succeeded in becoming a member of the European Parliament. The paradox he espoused was that his purpose in aiming to become President of France was, as he loudly proclaimed, to take France out of the European Union.
By coincidence, he had approximately the same age as PEN International, and this was what had troubled the three uniformed Frenchmen in my innocent answer to the effect that Le Pen was international since his birth, nearly seventy years ago.
It must be understood that the ignorance of these three officials regarding the world organization of writers of which I was already a member, was not so profound as my ignorance about the existence of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his like on the political stage, indeed at the centre of the public space of the democratic world. So much for what I had learned during my one year of freedom, moreover, on the political front line in my country, as a member of the Albanian parliament?
While exchanging ideas late into the night with José-Alain Fralon in relation to that question, we arrived at the title of my book which was being prepared for publication: “Albania, between crimes and mirages”. During these first moments of freedom we have still been too busy looking into the crimes of our immediate past. We regarded them with a certain amazement that numbed our minds, as if we hadn’t already experienced them in our bones. Then we turned our gazes forward and were seized by euphoria, but this too in turn was numbing to our minds, so that the future genuinely resembled a mirage coming at us from out of the West. As for the present, when the foundations of a free society were actually being built day after day, this was the only thing we were unable to think about. Or, at best, we were not thinking about it with the seriousness and preoccupation that it deserves.
Even now, after more than twenty years, I don’t think it was a lack of responsibility. We, as individuals and, consequently, as intellectuals, were not educated with the habit of clearly focusing on the present. And, more largely, we didn’t have the intellectual quietness and the awareness to see that in an open society, where we at last were living, the vices of freedom were coming much more quickly than the virtues of freedom. We lacked the culture of realistic judgment.
This article forms part of the dossier, “Albanian Reflections on Europe and Otherness”. It was first presented in an international debate in Tirana, Albania, on February 19, 2013, organized by the Albanian Media Institute and Soros Foundation, in partnership with the Erste Foundation, openDemocracy, and the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.