The following is excerpted from Ani Gjika’s memoir, An Unruled Body.
For a long time, I can’t understand why my grandmother Meropi hides her Bible under her pillow when the doorbell rings. Later, I learn what it means to live a secret Christian life in an atheist country like Albania: You have two lives—at least two—and you better keep track of which one stays at home and which one is allowed outside.
My grandmother is a devout Christian who converted from Greek Orthodox to Seventh-day Adventist before the Second World War broke out. In 1990, when Communism collapses in Albania, she will be one of few Seventh-day Adventist survivors. For almost fifty years, she’ll keep her tithe—$533.89—in a cookie tin until she is finally baptized in April 1992, at the age of eighty-seven, and can deliver her contribution to new missionaries from England.
When I am a girl, my grandmother is my world. After my parents pull me out of daycare, my grandmother moves in with us to raise my younger brother and me while they are at work. She follows me around the house with a glass of milk, sometimes all the way out to the yard, so I can drink that daily dose, which I hate. She is a mouth of stories and prayers. She prays kneeling near a sofa, making sure it is the one facing north, and at night she prays like Daniel in the Bible. Sometimes I wake to her whole body in the moonlight, first standing in the room and then kneeling, then on her hands and feet, until she lies face down and whispers on and on for a good ten minutes.
“Nëna,” I call, so she knows I am awake.
“Shhh, go back to sleep,” she says. Other times, she laughs and says, “You’re still awake, Ani? Come child, I’ll pray with you,” then approaches my bedside, kneels next to me, and begins: O At, o Perëndi, kryetar i qiellit dhe i dheut (Oh Father, oh God, ruler of the heavens and earth)—and I know God is all over, all around us.
I can still hear her telling me the story of Daniel in the lions’ den and of Samson. My favorite part is when Samson finds honey in the belly of the slain lion. When my grandmother reaches this part, her lips soften and her speech slows down. I think she knows exactly where that honey came from, as though she’s tasted it sometime in her past. Her lips and speech, even her gaze, have that knowledge.
On summer days, when my parents are at work, my grandmother lets me get lost in leather-bound Russian encyclopedias of literature. They are larger than my lap, so I have to sit on the floor with them. I don’t know the language, but I’m transfixed by the black and white images. My mom jokes that Grandma knows exactly how to keep me entertained so that she can read her Bible for hours. Sometimes, she lets me go out to the balcony, stand on a chair, and recite all the poems and nursery rhymes I know by heart to the neighborhood below. One day, she counts. “She recited forty-one poems,” she tells my parents. She will brag about it for years.
On winter mornings, when I get up early and she is still in bed, warm under the covers in a house that often has no heat, she will say, “Give me your hands,” and she will tuck them under her three or four blankets, inside her shirt, so they will warm up quickly against her soft flesh.1 And when I start school, she will kiss me each morning before I go, and read me a verse from the Bible. I can’t leave the house until she reads the verse to me. She does the same for my parents and my brother. This is her way of sending us out into the world with the word of God on our shoulders, a protective hand, and I grow to believe that getting good grades in school has everything to do with my grandma’s ritualistic morning blessing.
In the spring and summer I capture living things—first butterflies, then fireflies, then snails and ladybugs, and ants and flies, then I simply pluck daisies and make chains to wear or put on my mother’s head.
My best friend, a boy named Miri, runs with me for what feels like hours along the riverbank trying to capture monarch butterflies, yellow and orange, past the veiny violet flowers that old grandmas in the neighborhood say make really good tea. All I see is greenvioletyelloworange and Miri’s white legs in his brown sandals running ahead of me, both of us wielding butterfly nets as he yells, “Come on Ani, run faster, get this one!”
On my birthday, my uncle Ladi gives me a see-through jewelry box. I fill it with blades of grass, a flower, a fly, an ant, a ladybug. In the palm of my hand I hold a whole forest. I watch to see how its inhabitants get along with each other. I add a dead ant to see if the others care, but soon discover there are no good Samaritans in nature.
When school starts, I long for long, sunny, summer holidays. When summer arrives, I spend it running, curious about the things that suddenly surround me. My brother and I chase lizards. We sit for hours waiting for them to come out of their holes. We throw stones at them. I always miss. We love to watch snails come out of their shells and sit quietly, expecting to see their delicate little horns emerge from their houses. They are such slow creatures, always coming into the outside world as if they are just being born. They make me impatient. I take a stone and hit one of them, but I don’t kill anything. Sometimes, when I am alone, I pick up shards of green bottle glass and look at the world through their width.
I have no stuffed toys, dolls, or much of anything to play with. The sidewalk is my toy, endlessly transforming, and green is everywhere: in the trees around our house, by the Lana River that runs close by, in these shards of broken wine bottles from the nearby Hotel Arbana, where many weddings take place on Sunday nights. Men and women drink till early morning, singing ballads that come at me from around all the corners of darkness over my bed. In the darkness, green is not seen. But have you ever squeezed your eyes shut and pressed on your eyelids till you see fireworks? A supernova of color.
I am trying to capture something that does not belong to me. But the child cannot relate. She is doing what comes naturally—chasing after living things, herself a brand-new living thing. When she makes daisy chains and gives one to her mother to wear, she is pulling her mother into her world. The petals are white and velvety. The sunlight pools around their ankles and over the entire field and time slows down. There is always enough time to make one more flower necklace, no matter how intricate the process. Or maybe it’s that this mother waits—and would wait forever—for her child to keep trying.
The butterflies, the ladybugs, the flies, the ants, all the living things captured, sometimes released, sometimes accidentally hurt or killed. She will spot them and point a finger like a child naming stars for the first time, a god standing next to her. But who is God now? And when does a child stop naming the world to herself?
1881. Eighty kilometers from Albania’s cultural capital of Korçë lies Trebickë: a small village of one-story stone houses and walnut, quince, cherry, and pear trees. Around Trebickë are the sister villages of Grabockë, Panarit, Treskë. Trebickë is made of two sections, Lower Trebickë near the Osum River, where it never snows, with its clamorous bazaar where people sell, buy, and butcher livestock, and Upper Trebickë, about a thirty-minute walk uphill where snow is guaranteed every winter.
Now see Nërënxa, a young woman of sixteen or seventeen years of age. She has just left the bazaar where she was buying groceries and begins the climb home, her hair a braid horseshoeing around her neck, though you can’t see it under her white scarf. She’s returning home to her widowed mother, Katerina, whose brothers have migrated to Aswan, Egypt. Nërënxa is an only child. It is late afternoon, the middle of winter.
Albania at this time remains occupied by the Ottoman Empire until it declares independence in 1912. But in 1881, Turkish soldiers walk in every city and village in the land. Here, too, two Turkish soldiers have been patrolling the bazaar, collecting taxes, when they notice Nërënxa. They follow her home, and one of them picks up his pace, telling her to wait, he just wants to have a word, and when she notices them she knows she has to run. There’s no time to speak or scream. No one can help her against the armed Turks. Nërënxa runs and the Turks run faster. They pass St. Mary’s Monastery, an equal distance between Upper and Lower Trebickë, and Nërënxa calls on Mary. She’s Daphne calling out to Peneus, in another time, in another country. It’s the same story, except here Apollo is human and getting closer.
“Mother, save me! The Turks!” Nërënxa screams when she’s within a hundred feet of her own house. “They’re after me!” she cries, and it’s a cry known to every woman and girl from every country, from now to antiquity.
She reaches the house and crosses the threshold, shutting the wooden gate behind her, but one of the men sticks his head through the small square window in the center calling, “Come out, come out, I won’t hurt you!”
Her mother, Katerina, a tall woman dressed in black—as she will dress for the rest of her life, to mourn her husband—has been standing, her back to the wall, behind the door. She lifts an ax overhead and in one swift motion chops off the soldier’s head. See his head roll onto the stones. His body suffers something like a tremor, lingers upright for a few moments, then collapses outside the door. The other Turkish soldier sees his friend’s headless body drop and runs away.
Katerina and Nërënxa have no time to hug or speak. They pack their clothes in two large bags, mount them on their horse, and leave Trebickë that night. They walk eighty kilometers and reach Korçë by morning. No one looks for them. In the village, everyone is proud of what the mother did to protect her daughter. They settle in Korçë.
Katerina passes away. A decade after the turn of the century, Nërënxa will move to America with her youngest daughter. The oldest one will stay in Korçë, where, in 1905, she gives birth to my grandmother, Meropi.
I come from a line of Daphnes. Our mothers would not think twice to give their lives to protect ours.
Indrit is a few years older than I am and the leader of a gang of boys who enjoy terrifying me. They live in a neighborhood a few blocks away and I have to walk by it to get to school. They know when I get out of school, and they make sure to be at the corner of a building at the exact time I will pass by, then jump out to startle me, yell things, or stop me from going any farther simply by asking me questions: “Where are you going? Where were you this morning? What’s your name? What’s the hurry?” Their bullying is mixed with physical harassment, they poke at my sleeves and elbows, and I wish I was either dead or invisible, just so I could cross streets without them seeing me. Once, they bring a long steel wire and use it to tie me up from head to toe, moving around me as if I am a pole they are spinning ribbons on. I have no power. I am one against seven or eight boys. They are laughing and I am crying, wondering how they can laugh when they can see I am in pain. The wire scratches my face from my ear to my mouth. When I tell my teacher, pointing at the red line on my face, what the boys did to me, led by Indrit, her student, she says, “Anuuush! He probably likes you. I will talk to him.” But the next day, and the day after that, they come over to my building at a time when they know my parents are at work, and stand under my balcony and yell, “Come out Freya, come out!” Freya, the mysterious ghost character in the BBC drama miniseries Maelstrom, popular on TV. Finally, I tell my father, and he finds out where Indrit lives. He tells Indrit’s parents this has to stop. It finally does. I resolve to never let another guy on the street touch me again.
A few more years later, I am with my mother at the farmer’s market in Tiranë when we find ourselves a few feet behind Tina, one of my neighborhood friends. She is walking with a man twenty years older than she is. He is holding her by the elbow. The way he holds her elbow it looks like he’s pushing her toward another street. My mother doesn’t like how this looks. I can see it in the way her face distorts, like she’s smelled something bad. “Let’s catch up,” she says, “ask if she’s okay. What’s that man doing here with her?” But I know Tina always walks where she chooses. And what if this man is her boyfriend? What if we’re reading too much into that hold? Tina and I are sixteen. I don’t want my friend to think my mother is all up in her business. “No, that’s her uncle,” I lie. “They’re probably walking home.” Later that same afternoon, I find all my friends at Tina’s door. There is Tina standing like something dangling from a clothes hanger. The girls say something about underwear, blood. She’s crying. Then she goes inside, closing the door behind her in a way that says she won’t come out again. I say nothing to no one. At home, my mother again gives me that look, like she’s smelled something bad, as if she’s saying, I told you we should have stopped them. The lights go off in Tina’s place, and I pull up the blanket, thinking perhaps we really could have helped, perhaps there was no point in trying to help. Hadn’t Orsida’s cousin a month earlier been married off abroad in a lavish wedding, only to find out soon after that her “husband” had sold her off as a prostitute?
We’re a group and we share one identity: girls. We walk to school in our uniforms with a jean jacket or sweater on top. Always, we walk each other home. In one photo, we hug and lean on one another, evergreens behind us cut out of the frame. My hair is short. It stays that way till I’m eighteen, move to another country, learn another language, and finally grow it out.
My friends and I plan routes walking to and from home together. “We can’t go that way,” we say, “that’s where the guys gjuajnë gocat” (hunt the girls). The humans have transformed into a new breed of animal. We are zebras. The boys are hyenas: in packs, by the school wall, standing at apartment corners. How do you avoid them? How do you survive their attacks? Especially when they seem to multiply like colonies of lice. They have their eyes on us. The idiom is exactly the same in Albanian: ja vuri syrin asaj (he placed his eye on her). Or the equivalent: ja qepi syrin (he stitched his eye on her). Like a mark, we carry those eyes on our backs, on our chests, on our faces, and deep within. We are not our own. When you are watched, when you are hunted, you thin out. Then you disappear.
In high school, my best friend Alda and I walk everywhere together. Her house is ten minutes away from mine. Each morning I look out from my balcony to watch her approach and then we walk together for another twenty minutes until we reach the school. My heart sinks each time I don’t see Alda on the horizon by a certain time. It means I have to walk alone. On our walks back home, she asks me to accompany her for another five minutes, or sometimes all the way to her place so she won’t have to deal with ambushes. But what will I do to get home after dropping her off?
“Come on, Ani, just five minutes. You don’t have to come all the way. Besides, look, there’s nobody out here now. And nobody will mess with you,” she adds, ruffling my short tomboy hair.
I go. Sometimes I reach the five-minute mark and she begs me to go with her a little farther and I can’t say no. Then I walk the ten minutes home alone repeating in my head, t’qifsha robt, t’qifsha t’gjithë robt (fuck everyone, fuck them all), my hands digging deep inside my pockets making fists, releasing them, making fists again to the rhythms of a beating heart.
I know I will accompany Alda.
I know I will walk home alone.
I know one guy or more will likely stop me.
I know I will not let them touch me.
I know I will eventually get home.
I don’t know, each time, how much harder it is for me to see myself.
Albanians describe the eighties and nineties as a time when çunat ngacmonin gocat, which means “the boys teased the girls.” That choice of verb—ngacmoj, to tease—trivializes and removes responsibility from what happened. Even the word çunat (boys) doesn’t accurately describe who was harassing whom. They were not all boys. There were plenty of grown men among them, in their twenties and thirties. In the decades since, people have refused to name it for what it was. Sexual harassment. Sexual assault. Human trafficking. Rape culture: people consoling each other by measuring degrees of violence, saying, “At least it wasn’t rape. At least your daughter wasn’t kidnapped.” We endured, instead of acknowledging that something was wrong and putting a stop to it. When Communism finally crumbles, there is a lull, brief enough for us to open our eyes, turn our heads, and see for the first time what has cracked apart all around us. This lull is like the quiet before you hear the hyenas’ cackles grow louder and louder until, too late, you’re surrounded, and their roar smothers you from the inside out before they move to chew on your flesh.
When I think about Albania, I think about childhood. My childhood as a movie. I think about Communism. A collective performance. If I am to take you there, I have to feed you the kind of nationalistic stew every family consumed every day until a few years after Albania’s Communist Leader, Enver Hoxha, died. Many still consume it to this day.
Don’t get lost here. In order to tell the story of my childhood, I must distort the narrative—reality itself was distorted. That was the nature of language at the time. One truth on the radio, another on the street, another behind closed doors, the TV, newspapers, slogans on the walls of every school, library, museum, hospital, and government building dumping their landfill of “news” daily. How do I make this real for you?
I have to take you inside the chef’s kitchen. Ask who cooks such a thing? How? And why can’t people stop eating this stew? Into this absurd story about a period ruled by absurdity, made real through by a child. When adults recall this time, they resort to finger-pointing, sharp nails shoved straight into each other’s chests, mouths so loud they want to swallow silence from one another’s faces.
The child remembers long meetings on TV. So many people on the screen for long hours sitting and standing, raising a fist, clapping, Enver Hoxha talking. He has a nice smile. Everyone knows he likes children best and the children sing of the sweetness of his hands and the luck of the Labor Party to be ruled by someone like him.
In the house, the adults often counsel, “Don’t talk about God to your friends.” Besë ki, besë kujt mos i zë (Have faith, but trust no one). Others come to visit, an aunt, an uncle and his family, friends of the parents. They sit and talk, drink coffee, read their fortunes in the patterns of their cups’ coffee grounds, make byrek together. My grandmother reads the Bible only to us and her other son when he comes to visit. Her cousin who lives in America visits in 1986 and buys us a color TV. An army of adults and children from our ten-family building comes to watch the World Cup on our living room floor. Italy loses long before the finals and I’m inconsolable. It takes a while before my mom finds me where I’m hiding, out on the balcony.
Enver Hoxha’s speeches and plenums play daily on TV and radio, or are published weekly in the pages of The People’s Voice, and eventually everyone hears and reads them as their own voice and chants right back. When people come home from work, they linger in their doorways to talk to neighbors. Whispers of people thrown in jail and “disappeared” spread in the apartment halls and streets. Like a good stew that must cook slowly, repetitive motion is key. Broadcasts of lavish parades and movies made to praise the status quo are played across the country at regular intervals.
“They knew everything about you, they knew even the things you didn’t know,” my mother tells me. “I once met a Kosovar poet at a literary conference in 1973 in Korçë who bought my first book of poems. After the conference in Korçë, he traveled across Albania and sent me postcards from different cities telling me what he was up to, and that he was reading my book. I did not get the postcards, but I was called in to the office of the Corps Commissioner of Korçë instead.
“‘What are your intentions for communicating with this Kosovar poet?’ the Corps Commissioner asked me. ‘Do you know that he writes about Tito?’”
Tito— Josip Broz Tito—was the president of what was then Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980. Although Kosovars are and speak Albanian, the Communist regime in Albania was so isolationist that Communist Albanians held their own Albanian brothers and sisters of former Yugoslavia at arm’s length like they did everyone else abroad.
My mother had never received the postcards. She told the officer she had never read his books and didn’t know what was in them.
“But the truth is he never wrote about Tito,” my mother tells me. “They lied and put pressure on me so I would crack. Shortly after, they called me into the office again and told me to report anything that looks suspicious in the behavior or words of other colleagues. I left that meeting wondering, what would I report about? I wanted nothing to do with this. I shut the door behind me and never set foot in that office again.”
One year later, my mother says, an officer who worked in Korçë was transferred to a higher position at the Ministry of the Interior in the capital city. He found my mother’s book of poetry and the postcards sitting in a drawer in his new office. He called another poet he thought might know my mother and asked her to return everything to her.
My mother never meets this man, but when I think of him, I think of those single flowers that somehow manage to break through concrete.
I learn about status when I am very young. If your family members work for the government, that is a plus. If there is a stain in their biography, that is a minus. “What’s a stain, Mom?”
“It’s when you’ve done something the Party doesn’t like.”
I make a list:
- My uncle is a movie producer/director—he has a picture on his bookshelf of himself shaking hands with Enver Hoxha. We all have a copy of this picture and display it on our bookshelves. (+)
- My mother is a poet who writes mostly love poems and not much about the Labor Party. (-)
- My parents are not members of the Communist party. (-)
- My grandmother is a secret Christian; some neighbors have begun to suspect it. (-)
- Lillian, my grandma’s first cousin, lives in the U.S. (-)
- All other uncles and aunts have the same one- or two-bedroom apartment furnished with the same couches, bookshelves, tables, kilims, fridge, phone, black and white TV. (+) (+) (+) (+)2
When certain neighbors begin to drop by your house very early or very late, there’s a different rhythm to the day.3 You keep your radio switched to a local news channel, The People’s Voice newspaper spread open on the table—to survive, you master the art of obscuring your own reality.
Children of entire generations are raised hearing “don’t”—no one says, “You can do it.” The dream of being different is short-lived because the fear of not fitting the mold of the collective is ingrained. You are pushed only when measured against everyone else. You’re never measured against yourself.
When the adults gather, they chant: “Don’t show weakness. Don’t bow down to anybody. Let them burst with jealousy.” This is when you learn that saying sorry is a weakness and you’re forty years old before you realize what it means to have compassion for yourself.
When Enver Hoxha dies on April 11, 1985, I am in the first grade. Our teacher enters the room and tells us to pack our bags because something has happened and we need to leave and they will tell us when we get there.4
When we get where? What has happened?
We don’t walk for long, though it seems like forever until we come to an open field and each class and its teacher sits in circles on the grass. And there they tell us.
“We’ve just heard this morning that Comrade Enver Hoxha has died.”
Each of the teachers begin to weep. All my classmates, too. The whole field is weeping and crying and it confuses me a great deal. I can’t cry. I feel nothing. Someone has died. I don’t even understand what that means. The country’s leader has died. That too, I can’t connect to. I can’t cry like everyone else and that is confusing and upsetting me even more.
“You can go home now,” the teachers say, “and think about this.” We scatter like bats out of a cave.
When I get home, I find my grandmother watching TV and crying, too.
Everyone feared Enver Hoxha. They feared him so much that in his death they were seized with fits of hysterics lest they be found unworthy followers. I didn’t understand it then, and never asked, but now I wonder if my grandmother was relieved that the man who had turned the whole country atheist had finally lost his grip on how everyone chose to think about God.
I had just turned seven. I sat on the floor and wrote my first poem—a direct address to the month of April and how it had made everyone cry now that we had lost our president.5
For years after the collapse of the Communist regime, I imagine a collective of Albanian families sitting down at the table at the same time. See them now through the windows of their houses:
They sit with big smiles on their faces, the children, the father, the grandparents if there are any, and the woman of the house. She is the only one standing, ready to put food in their bowls. She could be smiling, too, but you can’t see it. Or if you do, you don’t recognize it as a smile. Her lips have been permanently sewn shut and everyone seems pleased that it is so. She, too, has convinced herself that this expression is the mark of a great hostess.
Once the food is laid out in the bowls, people begin to eat. The texture is the best part. The stew settles in the bowl like a mass of loose scree and everyone chews with teeth they have taken great care to sharpen and prime for the occasion. Their teeth gnash. Rocks on rocks. And their smiles grow bigger after each bite as their teeth loosen and fall. Each window is a bright eye, wide open, watching, making sure that the other windows in the neighborhood are also wide open and the people are doing the same thing. It is important to everyone behind each window to know that those behind the window next door are following along, and have enough of the same to consume. If anyone notices that a family is lacking, the man of the house will go over and bring stew to his neighbors. “My wife Leonora made this. Eat. Enjoy. May it be blood and fat to you. Long live the Labor Party!”
Of course this never really happened. But this is one way a child imagines tyranny.
1. That year winter threatened our small house.
I heard winds howl, but I had drawn enough stars
to burn in the stove to keep us warm. [return]
2. Nobody I loved was taken into the woods and shot. [return]
3. Last night I saw my father in a dream running through a field.
He was a black figure. The field was two long red arms
stretched out around him. He was running from something.
There they were. They were keys. They were eyes, eyes like keys.
They were eyes. They were keys. From the nape of his neck,
they began to pry him open like a treasure box. [return]
4. Behind windows, black
and white screens broadcast a long
Congress, but we didn’t understand a word.
When we heard the truth, we took it
for another story grown-ups told
to put us to sleep. Behind our building,
the river grew tired, rocks rattled in the dark.
We awoke in Spring, our bodies
overgrown with weeds. Our parents
had no idea how to save us. [return]
5. Prill o prill
na mbushe sytë me lot
se xhaxhin Enver
nuk e gjejmë dot. [return]
Albanian-born writer Ani Gjika is the author and literary translator of eight books and chapbooks of poetry, among them Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013), a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her translation from the Albanian of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space (New Directions and Bloodaxe Books, 2018) received an English PEN Award and was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize, PEN America Award, and Best Translated Book Award. She is a graduate of Boston University’s MFA program where she was a 2011 Robert Pinsky Global fellow, and GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program, where she was a 2019 Pauline Scheer Fellow. Having taught creative writing at various universities in the U.S. and Thailand, Gjika currently teaches English as a Second Language at Framingham High School in Massachusetts. www.anigjika.com (updated 10/2023)