Isolation, paranoia, and cruelty on a daily basis: “Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania” by Margo Rejmer4 min read
Following in the footsteps of Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories of the Soviet Union, Margo Rejmer highlights the voices and stories of Albanians from all walks of life in her latest work Mud Sweeter than Honey.
From 1946 until 1991, Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world, the “North Korea of Europe,” as former president Ilir Meta once termed it. Ruled for the majority of that period by the dictator Enver Hoxha, a fervent Communist who became alienated from every other Communist regime in the world, the country was characterised by its cruel repressions. Thousands of homes were bugged; over two hundred thousand citizens were official informers (Rejmer states that to this day, Albanians believe that one in four citizens informed on others); over 6,000 people were killed by order of the Party; and 59,000 were detained, of whom more than 7,000 died in labour camps or in internal exile. When the regime finally collapsed in 1991, there was no official reckoning with this painful national past. Mud Sweeter than Honey is an attempt to bring Albania’s complicated legacy — a 2016 OSCE survey found that 42% of Albanians still view Hoxha as an outstanding politician and administrator — to light, allowing the voices of victims of Albanian communism to finally be heard.
Born and raised in Poland, Margo Rejmer first became interested in Albania after hearing about it as a “slightly exotic, slightly absurd sort of country” by her friends in Romania. In 2013, she began to visit the country, interviewing people and collecting their stories, eventually moving permanently to Albania in 2015. Over five years, she spoke to more than 300 people, though only 30 stories are featured in Mud Sweeter than Honey. Incorporated in between the oral histories are short chapters written by Rejmer, each based on a single image or anecdote, and reflecting her own point of view. Following the book’s publication in 2018 (in its original Polish), Rejmer was awarded the Polityka Passport, the most prestigious prize in Poland for emerging artists.
The majority of the 30 stories featured in Mud Sweeter than Honey emphasise the isolation, paranoia, and cruelty of the Albanian Communist regime. Many of those interviewed spent time in exile away from the centre, or in the many arduous labour camps where torture by the guards was commonplace. “In the communist era you felt as if you were being raped on a daily basis,” the artist Gentian Shkurti tells Rejmer. “Every single day you lost your sense of security and dignity.” Rejmer does not shy away from recounting the truly gut-wrenching stories, from friends and family betrayals to the most gruesome tortures inflicted on victims of the regime.
Yet even though the majority of the stories emphasise the pain of the past, there is also an underlying thread in many of the oral histories regarding the hurt which came after the fall of the regime. Thrust into even more extreme poverty, many saw the now open borders as a chance to finally escape Albania, yet what they found was an even worse reception abroad. “It was only when I went abroad that I realised what hatred is. What it means to come face to face with people who hate you,” one interviewee, who spent days trapped in inhumane conditions after landing in Italy, tells Rejmer. “They didn’t see me as human, and for a while I stopped feeling human myself.”
Another common complaint is the lack of justice and the amount of corruption present in modern-day Albania. “In Enver’s day, if a doctor took the smallest bribe from a patient, he’d have been interned straight away,” one elderly respondent tells Rejmer. “But now, if you don’t grease his palm, you could collapse in the waiting room and no-one would cast you a second glance.” As another interviewee puts it: “In the past, if you held your tongue you were safe. These days you can scream, but no-one will hear you.”
The book ends with one last narrative summing up the isolation and paranoia that outlived the Communist regime and its collapse. An unnamed narrator recounts a story from 1992, when he was a newly hired guard at the Kakavijë border crossing with Greece. One day, a Greek border guard starts walking to him while holding a red can. While the reader recognises this as a friendly gesture to share a can of Coca-Cola, for the narrator, the only red can he had ever heard about was an Italian grenade. When the Greek border guard pulls the tab to open the can, his Albanian counterpart thinks he is pulling the tab to a grenade. It is only once the Greek realises the fear in the eyes of his Albanian colleague and drinks from the can that the narrator understands it is a harmless drink, and tries it himself. While such a story now seems inconceivable today, even to the narrator’s children, it truly illustrates how insulated Albanian society was from the rest of the world and how fear permeated every action: “You’re afraid to go near a can of Coca-Cola, because how can you possibly know what it is? All you know is what someone told you. A bit of nonsense and a litany of lies.”
Book details: Rejmer, Margo, Mud Sweeter Than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, translated by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, 2021, MacLehose Press. Buy it here.