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Robert Elsie

Eqrem Basha. Neither a wound nor a song
Poetry from Kosova in a bilingual Albanian-English edition,
with a foreword by Janice Mathie-Heck.
Selected, translated from the Albanian and edited by Robert Elsie

ISBN 1-891654-13-6
Gjonlekaj Publishing, New York 2003
xviii +171 pp.


    Eqrem Basha is an enigmatic poet. Perplexing, fascinating, and difficult to classify in a literary sense, he succeeds in transmitting a certain mystique to the inquisitive reader. One moment he seems coolly logical and shows an admirable ability to reason deductively, and the next moment he is overcome by absurd flights of fancy into a surrealistic world where apparently nothing makes any sense. I became intrigued upon reading his verse, of which he exhibits many styles, and was quite determined to find the 'keys' to both his persona and his philosophy.
    In the early 1970's, Belgrade finally gave Albanians cultural autonomy in Kosova and permitted them full access to their own culture and language. At that time Eqrem Basha was in his mid-twenties which is generally a formative and imaginative age for someone with an inquiring mind and a strong intellect. He was surrounded by an atmosphere of energetic, original and prolific thought which served as the impetus for a freshly thriving Albanian literature and culture. It was a mini-renaissance. The following years were productive ones for Eqrem, and he wrote several volumes of verse relatively unimpeded or affected by the political situation or by direct government intervention. Along the way he managed to study Albanian language and literature at the University of Prishtina, and subsequently edited drama programmes for television in that city. After the Serb military crackdown in 1990, everything changed, and Basha was thrown out of his job. Teaching in Albanian was also suspended at the University, and both professors and students were expelled from the campus. The situation was bleak for all intellectuals and writers in Kosova. Thus began a nightmare period with the destruction of the Albanian education system and other public institutions, with the banning of radio and television, with systematic discrimination and with horrific human rights violations.
    Western readers will be quite familiar with the events leading up to the NATO bombing of 1999. Under the dictatorship and harsh military boot of Slobodan Milosevic, ethnic cleansing, imprisonment, persecutions of all kinds, unimaginable hardships and expulsion programmes all took their toll on the collective spirit of the Kosovar Albanians. Survival was the bottom line, and staying alive the chief preoccupation. Self-actualization and the realization of personal dreams and goals were impossibilities.
    Since the end of the war, under the protection of NATO forces and with the humanitarian efforts of the UNHCR, life is slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy in Kosova. Rebuilding programmes, international aid agencies and NGO's such as CIDA, CARITAS and the Red Cross, volunteers from many countries, and an infusion of billions of dollars to boost the economy, have all served to help the people get back on an even footing. Restaurants and coffee shops are sprouting up all over, and citizens are no longer afraid to walk in the streets. The infrastructure is being repaired. Albanians can once again attend their university, seek employment, listen to popular radio stations, be educated in Albanian schools, receive treatment in Albanian hospitals, buy Albanian books, and read and publish whatever they want without fear of repression. The artistic and intellectual climate has markedly improved, and it is to be hoped that there will be a major resurgence in Albanian literature! Eqrem Basha continues to reside in Kosova and now works for the flourishing publishing industry. Visitors will find him at his computer in the back office of the Dukagjini bookstore, which has been hailed as the best one in Prishtina!
    In spite of the almost insurmountable obstacles to achieving artistic and poetic freedom during the long years of terror and injustice in Kosova, Eqrem Basha managed to publish many significant volumes of poetry and literary prose, and translated the dramatic works of four great existentialist writers from French into Albanian: Ionesco, Camus, Sartre and Beckett. He also translated some of the humanist works of André Malraux, which explore the role of art, devotion to ideals, and man's solitude in the perpetual struggle for freedom.
    We cannot read the poetry of Basha without being struck by his existentialist philosophy. What exactly is existentialism? Difficult to define, it rejects rationalist thought and deductive reasoning. Some human mental states such as anguish, uncertainty, anxiety, hopelessness, intuition, clairvoyance, extrasensory perception, hypnosis, exaltation and transcendence, cannot be accounted for scientifically. They lie beyond the realm of the five senses. Man can interpret and speculate, but he cannot prove or conclude. Much of what he experiences is inexplicable and remains a mystery. Existentialist doctrine argues that concrete physicality overrides abstract imagination. Man is seen as perpetually tormented by uncertainty and psychological suffering. When confronted with physical objects, he is aware that they 'are,' but finds that they have no intrinsic meaning. He comes face to face with the primordial, perplexing questions of existence. He asks himself, "What am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why is there something, and not just an infinite abyss? How can I find the answers?" Everything seems meaningless and ludicrous. That he exists at all defies logic and probability. Nothingness may be the true reality. Thus, his reality is only what the individual himself knows and experiences. It is personal and introspective, and cannot be challenged or verified by others. He, or what he perceives himself to be, cannot be severed from the objects which surround him. He is part of everything else in the physical world, but is no more special than a star, a rock, a tree, a bird or a table.
    Frighteningly, when the existentialist gazes into his own depths, he finds absolutely nothing as well! This is tremendously shocking and discouraging. He realizes that each person must face important and difficult decisions with no absolute, clearly prescribed code of conduct or standard of ethics with which to judge their correctness. Human choice is subjective. Man alone is accountable for his own actions, and he feels the exigencies of that accountability. There is no divinity to offer him salvation. There is no omniscient, benevolent guiding force to absolve or pardon him. From this silent void, proposes the existentialist, stems man's despair, alienation and angst, but also, if he exhibits courage, his human integrity, emotional strength and ability to endure. However, instead of the humanist focus which places man at centre stage, and suggests that he may have a purpose and even the means to achieve greatness or to triumph over death, the existentialist sees man as a worthless accident with a fleeting and inconsequential influence in the world, in space and in time. No matter how hard he tries to solve the absurd puzzle of why he exists, he finds that his individual life makes no apparent sense, and has no innate value. Neither hero nor victim, he is but a tiny being lost in the unimaginably vast emptiness of the unfathomable cosmos.
    At any moment man may be only a mere breath away from death. Lack of control over one's environment or one's destiny can be terrifying for any of us. The existentialist sees himself as submitting to the endless and relentless flow of time with absolutely no expectations. His life is basically bleak, and one of interminable mental suffering, and the more he contemplates it, the more he finds that all is in vain. Discouragement is a constant. Consciousness brings pain because the human being is able to think and to have awareness of self. In the words of Malraux, "Every man is a madman, but what is a human destiny if not a life of effort to unite this madman and the universe?"
    Existentialism reflects the necessity of responding to the emergency of life in a modern, rapidly changing world. Many contemporary western poets are pessimistic about their era. Even in relatively stable and reasonably predictable political systems, the sense of free-floating anxiety permeates the population. Two world wars and many smaller but devastating massacres have occurred. There is still the threat of atomic annihilation, recurrent political bullies, ideological conflicts, surrendering of the individual mind to mass control, loss of nature as a refuge and as a wellspring for human emotions, and the decay of rural values and ancient rituals. A poet with a conscience and a strong sense of history can hardly be expected to smile at the way things seem to be going. It is also more satisfying to criticize or bemoan than to praise, as much poetic inspiration arises from the depths of dissatisfaction with one's times and disillusionment with one's society. A facade of confident bravado disguises the fact that poets are often sentimental, nostalgic and even wistful in their sense of desolation. It is hard enough for those of us in the West to continually readjust our thinking, adapt to abrupt shifts in communications and technology, come to terms with the exponential growth of scientific discoveries, or discard traditional standards of behaviour, without having lived through the mind-numbing regimen of torment inherent in Kosova society during the last decade of the twentieth century.
    Existentialist philosophy has even more relevance and significance for many of those who endured and survived social chaos, marginalization, economic deprivation, uprootedness, irrational torture and persecution. "Where was God?" asked a Kosovar Albanian refugee who now lives in Canada. "Why did they burn my house? Why did I lose all my books? Why did I have to live in fear? What crime did I commit because I was born an Albanian?" The trauma of those days is still fresh in his mind, and the emotional scars will take a long time to heal, if in fact they ever can. The pessimism and nightmarish imagery that characterizes and pervades much of existentialist writing has not escaped the pens of many Albanian poets, and small wonder! Eqrem Basha is no exception. Exacerbated by the horrors and cataclysms of the recent past, could the poet's experiences have precluded him from achieving or attaining a meaning for his life? The idea of freedom perhaps sheds some light on this question because man is free to create his individual essence through the choices which he alone decides to make. He is responsible for his own actions, and must face their consequences. He has no one but himself with whom to consult or commiserate. He must create his own hope. He is always becoming, and he has no permanence, no comforting psychological shelter, and no finality, until he dies.
    It is in the hinterland of this sombre and stark philosophical landscape that we begin our journey into the poetry of Eqrem Basha. During the first thirty years of his life he apparently had an affinity with the French poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Apollinaire, and experimented with different forms of verse. His early works reflect a strong preoccupation with sadness, nostalgia, death and madness. One can sense his youthful struggle to find the meaning of existence. He seems to have prophesied the curtailment of freedoms in Kosova and the denial of the pervasive demand for independent status and equal rights. "A madman plays with matchsticks" is a metaphor of absurd brutality - a microcosm of a society drifting rapidly into anarchy. The images are colourless and skeletal, with human bones piling up like matchsticks in a dry riverbed. "The end of summer" is a lyrical ode to the loss of one's carefree years, expresses the melancholy of the oncoming fall, and muses on the impermanence of temporal things. "Buy me some bullets, mommy" is a childlike litany which ends as we know it will, in senseless tragedy.
    In the volume "Yjedet" ("Astral sea" 1977), he breaks into epic verse in "Inheritance". His premise is that we cannot alter destiny or kismet, and the world will go on turning whether we want it to or not. The universe is benignly indifferent to our plight. "Premonition" foretells the arrival of stark human misery, and "Dark ballad for a bright day" is pure political satire in which he succeeds in summarizing the harshness of the Serb military regime. In "Soil" he symbolizes metaphorically the sentimental attachment to, and deep dependence on the land. The deep, rich earth is seen as a lover, and he extrapolates this physical need to a longing for the motherland. "Globe" illustrates man's minuscule, almost invisible status when seen in the shadow of the immense, omnipotent world. The poet is but a firefly whose dim and tiny light winks out in an instant. "Urban fragments" reveals a strong sense of history, the poet's roots, pride in his ancestral origins, continuity of generations, and cautions that Albanians must never forget their mythology and their heroes of war. "Ballad on the poet in our neighbourhood cafe" is a dramatic monologue, and presents in casual conversational style the mystique of, and reverence for, poets in Albanian society.
    In the volume, "Atleti i ëndrrave të bardha" ("The athlete of white dreams" 1982), Basha begins to employ irony more frequently and shows a growing maturity and perhaps a resignation to the basic facts of human existence. He implies that it is useless to rail against injustice, but that we should also not give in to it without at least a verbal struggle. He gives the impression that the system can be changed from within, and he fearlessly manages to poke fun at it simultaneously. In "Advice on an urban planning project" he shows us with superb irony that society cannot exist without people. He declares that the state exists to serve them, and that serving the state is counterproductive to the development of a modern European nation. In "Ode to mediocrity" he describes and ridicules typical middle-class complacency and satisfaction with the status quo. He reiterates the fact that we all deserve at least a modicum of consideration from our governments and from our fellow citizens, and that we are generally no better than those whom we take delight in criticizing. In "The last station" he strikingly conveys his fear of death and says that he wants to be able to breathe the dust of his streets - to 'feel,' and not to live in a beautiful but artificial, contrived and imaginary paradise. In "Night alone" he poignantly paints a vivid tableau of a soldier's solitude and in so doing, calls forth the inherent misery of existence. We sense a jadedness and a disillusionment in "The Xixi bar" in which the patrons hope to find a more exciting future and perhaps a happy ending to the blandness and boredom of their everyday lives. However, we are all prisoners of our biology, he says. We cannot control our behaviour and are condemned to repeat it. We do not learn from our mistakes, but it does not really matter because we will all end up the same anyway... This fact is brought to dramatic light in "Epitaph of the gravedigger." In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, "Man is a useless passion."
    In his book, "Udha qumështore" ("The milky way" 1986), Basha finds himself close to mid-life, and the poems reveal his concern with where he fits in the world at large, his search for meaning in the swirling and nonsensical maelstrom of Kosova society, his fears for the future of his people, his fundamental solitude and his primordial need for human contact. The journey down his own road takes on the significance of a pilgrimage. He does not exactly know what he is trying to find, but he feels that he is condemned to search constantly. In "Nighttime traveller of this world" he tells us that even an ordinary life deserves recognition and remembrance, and that we all share the same destiny. "In the morning" explores the nature of his state of consciousness. Is he really alive, or is everything just a joke or a myth? What is truly real and what is unreal? An existentialist has difficulty maintaining satisfactory relationships with others, and often finds this impossible. In "Between your two hands" he shows us the poignant, wistful longing to belong to someone else, to be valued in their eyes, and to attain physical and emotional closeness with another human being. We sense the desire for some kind of union or tangible embrace which will heal his feelings of anomie and rejection. In "Cold" he sensitively communicates the worth and significance of a life, no matter how tiny or feeble, and the need to honour and to mourn the dead. There is a return, perhaps unconsciously, to the values of his traditional Muslim faith. He wants to believe in something. Basha feels a deep impulse to acknowledge through ritual, and to attempt to forge a meaning out of the apparent indifference of chaos. He cannot fathom the mystery. He comes to an acceptance of the fact that he can never know. The universe merely is, and he finds himself accidentally and temporarily involved in its secret. In the words of Sartre, he is but a "little flash of sun on the surface of a cold, dark sea."
    In the volume, "Zogu i zi" ("The black bird" 1995), Basha transmits powerfully the discrimination, hardships and ethnic cleansing policies which befell his people in Kosova in the early 1990's. In "The beating of the heart", the world is seen as deaf and indifferent to the plight and suffering of the Kosovar Albanians. In "Painful memory," history repeats itself in persecution, sorrow and pain. The past is a terrible, festering wound that will not heal. Upon it is a fragile scar that keeps reopening so that the blood can drip forever. In Basha's poems, wounds also symbolize emotional states such as disappointment, heartbreak and a broken spirit. "Balkan menu" stunningly delivers the impact of the sharp contrast between western society and the deplorably worsening conditions in the Balkans. "The streetsweepers of Prishtina" epitomizes the extreme pathos and horror of that desperate situation. The vaults of Europe's morgue are always busy. These poems are punctuated with images of fear, dread, archetypal angst, nightmares and death. There are apocalyptic premonitions of the approaching storm. Interspersed with these depressingly morbid but realistic works are two tentatively romantic poems which capture the furtive glances, shy overtures and growing attraction of two people falling in love. Seen against the hellish background of pre-war Kosova, their innocently sweet forays are even more evocative. In "One day he will come," the poet writes of a messianic figure whom his people hope will deliver them from their torment. This stranger is seen as a prophet embodying all their dreams, who will prevent them from dying in vain. Thus one can see a gradual transition in Basha's focus. He begins to delve into the unlikely but very slight possibility that salvation could exist, and that human yearning may not be totally devoid of hope. I suspect that this takes the form of a kind of quasi-religious faith, and the primordial wish to believe in something that will bring a touch of meaning to his existence. Crushed by the terror of his times and the almost tangible taste of blood, Basha is jolted out of his self-indulgent existentialism by 'shock therapy' at the prospect of his people's impending dissolution, and strives to gain some semblance of control over the effrontery of fate.
    The poet finds himself more than halfway through his life, and this fact preoccupies and obsesses him. He has not solved the riddle of existence, nor will he (another problem we all share), and he is mystified and trapped in a no-man's-land of uncertainty with the sense that time is running out. In Basha's poetry there is a general feeling of things flowing down, gushing forth, drying up, passing on, wasting away or setting off. The reader will discover blood pouring from wounds, noses, veins and hearts. Water runs in rivers, rushes in the sea, drips from a glass, sprays from a fountain, spills from teargas cartridges, drops in tears, flows as ink, descends as avalanches, and is essential to life. Light is extinguished and dies out at summer's end, closed eyes, cooling fires, sunset, loss of youth, end of childhood, killing of dreams, stagnation of society, withering of ideas, dulling of emotion, revoking of freedom, feeling of fatigue and suffering of illness.
    Life ebbs out or away when the road disappears, when the sands of the hourglass cascade, when the ballad ends, when the song stops, when the bar closes, when the bird flies away, when the nest is deserted, when the love dissipates, when the ointment dries up, when the stove in the courtyard grows cold, when the dreams disappear, when the passion abates, when the eyes lose their flash, when the wine stops flowing, when the bones crumble, when the riverbeds run dry, when the destination is finally reached, when the journey comes to an end, when the seasons fade and when time ceases to exist...
    Another theme encountered in his work is that of the road. There is the straight or winding road of life with its surprises, obstacles, torments and fleeting joys; the slow, gradual journey or voyage ebbing moment by moment from the hourglass; the sand relentlessly and ceaselessly trickling down; an ordinary glass partly full or empty, depending on one's point of view; sands of time; mutability and alteration of sand by wind in a desert landscape; loss of direction (since everything looks the same and there are no landmarks). In "Looking for the road and himself," the poet says that life is futile, and there is really no point in trying to find one's own road. Even if he is successful, he may lose his way, the road will finally end, and there will be nowhere to go. Nevertheless, Basha persists in his unceasing quest. He seems always to be searching for his personal road, feeling that he is an individual, an anomaly, and that he neither subscribes to, nor follows the traditional values and expectations of his society. He sees himself as a peripheral observer, looking in from the outside, frustrated by the limits which existence arbitrarily imposes.
    In four epitaph poems, Basha writes his own obituaries in which he chronicles the tragedy of life and what he imagines as lurking beyond. He is caught up in the disillusionment, frustration and despair which besiege his people, but he is enough of a pragmatist to know that his courage and stubbornness in the face of catastrophe might prove of some value if he can continue to brandish his pen. In "The middle road" he illustrates the predicament in which all human beings are trapped - somewhere between paradise and hell, in a sort of 'in-betweenness' or 'intermediate ground,' where the only escape is by suicide. He finds himself in a surrealistic world of bad dreams from which he cannot awaken. Basha shows us how surrealism has influenced him when he muses on the meaninglessness of human existence. All life is absurd. Even speech and the nuances of language are bizarre, and words are both inadequate and futile. Is he in a trance? What is the dream and what is the waking state? At times, he appears to write non-poems or anti-poems which are so laconic and bereft of images that they lose their meaning. This is intentional. Here we see the influences of the French writers: Beckett, Ionesco and Genet.
    Nevertheless, the poet eventually overcomes his overwhelming fixation with existentialism. There is a subtle transformation as he awakens to an awareness that a justification for his existence may lie within the realm of possibility. His ethos begins to shift from that of a resigned existentialist to a receptive humanist. Little by little, Basha's desperate wish to help his people out of their predicament, and to usher them into modern European society in the twenty-first century, indicates his readiness to fight for a cause and to venture to overcome his own spiritual wasteland. Perhaps Malraux's example is validated in the sense that art (poetry) strives to give man a consciousness of his own hidden greatness, despite the ever-present threat of death. It is true that a person is always isolated from the rest of humanity because he is a captive in his own unique physical body and mind, but he must do the best he can to face and cope with the cruelties and the intrinsic bitterness of life. Basha sees that his people have no sanctuary to absorb their melancholy. He must put an end to his figurative exile.
    In "The nightingale sings," the poet achieves a true lyric form, and places himself in the role of herald or messenger. The nightingale is part of the cherished folklore of Kosova, and is a metaphor for a displaced person who returns to sing his people's songs of mourning. How can this tiny bird know by heart the ancient, plaintive, anguished sounds of collective weeping, of tributes to the revered past, to the venerated dead? This poem exquisitely mirrors Basha's gradual and heartfelt transition to a man who dares to hope, who cautiously begins to suggest that human beings may have a reason to exist after all. Death and absurdity are the necessary conditions from which the only rational liberty originates - that which a person can undergo with the pitifully inadequate but genuinely experienced presence of his body and his soul. A sort of prodigal son, he longs for a reunion with his people, and he boldly takes his first flight back to them. Human grief is integral to human existence, and even when mastered or endured stoically, quivers hauntingly in the heart like the trilled, familiar notes in the voice of the singing bird:

Who is that bird singing on a branch alone?
And where is its flock?
Which is the plaintive song
And which the season?

That bird has a voice adept
At singing on a solitary branch
No friends no family
It has come to earth on its own
With a flute in its beak and anguish
Which is neither a wound
Nor a song

What is this mourning which is so near which belongs to us
'Sing to us nightingale sing'

    Having reached the age of fifty-three, Eqrem Basha appears no closer than any of us to solving the puzzle of 'why' we exist. There may be no answer. In the words of Sartre, "The world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence." Accidental and absurd, we perhaps have no reason to be here, but we 'are' here! The world is our homeland, and during our journey we are on the road together. The sands of time slip relentlessly through the hourglass. Life is neither a wound nor a song. Consciousness is neither a gift nor a curse, and we are all free to dream and to hope. The poet asks, "What is this mourning so near?" It belongs to each one of us. The anguished voice of Basha tells us that all we have as humans between our birth and our death is each other - to know, to rely on, to support, to share with, to love, to nurture, to guide, to soothe, to heal, to respect, to celebrate, to cherish, to mourn, to remember and to venerate.

    Let us live!

    In the final poem of the collection, "The audience," the poet frames in an eloquent monologue style the goal of freedom. The Albanians are weary. They don't ask for love. They want only to be understood. They want only to be allowed to live, to exist. They want us to hear them. Is that too much to ask?

    Let us listen!

Janice Mathie-Heck
Calgary, Alberta, Spring 2001


  • Foreword
  • From the early volumes:
    The end of summer
    The inheritance of the polyps
    A madman plays with matchsticks
    At the bottom of the world
    Buy me some bullets, mommy
  • From the volume Yjedet (Prishtina 1977):
    Introduction to the meaning of a solitude
    Urban fragments
    Ballad on the poet of our neighbourhood cafe
    Dark ballad for a bright day
  • From the volume Atleti i ëndrrave të bardha (Prishtina 1982):
    Road with an end
    Advice on a urban planning project
    Ode to mediocrity
    Ballad of the man the world did not know
    The man who did not look into the mirror
               and the world which was combing its hair
    Looking for the road and himself
    The last station
    Perpetuum mobile
    Night alone
    My mirror
    The Xixi Bar
    Epitaph of the gravedigger
  • From the volume Udha qumështore (Prishtina 1986):
    The turtle-dove
    Nighttime traveller of this world
    A body arrested in space and a thousand unidentified details about it
    In the morning
    Epitaph IV
    Between your two hands
  • From the volume Zogu i zi (Skopje 1995):
    The beating of the heart
    Let's go to those warm regions
    Painful memory
    Balkan concert
    Scandinavian theatre
    Balkan menu
    The streetsweepers of Prishtina
    The third one
    Eye to eye
    The end of the ballad
    Nights of the farm hands
    One day he will come
    The hoot owl
    The wolf
    The nightingale sings
    Epitaph A
    Epitaph B
    Epitaph C
    Epitaph D
    Epitaph of the mountain climber
    When you set off for the world
    Building a humane society
    The middle road
    Under the Pont Mirabeau
    The audience
  • Bibliography

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