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
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
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
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!
Calgary, Alberta, Spring 2001
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- 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
Ballad on the poet of our neighbourhood cafe
Dark ballad for a bright day
- From the volume Atleti i ëndrrave të bardha
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
the world which was combing its hair
Looking for the road and himself
The last station
The Xixi Bar
Epitaph of the gravedigger
- From the volume Udha qumështore (Prishtina
Nighttime traveller of this world
A body arrested in space and a thousand unidentified details
In the morning
Between your two hands
- From the volume Zogu i zi (Skopje 1995):
The beating of the heart
Let's go to those warm regions
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 nightingale sings
Epitaph of the mountain climber
When you set off for the world
Building a humane society
The middle road
Under the Pont Mirabeau