His Honor the Mayor, Edi Rama
Whenever I begin to wonder whether it's time to hang up my New Yorker subscription, they publish something that's so good I realize we may just be wedded for life, like some squabbling couple who can't live together but can't quite live apart, either.
A June 27, 2005 article that redeemed the New Yorker for me once again was by Jane Kramer, entitled "Painting the Town." It's a portrait of a man I'd never heard of, in a country I know next to nothing about (although now I know considerably more, after reading Kramer's article): Edi Rama, His Honor the Mayor of Tirana, Albania.
Albania was famous when I was growing up for being one of those countries Americans weren't allowed to visit, behind an Iron Curtain so solid that it was practically a black hole. But lately Albania is starting to become more--well, more colorful, as the title of the article suggests:
Rama is a Balkan original, and maybe the most original thing about him is that he isn't really a politician. He is an artist who, you might say, took Tirana for his canvas.
Rama has been in office for nearly five years (he was elected in 2000, at the age of thirty-six, and reelected three years later), and the first thing he did as mayor was to order paint. He blasted the facades of Tirana's gray Stalinist apartment blocks with color--riotous, Caribbean color--turning buildings into patchworks of blues, greens, oranges, purples, yellows, and reds, and the city itself into something close to a modern-masters sampler.
Within a few years, Rama had managed to clear the choked, riverine city center of two thousand illegal kiosks and bars and cafes and shops and whorehouses and sleeping barracks and traffickers' storeroom "motels"--the detritus of a decade of post-Communist freedom frenzy on city property...He dredged Ritan's Lana River, seeded thirty-six acres of public parks, relaid old boulevards, and planted four thousand trees. He lit the city--literally, since only seventy-eight street lights worked when he took it over. He cajoled the money for this transformation out of the World Bank and the European Union and the United Nations Development Program and George Soros and the scores of foundations and aid agencies and N.G.O.s that had set up shop in Albania in the nineties. And he cajoled the work out of local contractors: anybody who wanted to build anything in the capital had to "contribute." People enjoy Tirana now. They stroll and shop on the shady streets of what used to be their Politburo's version of a gated neighborhood. They read the paper and drink espresso under the white umbrellas of cheerful, sprawling cafes. There is nothing remotely like Tirana in the rest of Albania.
By now you must be getting the idea that Edi Rama is quite an unusual fellow. And you would be right. Originally an artist and a leftist, from a family that was part of what passed for an elite in Albania, he moved to Paris in his twenties and lived the Bohemian leftist intellectual life there with a girlfriend and no real thoughts of returning to gloomy Albania. How he got back there is a story in itself, but you'll have to read the article for that.
The reason I'm going on at some length about Rama, though, is not just that he sounds like the sort of person every developing country and every depressed city ought to have, and usually never gets--after all, there's only one Edi Rama. Something else about Rama intrigued me, and that was the political and attitudinal changes he's gone through.
One key to Rama is that he was raised in a society so repressive and so life-denying that, paradoxically, he valued things that the rest of us take for granted, and hungered for them. Here, for example, is Rama's reaction to the saxophone and Cubist art:
Saxophones were banned in Albania, which may be why the day a school friend whispered, "Want to see a saxophone?" is as memorable to him as the day he saw his first nude drawings. He says that the sound of that saxophone--a few notes, played in his friend's attic, with lookouts posted on the stairs--was "like a strange amplification of the miraculous," and started him wondering "why all these beautiful things were bad."...He started hanging around the National Library, staying late to help the maids clean; his pay was five minutes alone with a banned book of Georges Braque's paintings. "A spiritual sandwich, " he calls it.
Rama also learned the value of religion in similar way:
His grandmother was a Catholic (most Albanian Christians are Orthodox), and he says that, for him, she was a glimpse into a forbidden world. He remembers her during the Mao years, when religion was a constitutional offense, whispering her rosary at night in the nursery..."After lights out, I would hear that low voice, making her prayers. She was my night music." He says that she planted the seeds of "an alternative way of thinking in me, an alternative to what the Communist ideology meant by 'love' and 'values.'"
Things that are forbidden take on an extra luster for those who are starved for them. The seeds Rama's grandmother planted bore fruit much later in his ability to cast off, not only Communist ideology, but whatever didn't make sense to him or enthrall him--to think outside the box, to think outside all boxes.
So Rama, the radical leftist in his twenties, has evolved in his thirties into Rama, the pragmatic and eclectic can-do man:
He said that the experience of running Tirana had convinced him that there was "nothing left or right in the way I deal with the world," that the real divisions in Albania had less to do with politics than with honest and corrupt, peaceful and violent, and especially, the "hard-working people and the people who don't respect work." Right now, this is his only politics. "If I lived in Germany or France or England, no doubt I'd be totally with the left wing," he told me. "But there is a huge difference in the situation there. At the end of the day, the ideology we need to embrace is the ideology of work. Right and left are only a question of how you distribute. For us, the key is to have something to distribute."
According to the article, Rama has recently been reading up on economics. My guess is that, if he continues, he may end up applying his formulation about the ideology of work to western Europe as well as Albania.
Rama's forays into economic readings have not all been on the left, either:
"I'm reading about economy all the time," Rama says. Todd Buchholz, Thomas Sowell, Hernando de Soto's "The Other Path" and "The Mystery of Capital." Hardly a left-wing list, but Rama, somewhat to his surprise, has become not only a law-and-order politician but an eager disciple of a group of unconventionally conservative economists...
This is Rama's prescription for Tirana....people who have lived through Communism, where everything belonged to the state, want to take back possession of their own lives--their land, their businesses, their homes. Some Tirana intellectuals call this a fetish of private property, but Rama points out that those intellectuals are not running a city with more than a million people building illegally on its periphery.
Rama is a good example, I think, not only of a man unafraid to change his mind, but of the ways in which experience grounded in reality--with things or with people, or with both--tends to trump the ideas generated when one is thinking only abstractly and theoretically. There were a number of excellent comments on that very point in the recent thread on therapy and liberalism: see this, this, this, and this.