Saturday, September 03, 2005

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.


At 1:37 PM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Joan said...

Wow. Thanks for this post. It shines like a beacon amidst all the sewage of the Katrina reporting. Of course, there is a lot of excellent Katrina blogging as well, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that there is a world out there, and in some parts of that world, really good things are happening.

At 2:42 PM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

My two younger sons, now 18 and 20, are from Romania, and our whole family spent time there this summer. Bright colors, even gaudy colors, are beginning to show up in the cities and villages, as if homeowners are thinking "since we don't have to think it terms of gray and brown, why not orange?! Why not lime and chartreuse! Rosy pink!"

Gaudy, BTW, is related to Latin gaudete, "rejoice." (I just caught the Steeleye Span fans there.) The connection applies.

In Romania also, the political divide is between the corrupt and the honest, those who work and those who criticize. While the communist holdovers (e.g. the judiciary) have corruption soaking to their bones, they hold no monopoly on it. Reformers who look to be successful immediately attract their own brand of parasites, difficult to remove.

I often despair of the Romanians ever getting it, and moving to a market economy like the Poles, Balts, and Hungarians. Then I see those colors, and I have some slight resurgence of hope. And reading this makes me happier still, for Albania was poor, corrupt, and criminal even by Eastern European standards.

At 2:44 PM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Norma said...

Thank you for this; I'll take a look. I got so frustrated with the New Yorker I would've wrapped garbage in it, and my subscription died despite their pleas and phone calls to re-up.

At 6:34 PM, September 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just thinking the same thing, neo-neocon. It seems that only one out of two or three issues even has a readable article in it. Most of the time I flip through the mag hoplessly trying to find one bloody readable article in the whole damned rag; more often than not it ends up in the recycling after perusing the (generally) excellent cartoons.

I swear, those cartoons are the only thing that keeps me from junking the subscription; without them, I would probably never see any of the good articles either.

At 9:12 AM, September 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, just another ditto-head here, as to almost giving up on TNY, and being inspired by the article when I too discovered it.

It connected with the news that American [Eastern] Orthodox are now sending missionaries back to that part of the world to help the pre-Communist cultural rebuilding. Ancient chant, colors of gaiety, and a smart artist fostering a market system...sounds really good, and blessings on a country that so recently was famously, bloodily, and cluelessly, Elbonia.

At 10:06 AM, September 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We know Neo's views on "The New Yorker" but I'm curious to know why you others think the articles are "unreadable". I've never read the magazine so I have nothing to go by. Can you explain a little more?

At 9:54 AM, October 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edi Rama the savior!! I just find it really funny that a bunch of intellectuals as I'm sure you call yourselves were so taken by this one little story. The root of your exitement is embedded in your unending sea of ignorance. Who are you to assume that the city of Tirana all of a sudden looks wonderful because a bunch of shabby buildings are no less shabby then before however now to add to the insult are painted in puke orange. What a novel idea to paint a city drowning in corruption and poverty. A banal baptism in an attempt to cover up the brutal truth. It is just like Edi Rama's life. It is his phillosophy to cover up the truth with what (being as smart as he is) he knows with impress someone like you. You say it changed your view of the New Yorker. Do your homework lady. No wonder you don't like the New Yorker, you never in your life learned to read between the lines and even though from high school to college to graduate school the number one lesson your teachers have tried to teach to you is to question what you read and read between the lines you obviously missed it. Edi Rama is a drug addict, the most corrupt criminal in the country of Albania with a long history of failure in every aspect of his life. A failure as an artist he now used that word art to fog the minds of idiots like you. Do do your homework lady. Take a trip to Albania since you are so interested. Ask the people there how they feel. They voted a few months a ago and do you know who they chose as their prime minister? Yes you don't know. It was Edi Rama's biggest critic. The one thing you have learned in life is to cling on to something that other people don't know anything about, that makes you sound smart, and look you fooled six other people. However in life there are always people that know everything about a certain topic and they will always remind you of your shallowness and ignorance. Those are not good day in this show you put up as your life i'm sure.

At 3:44 PM, October 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonym comments do rarely say the truth, as one can read here. As Tiranis are concerned, most of us love Edi Rama, only corrupt Mafia people and gangs do hate him, because Edi Rama helps to give our city back to the people! And he replaced the corrupt Fatos Nano and will become prime minister one day, when the very corrupt Sali Berisha has gone. So far about Albanian reality for an anonym writer who is sitting far away and lonely in front of his computer and writing nonsense.

At 8:05 PM, October 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for this article. I'm glad that hardworking people are being appreciated. I went to visit Albania this summer, and I loved it so much that I extended my ticket and stayed for an extra month and a half. Mr. Rama is amazing. He's very clever, charming, and really cares about Albania, unlike the other corrupted politicians who are trying to rip the country off, and put it in a worse shape. He's a great debater, and it is a pleasure to listen to him. Unlike many other politicians he actually knows what he is talking about.A couple of years ago Tirana was not the safest place to be in, but now it's perfectly fine,and that's thanks to Mr.Rama being a great mayor. I thought the place looked a million times better than it used to, and I absolutely loved it.

At 11:01 PM, November 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Ramas art was Kitsch.Time will tell his politicks is the same.!

At 3:58 PM, February 20, 2007, Blogger one said...

Im an albanian citizen from Tirana and i like to say that the work that mr.Edi Rama had done for tirana as the mayor and for all the albanian country like a politican is wondefull.!!!
Thank You 'Anonymous'you're right , i have copied your comments and im going to read them carefully.Albanian country now is safier and its growing up fastly, evryone is wellcome, albanian country is very interresting and particular.All the politicans like F.Nano and S.Berisha have made the wrost model of this country and have killed uor destiny for years but now we are having a chance with Edi Rama .He is coming from the future and Berisha from the past. NOW WE HAVE A DREAM !

At 11:00 AM, July 24, 2008, Blogger Joni said...

The long comment written by the anonymous writer couldn't be farther from the truth. There is no reading in between the lines here. It shows just how much you understand when you compare Rama to his opponent's winning the election. His opponent, Sali Berisha, is a thief and everyone in albania knows it, so i really don't know who's opinion you've asked when you say ask anyone in albania. What you forgot (or better yet didn't know) to mention is that those in charge of counting votes and declaring votes, are for the most part under Berisha's payroll. What you forgot to mention was the many citizens of Albania's villages who were visited by Berisha's men, threatened to cast a vote for him. Ironically, or not so ironically, those villagers who went to the police about their late night visit, somehow mysteriously lost their houses to fires, or "random acts of burglary and thievery" while everyone knows these were actions of Berisha against those who were ready to vote for Rama. On top of this, what you didn't know is that when Rama was trying to make his debut against Berisha years ago, when berisha promised lies after lies to the people, only to do everything opposite those promises, Berisha acually hired men to kill Rama. Rama was left for dead in his house, and survived only by miracle. You can ask any citizen of Albania, this could only be the act of Berisha, as Rama was loved by all. Everyone knew Berisha did it, but who was anyone to say that under berisha's gvt. Now Rama has made a comeback as mayor, and even though almost killed once, he is still working to build better roads, buildings, and insurances for citizens of all kinds. Like a close friend once said, "This is Albania. You can never prove the corruption but everyone knows that members of the gvt are always practicing corrupt ways of stealing money. It's only up to whichever one of these corrupt politicians that AT LEAST GIVES something BACK, that will make a difference." Although Rama has never been proved of stealing money from gvt funds, I won't deny the chance that he probably has. The only difference is, while Berisha, in charge of most politics in Albania, parades left and right insulting shamelessly and immaturely anyone who "goes against his way", much like the communist ways he rised from, Rama at least does something to improve the city. Rama does walk around from province to province asking people about the problems, and during his weekly stay there does something to fix those problems. You can see he is one of the few humane politicians as no one else could do this literally walking, unless they were in the comfort of their black mercedes benz. Rama does go against Berisha the one man bringing Albania down, even though, plainly and simply, Berisha once tried to kill him. I don't know sir, where you get your information accusing a person like Rama of silly "drug addictions and failures" but Rama has been the single brave representative to speak out against a "democratic" leader Berisha, who's only "democratic" thing about him, is how freely and easily he steals and lies to the people day after day. Please go to albania, talk to the citizens, find out what people really think of the two opponents before you make random accusations against Rama, or anything related to his country. It's really not that necessary to read between any lines whether the NYer wants you to or not, when you visit or take the time to learn about whats presently going on there, through the people's eyes themselves.


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