The long-awaited qui-annual (our best guess at every-four-years) national folk festival took place up in Gjirokastёr’s castle over the last weekend of September. During communism this gala was organized every four years, whereby groups from around the country and surrounding regions would come to show off their traditional music and costumes. It was a big deal, we’re talking shume rendesi. Well, it was scheduled to occur in 2008, but from what we were told they delayed it until this fall because 2008 was the 100th year anniversary of [the dictator] Enver Hoxha’s birthday.
Unfortunately, the festival is nowhere near as big and elaborate as it used be. National pride, state support for training and costumes, ambitions to be part of a vibrant community, etc. are severely lacking throughout the country, but there is just enough life to keep the festival going and draw a modest crowd of visitors from around the country. I presume its especially good business for Gjirokastёr-- people need to pay for hotels and food right? Though I heard afterward that the municipality demanded the hotels to put up the performers gratis, which seems unfair and self-depreciating for the local economy. So typical here!
I wasn’t supposed to be here for the festival. I had planned to visit Sarajevo with a friend, but our plans failed when she had to rearrange her travel dates. Thus, disappointingly, no half-marathon. I had trained for a few months—needed something easier than a full 26 miles, but still a bit of a challenge and a nudge to get out of bed in the early morning for a treacherous jog through dog-country. I don’t consider this a total loss, because really the training was what I wanted. And an opportunity to visit Bosnia’s capital—which I will, perhaps in November.
Most of the work during the folk fest was done by the Gjirokastёr Conservation Development Organization, the office where Allan is assigned. They are located at the obelisk which overlooks the city, castle, and valley, in a reconstructed former school. In my opinion their office (which is funded by the Packard Institute—ie Hewlett Packard-- and, who also run the Butrint Foundation) does most of the projects in the Old Town. [**Although I'm not saying they are free of corruption and inefficiency.] GCDO installed bilingual panels throughout the castle with maps that explain the layout and factoids, as well as brand new solar panels to illuminate the corridors. Ironically, the government collects castle entrance fees, which then get sent up to Tirane and into the pockets of the Ministry; so while America sends money in for local efforts, the Albanian government gets to pocket it. Gjirokastёr residents benefited: zero.
Anyway, GCDO is in the process of opening an ‘artisan incubator’ project, through which they are restoring the rooms above their Tourist Information Center, located in the center of the Pazar. In this space, they will hold workshops to train locals in artisan crafts such as woodworking and stone carving. For the first two days of the festival GCDO organized artisans from all over the country to come and sell/showcase their products in the streets of the Pazar, which brought a revitalizing sense of life to the upper city. I was placed on a panel of judges to evaluate the crafts and choose winners, which sounds easy but somehow carried on to an all-day affair. Que será, it’s nice to feel needed. The real difficulty was comparing apples to oranges— who can say whether wood carving is better or worse than the traditional costumes, or embroidery, or pottery, or woven rugs? And what can we judge these on—most marketable to tourists? Best preservation of traditional crafts (even if they are something no one would desire to purchase)? My fellow judges chose to follow UNESCO guidelines—concepts like innovation, craftsmanship, and sustainability were discussed. We eventually chose some beautiful stones that are painted with replications of the mosaics discovered in the archaeological park Butrint, woodcarvings from Shkoder, and a woman’s painstakingly embroidered traditional costumes from Tiranё. Regional, varied, categorical… voila!
OK so back to the festival. Each night we hiked our way up to the castle along with several hundred Albanians, a gaggle of PCVs, and the occasional foreign tourist. Chris and I housed a dozen or so volunteers each night, camped out on our floor, with Allan’s, Greg’s, and Seth’s houses also packed tight. On the first night Chris and I organized a bake sale with kids from the Red Cross to raise money for the youth center—we set up a table, some posters, donation boxes, and successfully sold batches of chocolate chip and sugar biskotat to passers-by. Of course a lot of people dismissed us as kot [worthless], or stingily shouted “I don’t eat cookies!” when we beckoned them, but overall I was surprised at how many people pitched in to the boxes and happily walked on. After the money was counted we decided it was a wildly successful venture, and are planning to do something similar at the schools. This was all Chris’ initiative and hard work, kudos burri!
Some nights we were able to climb up to the top of the castle wall and peer down on the festivities from above in our own private alcove. Others we piled in the back along the walls, or (once) I sat up front in the chairs with Patricia to take some photos. My pics are sorely lacking because I don’t have a zoom lens, but I hope to remedy that soon, and for purposes of displaying great art I’ll attach some of Patricia’s amazing shots.
(Courtesy Patricia Hong)
(Dancing Vajzat; courtesy of Patricia)
PCVs overlooking the fest (C. of Patricia)
Polyphonic choir (C. of Patricia)
By the 5th night of the festival I grew serenely used to the routine of “castle-time”; but ya know when you see too many temples in one trip and they all start to look alike? I definitely had that feeling for the costumes and music and general gaiety. I’m glad I was able to see the community pull together, even if for only a glimpse, and also to witness an authentically non-exploited festivity before it becomes something of global stature. That’s Chris and my dream— to peak into a piece of the world before the strings of ragged backpackers make a routine of it, before the organized tours are developed, before it gets listed in the Lonely Planet Top 100 Destinations. I hear endless stories of friends and relatives who traveled through Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam, Afghanistan… 20 years ago, when they were still traditional backwaters, off-the-beaten-path, the cheap places totally unaccustomed to foreigners wandering their streets, markets, and ancient sites. I swear I was born 20 years too late. But at least I have that now. Shqiperia is still so closed off and neglected by the rest of the world. But they will come, I know it. In fact, there’s no avoiding it, so I’m just trying to soak it up while I can. I’ll say, Yeah I used to live there. Back when they didn’t have electricity or water 24 hours/day. When people spoke in Old Leke. When the middle coast was nothing but empty stretches of white sand and turquoise water. And strangers would beckon you into their homes for a cup of strong Turkish coffee, just because you smiled as you passed by… Yeah, I lived there.