To enter almost hermetically sealed Albania was all but unthinkable in 1963 when I began seeking a visa. Perhaps there could be some consolation in the fact that it was nothing personal. Isolation gave substance to the broadening siege mentality of its despot, Enver Hoxha (1908–85). He had begun with trenchant hostility toward "imperialist" Britain and America in 1945, then expanded that to "revisionist" Yugoslavia in 1948, beyond to "revisionist" Russia after 1959, and ultimately to "revisionist" China after 1976. "Revisionist" was any teaching interpreted by Hoxha as straying from the path of Stalinist orthodoxy. Each of these countries had involved themselves in Albania to a lesser or greater degree—most at heavy cost and no profit.
Who could blame an Albanian leader for being xenophobic, given the nation's cavalier treatment at the hands of foreign powers since the end of the nineteenth century? In the last months of their empire, the Ottoman Turks even tried to denationalize the Albanians by imposing a new Ottoman nationality. European powers had mocked the Albanians, then briefly imposed a comic opera monarch on them, and finally invaded their country. In the interwar years Albania had been ruled briefly by a volatile Orthodox bishop, Fan Noli, and by a capable tribal leader, Ahmet Zogu, who made himself king.
Few lands were so remote, so inscrutable. The language, Indo-European, was directly related to no other. A mountainous landscape, two-thirds of the country were above three thousand feet. For practically forty-five years it was virtually unapproachable—a fortress, bristling at the close of the communist era with some 160,000 pillboxes (others claim there were 700,000) erected [End Page 63] to defend a backward, impoverished, ideological redoubt that no one else coveted.
My father, Carroll Binder, had preceded me by three decades as a newspaper correspondent seeking to visit Albania. Visa? No problem then. He went by car from Greece in 1930, the only difficulty being the miserable roads. "This funny little kingdom [of Zogu] is about five hundred years behind the rest of Europe," he wrote at the time.
In my case I had to go, hope against hope, to the embassy of the People's Socialist Republic of Albania on Belgrade's broad Boulevard of Prince Milos from time to time to request a visa. In the foyer a bust of the man Hoxha called "The Great Stalin," symbol of Albania's official antipathies, and safely dead, rose from a plinth. Diplomatic laundry was visible through the back doors of the former bourgeois townhouse flapping on a clothesline. Invariably, a low-ranking consular official politely accepted my request, saying it would be passed on to Tirana. Invariably, there was no reply.
Formal letters to Tirana over the years went unanswered, though eventually my name was placed on the official Tirana mailing list for Albanian propaganda. As late as 1984 a telephone request to the Albanian mission to the United Nations for a meeting with a diplomatic representative elicited the response, "You cannot talk to anyone, anytime."
Among my many attempts to gain entry to Albania the most ridiculous took place at the official wake for Romania's president Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in the ornate reception room of the Grand National Assembly in Bucharest in March 1965. Of the foreign guests, for the most part second-tier communist leaders, the prize was China's prime minister Chou En-lai. A Romanian protocol officer guided me—his idea—to the curiously unguarded sanctum where drinks and canapés were being served. I went up to the Chinese premier, who wore a well-tailored blue Mao jacket, and asked for an interview. This dialogue ensued:
"Go away, you damned Yankee imperialist."
"Could I just ask . . ."
"Actually," pause, "you imperialists helped us. If it hadn't been for you we would not have gotten so far."
"My question is . . ." [End Page 64]
"I'm here for the funeral, not for questions. Then I am going to Albania."
"Take me with you to Albania."
"There is no room on the plane." (That flummoxed me, and I went silent.)
Sure enough, a few days later Radio Tirana's English...