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An Interview with Gëzim Hajdari

By Cristina Viti


Image: Poet Gëzim Hajdari. Courtesy of the author.

Cristina Viti speaks with Gëzim Hajdari, whose poem “I am leaving you Europe,” translated by Patrick Barron, appears in the September 2016 issue: There Is No Map: The New Italian(s). Cristina Viti recently translated a collection of Hajdari’s poems, Stigmata.

PAIRED POST: Translating Gëzim Hajdari by Patrick Barron

Cristina Viti (CV): One of the strongest components in your poetry is the relationship with the oral tradition. Can you tell us something about your roots and about the importance of epic lore in your poetry?

Gëzim Hajdari (GH): The Albanian oral tradition is rich in original elements, blending and harmonizing the spirit of three religions: Islam, Christianity, and the mystical tradition of the bektashi Sufi. And it was folk song that kept the nation’s collective memory alive during the dark, tragic moments of Albania’s history.

I belong to a race of bards and rhapsodic singers hailing from the Northern Albanian Alps. My cultural background—luckily enough!—is centuries old. I was brought up on Albanian epic song. As a teenager, I was taught to recite each night before sleep the epic poems celebrating the deeds of the brave shqiptar in defense of their people and their land. My father knew more than ten thousand epic verses by heart, and each member of our family had the duty to transmit by memory the oral tradition of the lineage.

The Northern Albanian Alps, where the Bjeshkët e Nëmuna (Cursed Mountains) rise, are the mystical heartland of the Epos (epic poetry). For centuries they have been like a huge stage set for one of the most majestic and cruel tragedies of human history, bathed in the blood of the malësori (mountain people). The valleys, streams, woods, peaks, and caves were protected by oreads, fairies, and pixies, just like in pagan times. And it was the Bjeshkët e Nëmuna that were most directly ruled by the Kanun (the Oral Law Code, also known and respected as the Albanian Code of Honor).

From 1479, the year when Turkey invaded Albania (the Ottoman invasion would last for five centuries), until 1912, the year when the land of the eagles proclaimed independence, the malësor of the Mountains lived by self-rule, deriving their social order from their own oral laws. The sultans were never able to subdue the mountain people of the Alps. The Ottoman State jurisdiction ended at the Bridge of Messi (Scutari); beyond that point, life was ruled by the Kanun, a code characterized by the ethical concepts of sworn word, besa (word of honor), blood, hospitality (a guest is considered a god), bread, and revenge.

I perceive myself as a rhapsodic poet, and my work is nothing but a fragment projected into history. 

Northern Albania was thus self-ruled for five hundred years by the laws of the Kanun. Daily life, from birth to death, was based in its entirety on this code. Nothing was written, everything rested on the spoken word. Laws, nuptial vows, honor, truce, revenge, hospitality, and song were orally transmitted from father to son, generation to generation. The oral tradition was the only form of historical and genealogical memory of my race.

Later I became familiar with nineteenth-century popular Albanian poetry: the lyrical folk songs of the Nizam (as the Albanian soldiers fighting for the Sublime Porte of Istanbul were called in Turkish) and of the Kurbet (the migrants). These would be sung by the men of my village at ceremonies and wedding feasts. They are extraordinarily beautiful, unique within the Balkan area and unmatched in the history of European poetry.

So I owe much to the epic tradition of Albania, as well as to the Arab mystics. As I have said, my paternal grandfather belonged to a tradition derived from the mystical brotherhood of the Bektashi, spanning Islam and Christianity and in dialogue with both. In my youth I immersed myself in the poetry of mystics such as Saadi, Khayyam, Ferdowsi, and Rumi.

My poetry stems from the need to create an alternative to the sterile, self-referential, nihilist, and minimalist poetry of a dying decadence—a return to the epic dimension that gives the word a choral, collective, epic value. I perceive myself as a rhapsodic poet, and my work is nothing but a fragment projected into history. Each one of my collections is a poem continued in the following collection, and my books are nothing but one long epic poem. I am the last epic singer of my race. All this makes my work one epic poem spanning legend and reality, history and myth.

CV: Perhaps not everyone knows that Italian was once a forbidden language in Albania. What, if any, was its importance in your formative experiences as a poet, even before it became, if I can define it that way, the ‘other’ language in which you sing of exile?

GH: Yes—during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the study of the Italian language was forbidden in Albania for ideological reasons, Italy having been a fascist country that had invaded Albania and annexed it to its empire.

But alongside the official culture, another clandestine literature was also circulating. We read Italian authors that were seen as “decadent” by the official communist culture. The texts by these authors were secretly copied by hand to escape censorship, because it was easy enough to end up in prison for subversive propaganda against the culture of “socialist realism.” It was in this way that I read Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, Catullus, and other foreign classics secretly translated into Albanian. Reading these great poets made me fall in love with the Italian language. In the remote, icy winter of the Albanian dictatorship, my dream was to be able one day to read the Divine Comedy in the original language.

Albania and Italy have shared a common destiny since Roman times, and four languages were once spoken on the Albanian coast: Latin, Greek, Albanian, and Serbo-Croat. This was a good time for the many ethnic groups of the Mediterranean, a time in which commercial, political, social, cultural, and spiritual relationships between peoples of the Adriatic basin and of the mare nostrum were interwoven and mixed into an extraordinary cohabitation.

I was lucky to be born in a cosmopolitan family with a passion for reading and languages. I was given my first, forbidden lessons in Italian in my native village, by a neighbor who, in the forties, had spent some time with a crew of Italian workers building roads in Albania. And in addition to the epic songs of Albania, in my family’s home we would listen to music from different ethnic backgrounds: Macedonian, Montenegrin, Serbian, Croatian, Greek, Turkish, Yiddish, as well as the music of the Mevlevi, or the whirling dervishes of Konya. The Adriatic coast was for centuries a bridge spanning several languages, attracting great travelers and artists in many different periods.

The language of the exiles returns a spark of truth to metaphor and vitality to language.

Living in exile, I came to know my Albania more deeply, and I rediscovered my Albanian language by writing in Italian. But to live outside the heart language, Dante’s “parlar materno,” is not always a source of joy. Several writers and poets, finding themselves in a new cultural and linguistic context, met their artistic death and were crushed in the harsh vice of duality, of linguistic migration. Others, failing to build a new sense of belonging and a new balance, saw suicide as the only way out. Others still see the language of the host country not as a bridge for dialogue and interaction but as a threat to the original language and to identity itself. The fear of dying in a foreign language and being left without a burial in the West is a torment for many exiled people in Italy and in Europe.

If we look back at history, we find that the forefathers of Albanian literature wrote in Latin and that their works were printed in Rome. By writing in Italian I am stimulating and enriching the Italian language, but also my original language. I write in Italian and torment myself in Albanian—and vice versa! This is not a question of bilingualism, but of one “double language.” So my writing is a linguistic migration: to go in and out from one language to the other, teaching people to become migrants and foreigners so as to share common destinies and common futures. The language of the exiles returns a spark of truth to metaphor and vitality to language.

CV: In these difficult times, you are also very active as a publisher and promoter of literature and poetry. Could you say something about this important aspect of your work, and about any ongoing projects?

GH: “Erranze,” the series I direct for publishing house Ensemble in Rome, comes from the need to discover, support, publish, and promote in Italy some extraordinary poets unknown to Italian readers, poets who come from “lost” worlds both near and remote. These poets are distinguished by their great sense of human and literary values. “Erranze” has published epic poets from the Balkans, and we first published in Italy people such as Filipino poet Gémino H. Abad and Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite. A book is forthcoming by South Korean poet Kim Kwang Kyu, and in 2017, “Erranze” will publish three poets from Syria, Congo, and Honduras. In the next year we are also looking to publish two anthologies, one presenting Italian poets living and working in the UK, and another gathering the work of indigenous Australian poets. Thus “Erranze” is devoted to furthering the work of translingual poets from many worlds.

The memory of the human race has been kept alive through time by poetry: to publish poetry in these hard times is a civilized act of hope.

CV: You have also traveled extensively in Africa, often in war-torn zones, and in other countries ravaged by the effects of harsh social and economic conditions. Could you say something about these experiences and their impact on your writing?

GH: Between 2001 and 2004, together with photographer Piero Pomponi, I traveled through various sub-Saharan countries, central and equatorial Africa, and in Southeast Asia, crossing areas of war, sickness, and refugee camps. To write is to take risks. And I say this because so many fake, soulless books are written today in professional studios or in the editing rooms of the great industry of culture. But each good poet or writer must set out on a journey so as to be able to bear witness to his or her time. We traveled rough, directly touching and photographing inhuman, godforsaken situations: remote lands massacred by ebola, malaria, AIDS, hunger, and extreme poverty; villages destroyed by war; countries, peoples, and ethnic groups left at the mercy of traffickers, of dirty business, and of the “dark powers” mandated by the West.

I have seen with my own eyes people dying for want of a glass of water or an aspirin, women who died in childbirth, orphaned children living hand–to–mouth in the streets of villages and towns, people living on garbage dump refuse. I have met traffickers, guerrilla missionaries, child soldiers, sorcerers, griots, fundamentalists, artists, writers, teachers, doctors, chiefs of ancient tribes, well-heeled people, and corrupt politicians. I have lived for weeks in war zones.

Each good poet or writer must set out on a journey so as to be able to bear witness to his or her time. 

These experiences have deeply and irreversibly impacted my being and my work. Once back in Italy, I have worked with the missionaries of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church to build a small school in Kabale, in south Uganda.

I have related these journeys in my books San Pedro Cutud: viaggio negli inferi del tropico, Muzungu: diario in nero and Delta del tuo fiume.

CV: Which contemporary poets do you most esteem, and, among the younger ones, which are in your view the ones most deserving attention? As an inspirational figure for many poets, what would be your advice to someone setting out on the journey of poetry?

GH: My poetry and I have few contemporaries as such. The poets I held in great esteem, poets such as Izet Sarajlić, Séamus Heaney, and Tomas Tranströmer, who carried the voice of life and of the Earth, have been dead for some time. Luckily we still have Kamau Brathwaite and Saadi Youssef! I also have great esteem for Luigi Manzi, an extraordinary voice, the last visionary poet in Italy and Europe.

When I compare myself to my contemporaries, I feel lucky to have an interlocutor in my people. For a poet of the third millennium, it is very important to have an interlocutor, a people. In ancient times poet were spokespersons for their own people: they wrote for their people and communicated with their people. The epic poets of Roman times, from Ennius to Virgil, were singing and extolling not so much men as an entire people. So my work is an integral part of the history of my people, pregnant through the ages with drama and untold tragedies.

I feel estranged from young poets because I don’t see them as having a life lived fully but as city poets growing up in huge, alienated metropolitan centers. They do not know the scent of the fields. I am a poet of the outskirts, I grew up outside and earned my daily bread with the sweat of my brow. At the age of nine I would get up first thing in the morning to graze our sheep and goats; at seven o’clock I would take them back home and go to school. When I happened to lose one of the goats, my father would curse and threaten me: “You’ll never amount to anything!” or “May you die like a dog!” And then I would be banned from the house and have to sleep in our haystack.

I finished high school and studied Classics, then trained as an accountant in the town of Lushnje; before going to school, my younger sister and I would sell milk and yogurt to families in the town. Each day I walked three hours to school and back—then I would go straight to work in the fields. I knew no summer holidays but worked with my father. My mother, who worked barefoot in the communist farming fields, came back exhausted each night and would beg me to take the black thorns from the soles of her feet with a needle. In Albania I worked in a factory, then as a field guard, warehouse man, accountant, land reclamation worker; I did military service for two years with ex-convicts, then after the collapse of the communist regime, I taught language and literature in a high school; in Italy I worked as a stables cleaner, day laborer, and assistant typographer. In the winter of 1991, I was one of the founders of the opposition Democratic and Republican parties of Lushnje, and was elected Republican District Secretary in that town. I was cofounder of the opposition weekly Ora e Fjalës and worked as its editor. In the political elections of 1992, I ran for Parliament in the Albanian Republican Party. During this intense activity as a politician and opposition journalist, I repeatedly and publicly denounced the crimes, abuse, and corruption of the old Enver Hoxha nomenclature and of the more recent postcommunist government. For these and other reasons, following repeated threats, I was forced to leave my country in April 1992.

Life itself will make a poet out of you, not any writing course. Good poetry is an act of life and of ethics.

I see young people these days going from Mum and Dad’s car to school, from school to university, and from a university tenure to poetry. Or worse still, sprouting from the greenhouses of creative writing courses. These poets have no real interlocutor. For me, poetry is real life, lived at 360 degrees.

My advice to a young poet? Live in exile. “Truth is always exiled,” as Baal Shem Tov used to say. Live as an outsider! No other advice. Life itself will make a poet out of you, not any writing course. Good poetry is an act of life and of ethics. A great life means great poetry, crossing borders and holding out through the ages; a small life means small poetry. Real poets must push themselves beyond their own poetry, risking everything to become spokespersons for their people and their time.

Since the avant-gardes of past centuries are dead and buried, now is the time to return to being and to recover the epic, musical, and civil sense of the word. The great epic poets do not use abstractions, but strive to express the inner world in very precise and concrete images and sounds. By discovering and appreciating a poetry that rebels against the “system” and living outside the official hierarchies, we must recreate a new connection between text and intellectual honesty, word and truth, poetry and life. Real poets accept no compromise or exchange of favors. Real poetry is counterpower. Open yourselves to new worlds!

Read Patrick Barron’s essay on translating Gëzim Hajdari’s poetry.


Published Sep 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 Cristina Viti

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