After the fall of the Soviet bloc, Albania abandoned communism in 1992 and the new Democratic regime supported a series of pyramid schemes that annihilated the economy and brought down the government. Capitalists more than anyone cannot be trusted with money. People starved, or fled. There was a great diaspora, not Albania’s first given the long history of Balkan warfare and the repeated reapportioning of the region among other things. Pristina, for example, has in the last century alone been part of Serbia, Bulgaria, Serbia again, Yugoslavia, Albania, Yugoslavia again, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, and currently Kosovo itself, of which it is the capital. This alone should tell you that nations are a scam and borders are violence. Pristina has the second-largest Albanian population in the world.
Rita Ora, perhaps the biggest pop star in the UK—she has more top 10 singles there than any other British female solo artist ever—was born in Pristina, and can be counted as part of the Albanian diaspora that currently owns the pop charts. Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho” has hit number one in 17 countries; her parents are from Sarandë and Tirana, which has even more Albanians than Pristina and is also the Albanian capital. Dua Lipa, who like all of these artists often does her best work in collaboration with EDM producers, has a couple number-one hits with more to come; her parents are both Albanian and her mother’s maiden name is Rexha. Said name is reminiscent of longtime Albanian leader Enver Hoxha but even more reminiscent of Bebe Rexha, whose parents are also Albanian, from cities that are now in Yugoslavia and North Macedonia, and whose 2017 “Meant to Be,” featuring country duo Florida Georgia Line, set a record for longest time atop the country charts. As a friend notes, Albania is upside-down Sweden.
Back in Albania, people in the nineties—that is, the generation that gave birth to this extraordinary klatsch of pop stars, all born between 1989 and 1995—were so poor that they scavenged the towns like junkies in a Denis Johnson story, pulling out pipes and wires and manhole covers, melting them down, selling them for scrap. In Tirana they adopted a plan to paint the exteriors of some houses and apartments in shockingly bright colors, pink, green, violet, yellow, in hopes not just to brighten the mood but to attract tourists. It did. The tourists would come to stroll down the newly widened avenues while admiring the Soviet-era buildings now given vibrant tones. They called them “Edi Rama colors” after the mayor, who won the World Mayor prize for this in 2004, because of course there is a World Mayor prize. And every now and then in Tirana a promenader while peering up at the beautiful facades would vanish downward, dropping comically into the opening once covered by a purloined manhole.
This is my favorite story about the world, though I am not quite sure why. I mean, it is obviously a perfect story in its proportions but it is not entirely clear what it is about. It is not quite as simple as the symmetry of rich, poor, up, down, everything zeroing out in the ledger. These oppositions, they push against each other, they push forward, they produce, not quite in the sense of an EDM producer but not entirely different, they are the kind of pressures that produce an implausible handful of pop stars out of not-quite-nowhere, pop stars who share more than anything the deeply undervalued capacity to be at home in a shifting array of contexts, capacities, cultures, to fit themselves to an imposed set of borders and hold onto their IDGAF and figure out what can be done there. That is what history has asked of Albanians, of refugees, of all whose lives have been shaped by diaspora.
What I love about the story of Tirana is how each of its parts depends on another, how the oppositions produce a world but are also produced by a shared disaster we could, in the scheme of useful simplifications, just call history. The image of the strolling observer, taking in the views along broad avenues, should include everybody, but it doesn’t. Its tradition, central to the formation of modern painting, is that of the bourgeoisie, those for whom the world has been designed to be a sensual delight so long as it brings them downtown to shop. They can exist because other people lift and tote and smelt metal, an allegory of industrial labor if there ever was one, but in the Tirana allegory it is industrial labor at its exhaustion, where the only thing that all this burdensome labor leaves behind is a hole.
The looking up and the falling down, strolling tourists and desperate people, aesthetics and starvation, they are one but not the same. I realize that it is ungenerous to take pleasure in the pratfall, in this image of the bourgeois looking up at art and whoosh dropping down into shit. At the same time, how can you not find satisfaction in the completion of the allegory, which promises that the constant pressure each against the other of the two classes, locked together in what is both an absolute opposition and absolute unity, is not frozen forever but subject to sudden change, to the high brought low, the low escaping altogether?
If you want to understand what the dialectic is, that famous and elusive mode of understanding which it is hypothetically my job to teach, it may be best to start neither with Hegel nor with that thesis→antithesis→synthesis deal we learn in middle school. You could do worse than to start with a story about the world as we have made it, the world that makes us, the world in which the leisure of some is the misery of others, a story about beautiful homes and hollowness, about crisis and a far-off capital.
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