Albanian Melbourne


Qazim Menxhiqi cassette cover Changing radio stations can change your life. One afternoon I chanced upon a frequency transmitting music unlike any I’d heard before. West and east were tautly combined in a haunting refrain. From the west came a mandolin-like instrument strumming a languorous rhythm, from the east a melancholic male voice soaring over the guitar. It was as though someone had laid a Muslim call to prayer over a Hungarian dance tune. I had no idea where this music came from, so I rang the station. "We’re Albanians," a man said. He invited me in to meet them.

When I arrived at 3ZZZ, Qazim Menxhiqi, a gentle but proud looking man, introduced himself and patiently fielded my questions. I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 2,000 Albanian ‘families’ in this city—about 12,000 people. I learnt about the Albanian map of Melbourne. People from different villages live close. Migrants from Struga settle in Footscray, Monastir in Dandenong, and Prespa in Taylors Lakes and Templestowe.

Two years before leaving Kosovo, Qazim was Radio Pristina’s Singer of the Year. Soon after he arrived in 1987, he was working at a plastics factory in Footscray, and saving what he could for his family in Kosovo.

He invited me to an Albanian function in Epping, a dinner in honour of a dignitary from the Democratic League of Kosovo. The local ALP candidate and I were the only non-Albanians there. Moving through the crowd, I was asked a lot about my academic connections. Their leaders sought some one to give them access to Melbourne University, believing this would give them political credibility in Australia.

Albanian girls at functionThey were a hearty crowd. Greetings were accompanied by emphatic handshakes, prolonged eye contact and a shower of cigarettes. After a plate of cevapi, men and women filed down onto the dance floor and into their separate rings, rotating slowly. The lead dancer made flamboyant gestures, waving a red handkerchief. Musicians moved among the dancers. One superb clarinettist blasted a note into the ear of the lead dancer, sending him into a comic frenzy. By the end of the evening, his clarinet was covered in $20 notes.

The atmosphere sobered up with the pivotal event of the evening. A seven-year old boy stood by himself and sang a patriotic number about Kosovo. Adults nodded appreciatively and the boy’s father beamed. By the end of the evening, the floor filled with a Bruegel-like chaos of children that resembled the post-siren ritual of Australian football.

Strident politics is not my style. I was struck rather by the gentleness of these people. They taught me Albanian expressions. Drink, food and cigarettes are offered with a hand placed delicately over the heart. The phrase for thank you is Falim nderit, which translates literally as "I pray for your honour".

I was touched by their stories of repression in Kosovo, and decided to repay their hospitality. Soon I was getting intense phone calls and late night visits from community activists. I played the role of political radiator, cooling down overheated adverbs in melodramatic press releases. But Adem Kelmendi would insist: "It is a holocaust!" Telstra would no longer connect Adem’s phone after he ran up astronomical phone bills on diaspora politics. He named his son and daughter Mėrgim and Mėrgime after the Albanian word for exile.

Yet I found little evidence that their nationalism was ever at someone else’s expense. Adem proudly recited the story of his Muslim father who took a stranger and his pig as guests one night. At a city rally, a man near me started calling out "No more Serbs in Kosovo!". He was shouted down by those in his vicinity. ‘This is not the way Albanians behave.’

I helped them book the Public Lecture Theatre at Melbourne University for a talk on the Kosovo crisis. This small gesture seemed to them an important sign of credibility. Soon they began to insist that I was Albanian. During an interview for an Albanian diaspora newspaper, I was asked "So who are your people?" That threw me. Eventually I repeated stories my grandmother had told me about repression in Ireland, told by her grandparents before they fled to Australia. I realised, then, the odd exchange between us.

In 1992 the Melbourne community sent a representative to Albania for the election of its first democratic government. I gratefully accepted the job and did what I could to tell the story of this dramatic transition from totalitarianism. But I was crestfallen at the state of Albanian culture in its homeland. Though exhilarated by the whiff of democracy, Albanians in Albania seemed disdainful of their traditions. The enforced folk culture of Enver Hoxha’s Mao-inspired ‘cultural revolution’ had turned Albanians against their own past.

Over the border in Pristina, by contrast, the Kosovar spirit flourished in adversity. Since Milosevic had removed Kosovar autonomy in 1989, the Democratic League of Kosovo established a ‘shadow state’. With minimal infrastructure, and funded by a self-imposed tax on the Kosovar diaspora, they organised classes in homes, a medical service, and elections.

One evening, over egg soup, my Albanian host put on the very music that had first lured me into their world. I was curious to know, now, where this song had come from. "Didn’t you know, that’s Qazim’s song?" she said. "Mėrgim. It means exile."

You travel, and arrive where you began. Qazim had written Mėrgim just before leaving Yugoslavia. He rarely performed it since. It was picked up by another band and their version had reached number one in the Kosovo charts. It has since been recorded by groups around the world. And Qazim languishes in a plastics factory.

Five years ago, Qazim’s hand was mangled in an industrial accident. His musical career seemed finished. After his convalescence he was forced to return to the same machine that had maimed him. The trauma nearly broke him, but Qazim picked himself up and started learning radio production at night. He now works in SBS and has produced his own CDs.

I think of his endurance now when I read helplessly news from Kosovo, and my email is flooded with lists of people massacred. Albanians once passed off news of repression with a resigned, "What can you do?" Now it’s a tearful, "I don’t know what to do." And I don’t know what to say. We have no language for this scale of collective tragedy. I try a metaphor on my friend Shpend, whose family have gone missing in Mitrovica. "Maybe it’s like a difficult labor, and something new will be born." "Maybe," he says, dubiously.

I phone Qazim. He sounds like a stranger. A nephew has been killed and he hasn’t heard from his father since the Serbs let loose.

His song, Mėrgim, begins:

Bread and salt in your own country
Makes you strong like iron.

Among people like the Albanians, we have a ‘bread and salt’ to augment the finer foods of our own city. They show that a collective struggle is still possible, even in the suburbs. In global terms, their present tragedy provides an opportunity for the West to rediscover a language of nobility. I pray for their honour.

This article was published as the Saturday Essay in The Age 18th April 1999