Recently, a rare piece of Albanian non-fiction was published that describes real life, historical events in a prosaic style. The book, written by debuting author Bashmir Xhemaj, is dedicated to a subject on which little has been written in Albanian historiography.
The book is titled “An Albanian in the CIA: The Two Lives of Destan Berisha.” The eponymous main character was a soldier in nationalist groups in 1943-45, who later migrated to Greece and Italy to become a part of the CIA and participate in one of the secret U.S. operations to topple the recently established communist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania.
According to one of the largest bookstores in Prishtina, Xhemaj’s book was one of the bestsellers of the month of April, one month after its publication. There was a demand for the book in other cities in Kosovo as well. Moreover, it was reported that the book was very sought after by readers at the Prishtina Book Fair.
“I never thought about writing a book; especially at this age and in this genre of historical biography,” says the author, who then highlights the two moments that pushed him to write the book.
“The first, my passion for biography. Unfortunately, you can find few Albanian language biographies of Albanian historical personalities,” he laments. “While in international contemporary historiography, there is competition in the biographical genre to publish books whenever there is a new interpretation or a new archive is opened, in Kosovo and Albania, attempts to illuminate the lives of national figures are pale.”
The other incentive was the need to publish a tragic history — not only about one individual, but of the entire Albanian society in the mid-20th century, an era that, according to Xhemaj, has been left in oblivion.
“The history of a local personage, Destan Berisha, coincides with international events such as the start of the Cold War, and it is in small communist Albania that the CIA undertakes one of the most secret operations to topple a regime, by recruiting hundreds of immigrant volunteers from Albania and Kosovo,” Xhemaj says.
History in the form of a novel
Agron Demi, who has read and reviewed the book, explains that it is easily read, and doesn’t have the drowsy heaviness of a historical document.
“It is that non-fiction style that I read a lot of, mainly in English, but it describes historical reality in a fictional way,” he says. “The book includes a description of how a day looked 70 years ago, and this is not done through citations, by putting whole paragraphs in quotation marks, but simply through descriptions that have a good flow.”
The biggest challenge in the writing of the book was that the Albanian archives contain very little documented material.
For journalist and university lecturer Durim Abdullah the book is very well written, something that he says is very rare for a debuting author.
“It seems that Xhemaj managed to write this book in accordance with modern Anglo-American biographical trends, since he himself is an avid reader of biographies by British and American authors,” Abdullah says. “The book is a text that was produced as a result of extensive study by the author, who dug deep into many years of the main character’s political actions and life in general.”
Abdullah also explains how Xhemaj secured files from the CIA archive, the Kosovo Archive, the Inter-municipal Archives of Prizren, the Albanian General Directorate of Archives and from some personal archives. The author used a broad literature to explain the historical context of events related to Destan Berisha, and conducted 16 interviews with people directly or indirectly involved in events.
Naturally, like in any project, writing the biography came with challenges. According to the author, the biggest challenge in the writing of the book was that the Albanian archives contain very little documented material.
“The few archives that you find are hardly legible and just about destroyed,” he says. “There is little data about Destan Berisha’s early days, mid-WWII, or about the period of the battle of Prizren.”
Xhemaj was therefore forced to base his writings more on foreign studies in order to create an approximate image of Prizren during the time of the occupation by Italian fascist forces, as well as of the life of Albanians in general.
The significance of the subject
Xhemaj explains the reasons for which he chose this character in particular, considering that he wasn’t an important figure at the time.
“I heard a lot about Destan Berisha in my childhood,” Xhemaj recalls. “Many times late at night, I would hear my father, who has now passed away, speaking about his feats in the war as a nationalist — first against the Italians, then against the Germans, and ultimately against Tito’s partisans.
“But like in most Albanian families at the time, these stories would be passed down from generation to generation, they would become legends, and no one would write them down,” he says.
He explains that Berisha’s name resurfaced in 2015, when Xhemaj found out that the CIA had opened their archives documenting their 1949-53 operation in Albania, in which Berisha’s file was found. With a story including an uneducated Albanian from the village of Billushë, and Prizren as the setting for a top secret CIA operation, writing a book about these events was inevitable for the author.
His life is a representation of a whole era: that of relations between Albanians and communism against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Demi says that he was more intrigued by the circumstantial events in the book than by the specific subject of Berisha.
“His figure is not that interesting. He is an uneducated person who fulfilled the role that was given to him by the CIA, but he did this more so because he hoped that he would get another mission in Kosovo,” he says. “This is something interesting that I found in the book — these Kosovars did not care too much about toppling the regime in Albania, they cared more about Kosovo.”
Moreover, Demi believes that had the author not been so close to the character, he would probably never have written this book.
However, Abdullahu believes that the character of Berisha is quite unusual for the time and place in which he grew up. His fate and character make him important while secretive, and the novel eliminates his anonymity and introduces him to the Albanian public.
“Evidence from the past, as narrated by Xhemaj, reveal the life of an uneducated albeit very skillful Albanian, a patriot and a nationalist who was pushed by the flow of time to the particular career of a CIA agent, finding a life full of adventure, something that fits his character,” says Abdullahu, adding that although Berisha was formally politically uneducated, he was quite perceptive and aware of the political realm. His life is a representation of a whole era: that of relations between Albanians and communism against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Regarding the historiographical significance of the book, Abdullah says that the lives of important characters in Albanian history have been mainly researched and documented by historians, in the form of biographies that follow the rigid scientific criteria of historical research. However, Abdullah argues that books such as Xhemaj’s are necessary for the Albanian public because they pull these biographies from the rigid schemes and dense language of Albanian historiography to bring a more lively and genuine format for public consumption.
According to Demi, there is a notable need for these kinds of Albanian language books.
Demi agrees. “Bashmir found a golden middle ground, because despite his book being about a historical event, you read it like you read a novel,” he says. “If an academic historian reads it, perhaps they would say that it is not well-founded, but in fact this is the modern method of writing that keeps the reader stimulated — it doesn’t let you lift your head.”
The book doesn’t burden the reader with many facts, he explains, but if the reader is interested in diving deeper into the material, all sources are listed in a section at the end of the book.
According to Demi, there is a notable need for these kinds of Albanian language books. “If Bashmir managed to gather material about an event that happened 60-70 years ago, the same can be done for historical events of recent years,” he argues.
Abdullah also highlights a deficit of such books.
“Historiographical prose in Kosovo is quite poor, schematic, untheoretical, and avoids philosophical discourse, without which history cannot manage to go beyond the level of annals and chronicles,” he says, adding that Albanian language historiographical publications are very fragmented and outdated in regards to their scientific apparatus and methodologies.
For this reason in particular, Demi says that he doesn’t want this book to be the last — neither by Xhemaj nor of this genre. “Although the number of translations has grown in recent years, especially in the non-fiction category there are less authentic pieces,” he says.
Xhemaj has a few Kosovar figures in mind, who he believes to be deserving of having biographies written about them. “You can find tens of studies and papers in science symposiums but no genuine publications,” he says.
Nevertheless, Xhemaj says that it is too early to talk about his next book, not least because “An Albanian in the CIA” was so well received and continues to be presented around Kosovo, and will be presented abroad in the second half of the year.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.