Eight years ago, in May 2014, at the Jata cafe, a yearning for change flickered in the Albanian city of Kamëz. A group of young men and women took things into their own hands. They had an awakening, a breakthrough that served to articulate their discontent with what was being done to the city.
They said: “It is impossible to continue life in this way. We have to take control of the situation. We know what we have to do.”
Their debates, the discussions they held at Jata granted them the reputation of desperate, hopeless. Their eyes did not see anything good there, they treaded lightly through the city. They did not love it only because, as they say, the city did not love them. It was hostile to them, showing it persistently, not having any place for them in the Palace of Culture, in the city library or in any other public space.
In a state of tension with their hometown, they pushed the city aside, outgrew it, without touching it, without feeling it. They had no place in it, as it seemed to them that Kamëz left no place for them. They only saw the city when they left home at dawn and returned in the evening. To them, it had become a place of residence, not a place to live.
However, the “nihilists,” as others called them, felt they were the actual realists, those who called things by their true name. At Jata they decided not to walk around the city blindly anymore, but to make it theirs, a city for its residents.
Thus, almost a decade ago they became the group ATA, which literally translates as They.
Today, after eight years of activism for many causes in the city of Kamëz, ATA has acquired multiple meanings. For the community, they are a theater group; in the eyes of some, they are “outsiders;” for the municipal authorities, they are sworn enemies; and for children, their first experience with theater. With diverse backgrounds and amidst approvals and rejections by those around them, the group’s members wanted to create a space of freedom where people “can project their vision and dreams. Where they can believe in that vision and those dreams.”
Tiptoeing over the city streets without leaving a mark brought Diana Malaj, Aurora Leka, Ronald Qema, Anila Basha, Mariana Syla and Irena Keçi together. They are only six among many of “Them,” as they refer to themselves (Atyre in Albanian). Malaj and Leka have been part of ATA since the first meeting, while the others joined the group over the years.
For a long time, this small group of young people was frowned upon by even their own parents. ATA recalled how their civil disobedience first started in their homes. According to them, their parents had seen everything and, unable to change anything there or ever, they just surrendered. In the midst of this acceptance that “the public space is already devastated,” as Malaj said, ATA wants to return hope and bring revolt.
Even though most of them are not originally from Kamëz and some do not even live there, the will for change brings them to Kamëz. In the group, each and every one brings different experiences, while having one thing in common, experiencing Kamëz as their city.
I am from Kamëz
Kamëz became a municipality 25 years ago. During the regime of Enver Hoxha, Kamëz was agrarian and undeveloped. Only after the first elections following the fall of the regime in 1992, it began to take the shape that it has today.
Kamëz is a hodgepodge of houses and buildings without a clear urban plan. It is a mess, said ATA, but it has no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs. The residents built it with a thought on those who might come next, on the new houses that would be built in the future.
“The city was built from below, everything was done from scratch by the people,” said Malaj. “What comes to mind is anarchy, but it is very beautiful.”
Despite the diligent and laborious work of the residents, Kamëz is still stuck in the transition of becoming a municipality after almost three decades. Even the inhabitants of Kamëz, as ATA recalled, are locked in narratives created by the “short-sighted” political classes, which, according to them, do not like Kamëz and conceive of it as a periphery inhabited by second-class citizens. According to ATA, the political classes did this by constantly reducing the public sphere and giving the private a boost. Thus, ATA’s first job was to establish their identity, first as residents and then as activists of Kamëz.
The first step was to internalize the expression “I am from Kamëz” as a political position. For them, this position became relevant especially when they faced the center, Albania’s largest city and capital. The longstanding peripheral position given to Kamëz by the successive political classes, ATA said, is also reflected in the stigma towards its residents.
“Ardhacakë, malokë, zaptues” (newcomers, bumpkins, occupiers) are just some of the pleasantries they have been labelled. The six members of the group faced these labels, especially when they went to Tirana for university. For them, to say “I am from Kamëz” is radical.
“I know that if I say ‘I am from Kamëz’ I will hit a nerve somewhere, that’s why I say it. It is necessary to hit that nerve,” said Malaj, explaining that for them being from Kamëz is not about the place of origin, but about the space where they manifest their activism. This space and this activism, not the origin, unites the members of the group, who actually come from other places and have different stories.
Culture is not a luxury
In 2014, Leka and Malaj, who were in their 20s, decided to shake the blue-glass building that stands in the middle of Kamëz up with a simple question, “where is the library door?” Going to the library thus was the beginning of ATA’s activism.
The library was located in that blue glass building, the Palace of Culture, which had everything it needed to be what it was supposed to be. But, according to ATA, due to the mismanagement of the library — there were few titles and rarely updated — the space was not dedicated to readers, but for election rallies.
When the library is operating on paper — there was a library specialist on the payroll — but not substantively, said Leka, the act of going to the library is rebellion.
Despite the rejection or perhaps precisely because of the rejection they received a priori, Aurora and Diana continued to go to the library through 2014. “If you asked them where the library door was, they would just go crazy. ‘Who are you to ask for these things?’” said Leka, describing the process of going to the library, adding that there was no need for another action — this was the action itself.
Looking to transform the Palace of Culture from a building to host political rallies, the then consolidating ATA group began to lobby the Ministry of Education to obtain books for the library. Bringing those books, their call was clear: “Open up and let us use the library!”
While the mayor, Xhelal Mziu, was telling them that paving roads was a bigger priority, the group’s response was to say that it isn’t just water and electricity that are necessary; culture is not a luxury. With their activity, ATA decided to “replace the state,” as Leka described their effort. They were not trying to give the state a break and remove the burden from its shoulders, but rather wanted to show them how things are done and increase the pressure for them to actually do their job.
Making those views explicit made their presence impossible to ignore.
Then, in 2015, ATA chose to further assert their presence through their first theatrical performance, “Fytyra e Librit” (The Face of the Book). After advocating for the opening of the city library to readers, this act marked one of their first public appearances as a solid group.
Since the door to the library at the Palace of Culture was still closed, they decided to open the doors of another library. With the tickets sold from “The Face of the Book,” ATA bought books for the Sulejman Elezi High School in a nearby village, Zall-Mner. They did not just bring books, they also painted it, put in shelves and made the library usable for readers.
“We did theatrical performances, so we asked them to make their stage available to us,” said Leka. “We opened our center while the city center was non-functional; we opened our library while we should have had a municipal library; we opened a local newspaper while the city had no media.”
Thus continued their activism, which, according to Malaj, “should not only be restraint, but also precede the creative process, culminating in a kind of confrontation, a clear, critical message, leaving a mark along the way.”
They then continued with other performances, until they were banned from using the Palace of Culture. “They let us use the Palace of Culture for a while until our language became radical,” Leka said.
One of the shows that was not allowed — because of the radical language — was Anton Chekhov’s “The Proposal,” directed by Anila Balla. This was the show that introduced Balla to ATA.
The day she was supposed to be in Kamëz, Basha called Malaj to tell her she had fainted. For Malaj, who had welcomed and accompanied some directors, this was bad news; the first thought that came to her mind was that this was another rejection. Facing a dysfunctional city, the group could hardly keep up, with a small space in an old basement and without a director to stage their performances. Unable to pay them, directors came and went, complicating the process of creating shows, which at that time was the only medium through which ATA spoke.
However, Basha had not turned back. She had just stopped at a bus stop near “Them” to gather herself. “I ran to pick her up,” Malaj said, enthusiastic that the group finally seemed to have a director.
Despite what had happened to her, Basha described the trip to Kamëz as a journey to a meaningful experience, especially recalling her previous job as a theater teacher at an international school where she felt like an immigrant.
Basha directed the group’s members to perform the play “The Proposal,” which shows a satirical engagement. The show was staged at the group’s center in 2017 after not being allowed to go onto the stage of the Palace of Culture. It was there when Mariana Syla, who is especially active in environmental issues, joined the group. Then in 2018, Dario Fo’s play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” was rejected by the Palace of Culture, being then played on an improvised stage in the city.
This show was what connected Ronald Qema with ATA. Qema, working from the age of 16 in tailoring, where he dyed and assembled shoes, did not have the chance to approach the group in 2017, when they were auditioning for “The Proposal.”
Qema now mainly deals with their newspaper, Nyja, started three years ago, through which they want to “trumpet the voice of the people of Kamëz, because the people of Kamëz already have a voice.”
Along with Qema, Irena Keçi joined in 2019, engaging mostly with the theater.
New party, old story
In 2019 a new development occurred in the Palace of Culture. The blue windows of the building were covered with the inscription “Water Supply and Sewerage.” The Socialist Party had taken power in the local elections of June.
While the Democratic Party had used the Palace of Culture for electoral rallies during its long rule in Kamëz, the Socialist Party, which had campaigned with the slogan “together,” divided the Palace of Culture into facilities that served other purposes than culture. A part of the Palace was given over as a cafeteria that has continued growing, another part for the Water Supply and Sewerage, and for offices, for a commercial bank, but not even one for cultural uses.
“They come with big slogans saying they are a socialist party, standing for public space, for the commons, but they are even more neoliberal, more capitalist than the right,” said Malaj.
At that time, while the Palace of Culture in Kamëz was being partitioned, in Tirana, the news about a possible demolition of the National Theater drew activists, who had been contesting that possibility for more than two years, into the streets. Edi Rama’s government intended to replace it with a new building. Ultimately, the old National Theater was demolished in the early hours of May 17, 2020.
The group ATA joined the activists in their resistance with the performance of Eugène Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano.”
This play belonged to the theater of the absurd. Among other things, the screen displayed news from the main events taking place in Albania, including student protests, the state of miners and working conditions for women in tailoring. A group of people that Basha calls “the Albanian micro-bourgeois,” who were unbothered by that kind of news, is constantly changing channels while saying “next.”
“We are living the absurd. It’s like taking the theater of the absurd and getting the absurdity itself,” Basha said, adding that she always processes the plays to add some interaction with the context, making them political. “Even when the shows have no political meaning, we find it.”
At a later date, on December 29, 2019, “The Bald Soprano” returned to the already partitioned Palace in Kamëz. The play starts with the announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening. Welcome to the Palace of Culture, Water Supply and Sewerage of Kamëz. Please turn off your cell phones and close the taps, you are disturbing not only the actors on stage but also yourselves. We wish you a pleasant viewing.”
For ATA, this was a wake up call for the ruling party and showed that their criticism was aimed at the system and not at any certain party. It also emphasized that this criticism would continue for as long as it was necessary.
“We regularly invited the mayors — it was a pleasure to play the shows in front of them,” added Malaj.
Close to the people of Kamëz
During August 2020, when the pandemic was deepening the division between public and private in Kamëz, ATA took the theater to the street, in the village of Valias.
Dario Fo’s play “Steal a Bit Less” was adapted to reflect the reality the residents of Valias face. Their homes were being endangered by demolition, following a decision to redevelop the village and tear down old buildings to build new apartments. This process created some uncertainty for the residents regarding the future of their homes. Shortly after the play began, some residents interrupted it, the reason still unclear.
This interruption caused the group to reconsider themselves and their approach. “Residents are tough because life is tough for them,” said Malaj.
During the confusion in Valias, someone said to the director Basha, “This is how they are.” ATA rejects this admission of fatality. In the show that is being played before their eyes in the city of Kamëz, the people that make ATA say that they will not be just spectators.
To strengthen their relations to the residents of Kamëz, the group has been providing free legal aid for three years. These efforts initially took place in the battle for the protection of the Lura-Dejës National Park in Zall-Gjoçaj, another village in Kamëz. Having difficulties finding legal assistance, “residents turned to us for our help,” said Leka.
They helped the residents of Zall-Gjoçaj in their attempt to repeal the bylaws allowing the construction of a hydropower plant within the national park by Seka Hydropower.
In November 2021, the Administrative Court of Appeals decided to uphold the decision to revoke the license, giving the residents some relief. They, together with ATA, will remain vigilant against ongoing efforts to take the natural resources from the residents.
ATA was also standing by local residents when Bioprodukt Sh.p.k. attempted to build a large farm and slaughterhouse in the Plepat e Bruka, a forested area in Laknas, yet another of the villages that form Kamëz, when the neighbors physically prevented the beginning of the construction.
Amid the tensions between residents and the contractor, a lawsuit filed with legal assistance from ATA resulted in November 2021 in the issuance of protective measures preventing the company from initiating construction until the end of the judicial process, due to the irreversible damage that the construction works are likely to cause to the forest.
In 2021, ATA consolidated this aspect of their activism in the Kujri Center. Leka and Malaj, both law students, would continue to help the people of Kamëz with justice-related issues, with a focus on environmental matters.
“One day, our work will speak for us,” said Leka as she began to talk about the group’s future.
For them, the road ahead is inseparable from every confrontation they have had before reaching the place they are now.
“The group must exist even without us. This would have been the complement. The group gives to the city and the city should keep it forever,” said Malaj. “What is happening here will have to be real, as it has been so far.”
Guided by the will to constantly renovate, ATA are determined to rediscover themselves, trying, as they articulate, to eventually make Kamëz a city for its residents.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.