Albania has a new initiative – something to do with illegal immigrants. Typically for Albania, instead of actually going to look for illegal people (How would you find them? Who knows who’s illegal? Illegal people look just like anyone else! ARE like anyone else. And as they’re illegal, there’s no way to track or find them. Damn. Too much work.), they seem to have begun by tracking down legal emigrants, and making sure that they aren’t “Up to something.” Something like: not actually existing, not actually being here, that sort of thing.
Accordingly, a month or so ago, a man arrived in Bajram Curri from “the border police in Kukes” – all I knew was that he called me. For some odd reason I answered the phone (often I don’t). “I need to meet you!” he shouted down the phone. Oh? I thought. And do I need to meet you? “For what?” I asked sweetly. “I will tell you when I see you!” he answered. “No, come on, why?” I asked. No no, I’ll explain when we meet he said. And then I went Tropojan/Brooklyn on him. Gerta listened, half aghast, half giggling. “Are you trying to pressure me?” I shouted down the phone, in my best Albanian. “Why can’t you tell me what you want? How do I know who you are? A lone woman can’t just go meeting odd men because they say they want to!” And to my own amazement, he folded. “Oh, no,” he said “No no, nothing like that. I’m from the border police – I just have to confirm that you’re actually here.” Gerta was doubled over laughing. I was amazed that my first foray into being ‘tough’ with government officials was so successful. The man on the phone was cringing and apologizing. In a few sentences, the power structure had reversed. You will not threaten me, I activate traditional culture, and restrict your access to me. Cool.
Gerta and I just happened to be at the office, so “Come on up,” we said. And he did.
“Would you like some qerasje?” I asked, on my quasi-best behavior. Because no Tropojan would let any form of guest arrive, without bombarding them with juice, coffee, cigarettes, raki, caramels and biscuits. Also – since your first task would be to figure out how you know each other, whose cousin knows whom, or how you might be related – offering a gift to take home to the visitor’s wife (sister, mother, whatever) – usually a bar of factory-produced soap (something bought in a shop!) and a hand-made doily.
If I were REALLY Tropojane, I would have shoved the caramels and coffee down his throat, whether he wanted them or not – but I am just ‘off’ enough that I only offer. “No, no,” says the border man, relieved (god knows how many coffees and caramels he’s already ingested today). “It’s really hot,” I say, “Do you just want some water?” Maybe water, he says, and we are friends.
“Do you really exist?” he asks me. “Can you prove it?”
Well, I don’t know I say. (I have often wondered this myself.) I own a house, would that help?
Yes, that would be great. I dig out my “certifikat” and he takes a picture. He is sweating terribly. It’s hot on the 3rd floor of our office. “Can you help me find some of these other people?” He shows us a list. Three or 4 people. One is a “Zalli” – from that family. I know a Zalli, I say, but not that one. He shakes his head. Two are peace-corps we know have been evacuated. Covid. There’s another woman – Theresa someone. I’ve never heard of her, and am amazed that anyone could be in Tropoja, without me knowing them. Aq shume (this much) jam Shqipterezuar (I have become Albanian).
“Oh,” says Gerta – I think I’ve heard of her. She has a church or something, out by the Sylbica market. Go there, and ask them. (Bloody missionaries. Of course I haven’t met her. Lucky me. I suppose they imagine they are affecting the culture, but they haven’t even riffled the surface. I don’t know they exist. This means your average Tropojan doesn’t care if they exist either. Otherwise they would have gossiped about them with me. As we all gossip endlessly with and about each other.)
And the man from Kukes leaves, wiping perspiration from his brow.
So when Esat showed up in my garden last week, I was inclined to ho hum. No-am, recently arrived from Israel, send me a sneaky photo, via whatsapp, shot over his shoulder. “Look! There’s a policeman in the garden!” Policemen invading your garden should be scary. I laugh and poo-pooh. “That’s Esat,” I say.
A year or two ago, I was inside the house, it was one of the dark seasons, early spring, or winter, dead times. Quiet. Sound carried. The dogs went insane, barking. I looked out the balcony. A man was crouched in sheer aggressive/defensive pose, legs spread, knees bent, more horizontal than vertical, inside my gate, desperately reaching for rocks, and flinging them at Ana, and whatever other dogs had joined her in defending our home. I rushed down. I burst out the front door, in full-on justified fury. “Who the HELL are you?” I was shouting, “How DARE you come inside my gate?” This is taboo in Tropoja. You cannot step on someone’s property without their permission. Never at all, but particularly NOT a lone woman’s house.
Jam polis! (I’m the police!) Gulped the man, reaching for another rock.
“SEZ YOU,” I shouted, and (slowly) walked up. I’d already started enjoying myself. Ana is terrifying. Leaping just away from this man, fangs barred, looking for all the world like she’d like nothing better than to rip his throat out. Now, or in a minute or two. I stand behind her, in all her noise and fury. “Where’s your uniform?”
“It’s the weekend!” shouts the man, hopefully.
I am having fun now. If I’m honest. Men here think they can do anything with a woman. They order, women obey. Ana is female and so am I. I toy with the idea of letting her rip his throat out.
“What do you want?”
“I have a notice to give you, a court hearing.”
I grab Ana by the collar. Pull her back. The man straightens. And we stand for a moment, just looking at each other. And then the humor of the situation hits me. “In fact,” I say to him, “You must be pretty brave. Because she – (indicating the dog) – is pretty scary.” I fish in my pocket and find a caramel. “Qerasje?” and hand it to him. He takes it. And we are friends. He starts laughing. I sign his paper, he is happy his job is done, I take the notice, and we leave each other laughing. “No but really, you know a woman shouldn’t be invaded?” “Yes of course.”
A year later, when Isa Bashaj tries to get into my bedroom at 1 am, and the dogs chase him off, and I go the next day to report it at the police station, Esat will be my best friend. He will tell the other policemen proudly how we are friends. How well I’m protected. How we are tied. Friends. It is Esat who will talk about how they try to stop these crimes, also against women, but the courts get paid and let the assholes go.
This time, when Esat invaded my garden, I was in Hani i Elezit, Kosove, the (honored) guest of the municipality there. Noam was sending me pictures, Aferdita was writing me – “Oh for god’s sake,” I wrote back, “I’m in Kosove. Tell them to call me Friday, when I get home.” And piss off, I thought.
On Friday the calls from Esat started: We have to verify you exist. You have to meet me NOW. “No,” I said, I’m busy. Which I was. I was leaving 4 days in Hani i Elezit to come straight back to an international event we’d organized in Tropoja. People were flying in from Czechia, arriving from Prishtina, Tirana . . . I didn’t have time to play with Esat. Plus the puppies had caught Parvovirus, so I had to get home, to get straight back in the car and go to the vet in Gjakove. And then I had to lie awake all night, holding their shaking bodies, while 4 of them died one by one. Spewing foul smells, filling the house with a miasma of death and suffering. Damn your paper and “must” I thought.
On Friday, late, Esat asked if I couldn’t meet him later to prove I exist. “No,” I said. How about tomorrow? I asked. Okay, he said. But it’s Saturday? Do you work on the weekend? “No,” he admitted. Well then that’s ridiculous. Can I see you Monday? “Yes,” he said, “Monday will be okay.”
Monday ended up being awful also. Exhausted by the puppies’ deaths, exhausted by the activities. My phone started ringing at 8 am. “Are you at the office yet?” NO. I had to meet the biologists, talk about how we would document the otters, save the river. I had to say goodbye to all my guests. I had to find the fucking key to the office, where the needed document was resting, because we’d all recombined the keys, so many times, that I found myself standing before the office door – with the biologists – with a fistful of keys, none of which opened the door. I said goodbye, sent everyone on their way, and went home. My phone rang. Esat. Beside himself. “You are never where you say you are going to be!”
I take a deep breath. “Look,” I say, “I don’t even know why you’re doing this, and I don’t take it seriously.”
“We are the police! Working for the state!” he says. “You have to take it seriously! My director is demanding!”
“Yes,” I explain patiently, “And the state should function correctly. In any other place, there would be a letter, requesting documents, explaining why, and what for, with some deadline by which to send them in. Not a man haunting my garden, demanding I drop everything to rush off and do what you want!”
Bah! Says Esat. You have to pay attention – we are the police!
Well, I’m home now, I say, and I can’t find the keys, someone else has them (true) so you’ll just have to wait.
“But my director needs this – TODAY!”
And I get it. “You should tell your Director to piss off,” I say. “Tell him I want an official letter, informing me of why I have to produce something.”
Oh! Like THAT? Says Esat, and I can’t tell if he’s mad at me, or his boss. “This isn’t personal,” he shouts.
“Of COURSE it’s personal,” I shout back. “I know you, and we are friends, so if you need something, I will try to give it to you. But imagine – if a strange man showed up in your garden, and told your wife to hand over personal documents?”
“That would be terrible,” says Esat, “but it isn’t like that – we are the police! We represent the state! And I’m not strange!”
And my head is spinning. I realize that as long as I laugh at the end of each shout, this is a friendly conversation. So I shout, and laugh, and keep insisting. “This is absolutely absurd! I have not made a crime, you have no right to demand anything of me.” (hahaha). Of course I don’t want things to be difficult for you (hahaha), but I am not just sitting at home, with nothing to do (hahaha). I have too much work – guests! Events! (I don’t mention dying puppies.) Then, mercifully, I grab onto the cogent point. “Listen – who is your director?”
Oh for god’s sake. Give me his number and I’ll talk to him.
In the meantime, a message comes from Gerta. “There’s some document you need to sign, it has a deadline, and you have to go to the police today.” As usual, all Tropoja knows my business.
So I wait. And then I call Sulejman. “Oh Catherine!” he says. “Yes, it’s me,” I say. “I am so sorry,” I say, “I have been travelling.” “Oh no problem,” he says. How about you come in tomorrow? 9 Am? It’s just a form you have to sign. Okay, I say. Have you talked to Liridon? (Who is now in Swizerland) Yes, he’s good. Oh good. Respectful greetings to your wife. Yes of course.
I hang up the phone.
I pick up the phone, and call Esat. “I just wanted you to know that everything is fine! I spoke with Sulejman. You did your job.”
“Oh good,” says Esat – “Perqafoj! “ (I embrace you).