AMHERST, Mass. - When University of Massachusetts photographer Stan Sherer and his wife, Smith College professor Marjorie Senechal, first went to Albania in 1992, they were tourists visiting the fascinating land described by one of their favorite authors, Ismael Kadare. But when the two celebrate the publication of their new book, "Long Life to Your Children! A Portrait of High Albania" (University of Massachusetts Press), Sun. Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. in Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, they will be turning the tables, showing others the land they came to love.
The book - a collaboration of text by Senechal and photos by Sherer - shows life in Albania, a nation long misunderstood by the rest of the world, the two say. Tucked away in the mountainous regions of the higher Balkan peninsula, Albania is both one of the poorest and most beautiful countries on the continent. Yet Sherer and Senechal also find it to be one of the most exciting in terms of its cultural makeup.
"While the recent collapse of pyramid schemes has brought Albania to the forefront of many news accounts recently, the real story for us was how this tiny nation is adjusting to great changes in the latter half of the century," says Sherer. "In many parts of the countryside, these people are still living an agrarian style of life straight out of the pre-industrial era. Yet, in the capital of Tirana you’ll find examples of the latest fashions, cafes, a world-class hotel, and traffic snarls to rival any major American city."
In the book, Sherer and Senechal explore the tension between old and new in Albania. Women work the fields behind horsedrawn plows, while men carry Soviet-era automatic rifles to guard against everything from gangs to armed robbers to long-standing, and often bloody, family feuds. Meanwhile, overhead, commercial jets fly in and out of the country for the first time in nearly 50 years, and a new, forward-thinking government lays the groundwork for the 21st century.
In their four trips to the region since 1992, Sherer and Senechalmet with individuals from each strata of society. They interviewed, photographed, and often lived among their new friends, trying hard to understand the culture.
"Of course, you can never really understand another culture when you come from outside it," Sherer says. "And this is particularly true of Albania, a country which only gained its nationhood in the early part of this century."
Perched between east and west, Albania has for centuries been a crossroads for invaders. As a result, the country contains elements of Greek, Turkish, and Slavic cultures. Yet, as Sherer and Senechal point out in their study, Albanians have a surprisingly unified culture, and have never experienced the ethnic or religious infighting of neighboring nations such as the former Yugoslavia.
"In fact, during the Holocaust, Albanians as a whole defended their tiny population of Jews despite the threat of Nazi reprisal," Senechal says. "Though the country was mostly Muslim and Eastern Orthodox, it risked a great deal, confounding the stereotype we have now of fractured ‘Balkanized’ nations."
Today, Albania seems to be entering a new era, Sherer and Senechal say, and in an afterward to their book they discuss this process. The country’s new president, whom they interviewed during their most recent trip in 1997, hopes to heal the social rifts created by the collapse of the pyramid schemes backed by the previous government. To do so, he says, he plans to rise above partisan politics, creating a stable and workable government which the people can trust.
What’s unusual about the current leaders is that most of them are former academics, Sen the prime minister an economist, and the minister of interior an archaeologist." While it remains to be seen whether these academics can put their theories into action, Senechal and Sherer remain guardedly optimistic. "It’s a very interesting time for Albania," Sherer says. "In many senses the country is starting over again."