Ahlem

1

The television room had never been so full and so silent, except for the announcer's voice booming for more than an hour. Nobody added a whisper to his commentary. Nobody made a move to leave.

It was the first time that the entire group of political prisoners at Spaç, including the mine workers and the reserves, had assembled in that hut hammered together out of planks and rusty sheet iron. Sitting more closely crammed than ever before on the rows of stools, we were experiencing something incredible. The dictator, whose death we had longed for with such insistent yearning, to the point that we had come to believe that he would bury us all before he died himself, was finally being laid in earth. The dreamed-of hour had come. However, it did not bring any joy. The atmosphere was so somber that nobody dared to display his inner exultation. A lot of policemen had claimed the first row of stools in front of the screen, and others stood in the corners of the room, their grim presence stifling any possible expression of feeling. When we caught the eye of a friend, we averted our glance at once out of fear that some guard or spy might catch us. The room was filled with rows of profiles like masks, staring at the black and white screen. More than anything else, these human masks showed a fear of reprisals, mixed with amazement and curiosity at the funeral ceremony.

The coffin on the gun carriage finally entered the Martyrs' Cemetery. "The commander has come. He is joining his comrades-in-arms!" The commentator's voice rose even higher.

The gun carriage finally halted by the newly-dug grave, next to the Mother Albania monument. People clustered round. The dictator's widow embraced her son. The coffin passed through a number of hands, and remained for a moment in the air, suspended on the ropes that were to lower it to the bottom of the hole. We held our breath in suspense.

At that exact moment, a trembling voice echoed from the back of the room.

"Stand up! The greatest man of the nation is being buried!"

We were all on the verge of standing, even the policemen. Then we recognised Ahlem's voice.

We remained seated yet nobody dared to laugh at the madman.

They began to throw the first spadefuls of earth on the dictator's coffin.

2

Ahlem came to the camp of Spaç in 1979. At that time, he was a man in his prime, about forty years old, tall, and handsome. Even though his hair was savagely cropped, it suited him. He spoke in a quiet and measured voice, and he was fluent and courteous in his speech, a rare thing in the camp. He often talked about the political persecution of his family and the large quantities of gold they had possessed at the end of the war. He told those that he chatted with most that when he was free he had been very fond of good living, and that he was proud that even in the time of socialism he had never been short of money. He had found ways to earn a little bit more than other people. "Through honest work," he would stress repeatedly, because somebody from his own town who claimed to know him well had spread the rumour that Ahlem had been involved in counterfeiting currency.

When he passed the policemen who were the camp's internal guards or the prisoners from the Reeducation Council, Ahlem used to salute them with a sort of special deference. This meant that the rebellious prisoners developed an aversion to him, although he was very polite to them too.

Ahlem was assigned to an underground work brigade on the first monthly schedule after he arrived at the camp. He claimed that he suffered from heart disease and could not work in the mines. As a result, they sent him to a punishment cell. He came out a month later and it seemed that he had somehow arranged not to be sent underground. He did not appear on the underground roster or on the list of surface workers for two or three months. Finally, somebody remembered him and ordered him underground. Again, he refused. He resisted with the same calm courtesy with which he told the stories about his life in freedom. Besides mentioning his heart disease, he told the guard officer that he had never been an enemy of the people's power.

They sent him to a punishment cell again.

When he came out, they left him in the unemployed brigade for a while, and then one day he suddenly disappeared from the camp. A staff car from the Internal Affairs Branch of his hometown came to take him. Many people did not like to think that Ahlem could be a spy, and had gone to do service in the interrogation cells of his local prison. Perhaps he had really gone to give some explanation demanded by the investigator, or to divorce his wife. But more people began to believe that he really had been a counterfeiter. The length of his absence would tell us why he had gone. Those who were sent to spy on other people normally stayed a long time, sometimes more than a year, because persons of this kind would be infiltrated mainly to snoop on people whose cases were complicated and who were being tried in groups on several charges. These trials lasted longer than those of individuals. People who were taken away from the camp to provide some explanation or to divorce came back within a month.

Ahlem stayed away a long time. It never became clear whether he started to ply his trade because he wanted to save himself from the mine, or whether he had been working as a spy even when they put him in the camp's punishment cells.

He returned after several months in the punishment cells with the appearance of a man whose face has been kept out of the sun for a long time: a white pallor, and delicate skin that in places looked as if it had been stripped away. He was clearly depressed. He spoke very little, and he often wore an abstracted expression. Some spread the rumour that he was depressed because the man he had denounced had been shot. Others explained it by the fact that he had learned in the cells of his hometown that his wife had found another man. Both stories might have been true.

He was assigned to the unemployed brigade. No one expected that they would now send him down for mine work. He entered fully into the brigade's activities, but gradually became slower in his speech and clumsier in his movements. Yet nobody imagined that he could ever go as far as he did. One day, Ahlem left the first hour of readings from the Works of the dictator, climbed up to the rooftop, which was not allowed, jumped over the iron railing, and threw himself into the forbidden area, heading straight for the soldier in his watch tower. The decent Lazër, one of the internal guards, shouted to the soldier, "Don't shoot him! Don't shoot him!" But the soldier had used up his single cry of "Halt!" and let fly a hail of automatic rifle fire. Ahlem collapsed in a heap, and lay huddled. Policemen immediately flooded into the camp. They sent all the prisoners to the dormitories and ordered them not to leave. It was first thought that Ahlem had been killed, but it turned out that the soldier had shot him in the leg.

A few hours later, they sent him to the hospital.

3

Ahlem returned from the hospital hanging between two crutches and in a very bad condition. The bullet had shattered his shinbone. However, his psychological state was even worse. He was almost completely mute. Although he was not paralyzed, he took to his bed and began not only to eat there, but to perform all his bodily functions. He urinated regularly on the mattress, and he sometimes defecated there. He was restrained from this, not by any inhibition, but because his roommates stood at the ready to prevent him stinking up the cell. The area round his bunk began to stink worse than the latrine. The appalling stench led to the daily deterioration of his relations with his cellmates, even though they were initially sympathetic. The prisoners demanded that he be taken to the infirmary or sent back to the hospital, but the authorities paid no attention. No prisoner could have his own room, and the military doctor said that he had come from the hospital with the note, "cured." Then rumors began to spread that Ahlem was malingering in the hope that, if he persisted, he would be transferred to the old men's camp at Ballsh, which was close to the town where his family lived. One person said that he had caught him with a cunning look. Somebody else said that on coming back from roll call he had seen him jerking off. His past as a cell spy began to count against him more and more, even though it was his remorse at whatever he had done that had led to his attempted suicide.

It was not long before the first catcalls and insults went his way. Nevertheless, Ahlem remained as uncommunicative as before. He never responded to the insults, just as he never thanked anybody, even with a glance, for the services performed for him. Nobody would sleep next to him. But the authorities did not want to leave empty beds. Some insisted that he fouled his bed on purpose just to foul up other people's lives.

Then they sent one of the prisoners from Ahlem's room to the punishment cells twice in a row. He was always cursing the commandant, accusing him of leaving Ahlem with them on purpose just to add to their sufferings. When he came out after the second time, he said that he had realized from a mocking remark dropped by the guard that Ahlem must have spied on him. Then even those few who still felt sorry for Ahlem began to cool toward him.

Then the commandant allowed his bed to be shifted to a corner of the room, where it was surrounded by a kind of tent of blankets. Ahlem lived inside that tent for a long time, for almost as long as he had been in the cells, with the help of the minimal attention that could be given to a sick man in such a place.

4

When winter was over, Ahlem was seen to leave his bed and turn up in the lines of the unemployed with his stew bowl. He had undergone an extraordinary transformation. He limped badly on his injured leg, which had become visibly shorter than the other. He began to eat stew from the cauldron with unprecedented greed and within a short time he grew disgustingly fat round his buttocks, neck, and face.

He started communicating with his fellow prisoners with the same courtesy as before. However, Ahlem would not only refuse any explanation to those who asked him about his suicide attempt and the trauma after it, but said that he could not remember anything of what had happened.

Ahlem's peculiar love for the dictator first became apparent during the two hours of reading, that same session from which he had run out in order to kill himself. They were two very tedious hours, which people often spent whispering, whenever the guards went away. Ahlem began to interrupt more and more often. "Please stop. Some of us like these books."

After a time he formed a connection with a young boy who had arrived, sentenced for trying to flee the country. He tried to keep him from all the camp predators, but especially from enemies of the people who might poison him with propaganda. Nobody could tell whether he was really trying to protect him or whether he had his own predatory eyes on him. Ahlem did everything for him. He waited for him to return from work with dishes he cooked for him in the private kitchen. He washed and brushed his clothes. He gave him the dictator's books to read. Somebody said that he had heard him tell the boy that in Arabic the world "ahlem" means hope, and that he, as well as Hoxha's books, would keep the boy's hope of release alive.

Finally, television reached the camp. The prisoners began to follow international football matches with the greatest enthusiasm. There was tremendous uproar at one final won by Germany. A few days later, the chief of the Interior Ministry Branch at Rrëshen, the branch that kept an eye on the camp, happened to pay a visit. He attended one of the meetings that the authorities organized with the aim of encouraging plan fulfilment in the mines. He also spoke himself, providing a survey of the healthy political situation in the country. After the speech by the chief, several of the brigade leaders among the prisoners stood up, as usual on such occasions. They promised that they would fulfil the plan even better, and made a few material requests. The great mass of prisoners listened in silence, clearly suggesting that they were present for the same reason as they went to work--they were forced.

At the end of the meeting, Ahlem unexpectedly stood up and asked the branch chief if he could add a few words. Everybody waited to hear what he would say. He turned to the prisoners in the hall, and said, "I want to appeal to you all. Shout 'hurrah!' for the party and its brilliant leader Enver Hoxha with one-half of the enthusiasm you showed when Germany scored a goal."

A silence followed. The prisoners and guards were both surprised. None of the commandant's men could reproach him for what he said, but they also did not like to hear silences of this kind in response to an appeal that anywhere in Albania would bring people cheering to their feet.

From that day, the wretched Ahlem was classed in a special category of accomplices of the commandant. They were in general normal sorts of people. They never said that they were spies. When they obtained some privileged job they said that they had got it through a friend. Sometimes they would give no explanation at all. Only rarely did any of them admit to an intimate circle that they were serving the authorities to obtain their release or to avoid a second sentence. At any rate, not one of them shouted things that were a provocation both to the prisoners and to the commandant's men.

On the day after the visit of the branch chairman, while Ahlem was limping down to the lavatory, somebody threw a rotten tomato at him. It split open against his backside, which had grown twice as broad as his shoulders. He turned round slowly with a long-suffering expression, looked about, and then continued to descend the stairway with the same abject manner.

As time passed, Ahlem became more and more devoted to the regime that had crippled him. The more his love increased, the more curious the other prisoners became. They would ask about the accident, and Ahlem always replied that he could not remember. When anybody insisted on reminding him, he replied coldly that he had heard this story from other people too, but, if it was true, he held it to be the most shameful thing that he had ever done. He had never wanted such a thing to happen, and he could not say that it had taken place. He also no longer told his old stories about his family's wealth and the prosperity he had managed to create for himself. He did not mention his family at all. His life seemed frozen at that terrible moment when his leg was smashed in a hail of gunfire. Then, in the dark months that followed, a new Ahlem had been formed.

5

A few weeks after the burial of the dictator, life in the camp began to return to normal. The fears of reprisals faded, and hopes of political changes began to take root. The prisoners began to laugh at and taunt those who had signed the telegram of condolences addressed to the dictator's family, out of fear that they would be shot. It became obvious that the initiative for this telegram had not come from up above, but from a few collaborators who worked in the Reeducation Council. Ahlem had refused to sign the group telegram, saying that he could not associate his name with a bunch of hypocrites. Instead he handed in his own long and personal telegram to the commandant. Those who had signed the group telegram wanted to forget this incident, but Ahlem steadfastly continued to mourn the dictator. In one of the open spaces of the camp, there was a large display stand showing the results of contests in socialist emulation, and on one of the panels there was a photograph of Enver Hoxha. Ahlem had found somewhere a broken light fixture and every morning he filled it with fresh water and added a few daisies that he found in some untrodden corner of the camp yard. He then hung the light fixture under the photograph of the dictator, and would go to sit on a step near the bridge across which senior staff officers would enter the camp. He would sit there almost all day, hanging his head, parading his grief for the officers to see.

One day the branch chairman came to the camp. Ahlem stood up and said that he wanted a favor.

"What favor?" the chairman asked.

"I want a car to go somewhere."

"Where?" the chairman asked.

"To the Martyrs' Cemetery. I want to lay a wreath on the grave of the nation's greatest man."

The chairman made no reply and continued on his way. He, like the rest of us, wasn't sure whether the old forger was a madman who really felt this emotion, or was trying to hoodwink him.

Ahlem did not give up. He stubbornly returned to his ritual with the light fixture and the daisies and persisted in it until winter came, when there was not a blade of greenery left anywhere in the camp.

The persistence and self-absorption with which he continued to demonstrate his love for the state and the dictator finally disarmed even those who were most suspicious of him. Even they finally had to admit that this was something other than a sham. The man from his hometown who had first spread the rumour of his forgeries said that he had demonstrated this type of insanity before. He refused to admit that the forged money they had found on him was not original, insisting until the end that it was money he had earned with the sweat of his brow.

In the meantime, Ahlem continued to behave very courteously and properly in daily life in the camp. He maintained a very close friendship with the young boy, whom some homosexuals had given the nickname "the Japanese girl." He would take books out of the library for him, and he never bothered anyone.

6

Almost a year after the death of the dictator, we got news that there would be an amnesty on Republic Day. The reports came from more and more sources and gradually became more credible. This time, we expected something different. It was not to be like the amnesty the dictator had announced a few years ago, when, with a few cunning exceptions, he had released a very few political prisoners, and had let go recent arrivals and not those who had suffered most. This time, the dictator's heir was expected to announce the first signs of a thaw. The closer we came to 11 January, the more the amnesty began to fill our thoughts and increase our anxiety. Nobody ruled out the possibility of being released. Anybody who went to receive a family visitor was expected back with impatience, to be pumped for the latest news. When good news came, it spread throughout the camp at incredible speed. If someone brought back no news, or only something half-baked, it was ignored as if the visit had never taken place. It was an atmosphere that led even the most rebellious prisoners to draw closer to those who collaborated with the authorities, because they had contact with guards and officers and might have picked up the occasional word. But nothing was known for certain. There were many assorted versions of the amnesty. They started with the rumor that there would be no amnesty at all, and extended as far as a general amnesty that would empty the prison.

The morning of 11 January dawned on a sleepless camp. The prisoners got up, with their ears pricked for the loudspeakers. At six in the morning, the press review on the radio said that the amnesty decree had been published in the main newspapers. This was greeted with cheers that awoke those few who had fallen asleep toward dawn.

However, the newspapers did not arrive when they usually did, after morning roll call. Nobody could explain this. The optimists interpreted it as a good sign, and the pessimists as the opposite.

The newspapers only arrived at lunchtime, brought by the guard officer, who came escorted with several more policemen than usual. Before the roll call began, he told the prisoners not to disperse afterward, but to assemble on the square, because he wished to read the decree of the Presidium of the People's Assembly.

The moment to find out about the decree finally arrived. The officer climbed up to the highest point overlooking the field, unfolded the newspaper, and began to read the amnesty decree. As he read its articles line by line, we discovered that one article excluded one category, the next another, and another, until it was clear that the decree released only a handful of convicts, who had less than one year of their sentences to serve, or who had received very light sentences. Almost everybody would be left inside. It was now clear why the newspapers had been so late in arriving.

The officer finished reading and left the camp escorted by a squad of policemen. We were all shocked, and for a moment no one moved. Even the few who were to be released did not dare to express their joy. It was as if the officer had read out a decree adding ten years to everybody's sentences.

Just then, when we were all sunk into a deep despair mixed with hatred, a strong, deep voice came from the back of the crowd.

"Long live the party and the teachings of Comrade Enver!"

It was Ahlem.

Nobody had the strength to laugh at him, or to take his crutch from him and break it over his head. At that moment, his survival mechanism made him stronger than all the rest of us. He was the first to detach himself from the cowed mass, and to limp away with his usual shuffle, supported by his crutch.