The fifth in a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare.
Enriketa Papa is a lecturer and professor at the University of Tirana as well as a historian, writer, editor, academic and researcher. Her focus is the History and Memory of Communism and the Contemporary History of Albania. She graduated from the University of Tirana in History and she also holds a Masters in History and a PhD in Contemporary History and South-Eastern European History from the University of Graz in Austria. She also sits on the board of the Institute for Studies of Crimes and Consequences of Communism and has written a number of papers and book. She lives in Tirana with her husband and two children.
Tell me about yourself as if we were meeting for the first time?
I was born in Tirana. My father was a history teacher and my mother was a secretary at a high school. I think perhaps my love and passion for history was hereditary and I inherited it from him as I remember reading the exams of his students and the school register, imagining myself as a teacher. All of my childhood I was learning from him and influenced by him and sure enough, I ended up following his path in a way!
When it was time to go to University, I applied for the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of History because the law was my hobby and history was my passion. I failed the exam for the Law Faculty and remained without work or studies for a year. This made me really sad because I had dreams of being a judge, yet although I was an excellent student, somehow I failed. During this time, the situation in my family was very hard- I am an only child and both of my parents were living on a pension. I turned to my father and asked him to find me a job working in a clothing factory to help our living situation but he told me “Eni, no- you cannot give up”. Then I got my place at the History Faculty and I put all of my energy into being the best student I could possibly be, but this was still a very hard time- we were surviving as a family, but only just.
While studying I got the opportunity to work on a project between the University of Tirana and the University of Graz in Austria. At the end of the project, the University of Graz offered two jobs to the best students and myself and my best friend were selected.
We moved there to work at the Department of South-Eastern European History and I imagined myself only spending two or three years there before coming back. This turned into seven years before I returned to Tirana in 2007. During the course of finishing my degree and moving to Austria, both of my parents died within a year of each other and I was very sad, I did my best to put my energy into research and I flourished. I achieved a Masters and a PhD, got married and had my son before deciding it was time to come home.
I had a desire to contribute to my country and to bring back the experience, knowledge, and new methodologies that I learned during my time away. I wanted to give something back.
I had an excellent CV, was highly qualified and had a lot of experience- I thought I would have no issues getting a job, but I was wrong. Nepotism and corruption had taken over and I found it very hard to find a way in.
I spent some three years without a job and it was a demoralising, depressing and very sad time. I knew I was capable and had so much to give, but there was no opportunity to do so. Then eventually, the government created a brain gain programme and opened 200 lecturing jobs at the University. Thankfully I was selected You know, sometimes I look back at this time and wonder how I would have made it or what I would be doing now if it was not for this programme. I imagine I would be in some other job, surviving and existing…I consider myself very lucky.
How did you end up focusing on History and Memory as well as Albania’s communist past?
Prior to getting the job at the University of Tirana, I had already begun to question why there was a lack of communism studies in the curriculum. Why is no one studying it? Why is there no research? So I went to the archives, I studied, I read, I researched and I thought “why not?” Then, I went to the history department and suggested doing a course on History and Memory as there was nothing available like it at the time. They agreed and we started a summer school in collaboration with the OSEC and offered just 30 places. The first year, there were over 350 applicants so we doubled the number of places, increasing it to 90 the following year. It was a huge success and the students were so responsive and interested in this previously somewhat unknown subject.
I think they were so interested because there is little education about communism here and students born in the 90s onwards have little knowledge. This comes from a lack of information in the school curriculum which is down to a combination of things- deliberate non-inclusion, lack of interest from the curriculum developers and negligence. In my opinion, we just have to look at the situation today to know that after 45 years of communism, it is still deeply affecting us. Without understanding what happened, we cannot move on and we cannot dream and plan a future without knowing the legacy of the past.
Have you ever been pressured due to the sensitive nature of your topic of study?
In my work, I have been lucky that I haven’t been directly pressured but I know it goes on. Perhaps if I wasn’t a lecturer and was in some other position, this would not be the case. Those who work at the Institute are constantly under pressure for the work that they do- annual reports, budgets, signing off on them from MPs, they feel constant pressure. This is because so many of the perpetrators are still in power or have been returned to power. Every day you see statements or incidents that are an insult to the victims of communism and you see politicians, perpetrators, members of the judiciary, and administrators being put back into power.
Recently on the Boulevard, they placed the faces of the Partisans who then became communists! What about the victims? People are still waiting for the money they earned in labour camps and for compensation. Now they are being forced into asylum, or waiting, or dying of old age without receiving anything.
Reconciliation is being pushed by the internationals but how can you have it without justice? Albania cannot move on without studying the past, without giving victims what they deserve and supporting them. People are living in poverty and awful conditions- they need hope and to see a public vision for restoring justice.
You have a huge presence of perpetrators in power, you see the communist legacy and ideologies still present- if you have this situation and the victims are still suffering in bad conditions- what has changed?
Do you remember communism times?
I do. I remember the lack of security and the lack of being able to secure food. I remember long queues at the bread shop and standing there for what seemed like hours. I also remember the central vegetable market in our neighbourhood and buying potatoes and vegetables that were poor quality and going bad. I also remember in 1990, a case of peaches coming from Greece and the joy it brought us to be able to see and eat them.
My family were Christian Orthodox, but of course, all religion was illegal but after Enver Hoxha died, my mother got a bit more adventurous and I remember her colouring our eggs red so we could celebrate Easter. Of course, she still told me “don’t tell anyone that we have red eggs at home and are celebrating Easter”. At that time, I obeyed her because we were scared.
I also remember going with my father to the student protests that ultimately started the end of the regime. I also remember the hope that everyone had and felt- the hope for change and an improvement in our lives. The desire for change and to finally be free was so strong. I look back fondly on this time- we were very poor but we hoped for miracles.
Sadly, these miracles didn’t come. We kept waiting for change and it never came because change and our hope was interrupted. Everyone wanted a new start but the corruption in politics on both sides prevented it from happening.
I also remember 1997 during the rebellion- men in Tirana coming with Kalashnikovs and pistols like something out of a Western movie. I remember one morning waking up and finding a bullet hole in our balcony window yet we never found the bullet. We left the bullet hole there as a reminder- a sad memory of what happened during that year.
How do you and your husband work together to make family life and career life work well?
My son is 14, my daughter is five and I can tell you that being a working mother is hard. In my line of work, I need to think and have time to think but I also like to be at home with my family, cooking and doing more traditional things. Thankfully my husband is very supportive and when he is not travelling for work, he helps me a lot with the children and home.
There is no doubt that being a woman and a mother and having a career in this society is hard but I was passionate about it all and determined to make it work. I didn’t want to be just a housewife because I love both- working and being a mother.
Of course, there were times I don’t know how I managed- when I functioned on two to three hours of sleep a night but I always told myself- I can do both, I am strong
What is the biggest challenge facing your students?
The biggest challenge I see my students facing is not knowing what the future holds- this results in a lack of security and not being able to plan for what lies ahead. Everyday life is so stressful here- many of us, and them are just surviving. Many of my students want to leave Albania and I would encourage them to do so, to study, gain knowledge and collect information, then to decide whether to come back or not.
It is sad to say but sometimes I feel there is no hope here and question why I came back- the lack of security affects us all.
Describe yourself in three words?
Strong, energetic, optimistic.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself never to give up. My path was challenging because academia is very male-dominated and they still think that women are weak, not smart enough for the job, or should stay at home with the children.
I remember one interviewer telling me that he would always choose a man over a woman to employ as a woman would not be able to fulfil her job properly because she would leave to have children- this was in 2007! But you have to ignore this, brush it to one side and challenge yourself. If you let the patriarchal mentality get to you, you will become discouraged.
But if I could go back in time to those days when I was queuing for bread, I would tell myself to ask more questions and not to be afraid. I would tell myself to push harder for the answers and to question the way things were instead of being quiet. Why did we have to be silent? Why did we not have the courage to challenge the state? Why did we just obey? I only got my answer after the 90s when communism finally fell.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.