He lived through the communist regime of Enver Hoxha; pursued journalism for 13 years; sought political asylum in Ireland; published poetry in Albanian and English; and now in Galway, he is a tireless promoter and supporter of the city’s cultural and artistic scene. He is Ndrek Gjini.
Our man from Albania
Ndrek has been living in Ireland for the last decade, and in Galway since 2005, but he originally comes from a town in the mountainous regions of northern Albania.
“The town’s name is Pukë,” he tells me with a laugh as we sit in City Hall on Tuesday morning for the interview. “It’s one of the top 1,000 unusual sounding names in English. However, the name is Albanian and comes from the Latin word meaning a crossroads.”
The Albania Ndrek was born into was the Communist state of The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania (retitled the People’s Republic of Albania in 1976 ) under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. It is not a period in the nation’s history he remembers with fondness.
“Albania was the most isolated and repressive country. It was a nonsense to live,” he says. “People in Hungary or East Germany lived in much greater freedom compared to us. It was a dictatorship and a bad copy of the Stalin régime in Russia in the 1930s. Political prisoners were sent to concentration camps; people would be hanged from buildings for daring to criticise the regime, even for saying that the leader was not handsome; priests were imprisoned, and churches demolished or converted to military depots.”
Ndrek is a poet who has a number of collections published in Albanian. His debut collection of poems in English, The Death Of Night, was published last year by EMAL. He has also translated the work of Irish poets into Albanian for literary magazines and newspapers in the country such as Gazeta Nacional, including poetry by Uachtaráin na hÉireann Michael D Higgins. However Ndrek’s debut as a poet, came, ironically enough, via the communists.
“In Albania back then, if you had relatives who lived abroad, or who escaped the régime, you were not allowed to continue to third level education,” he says. “So for three years I was barred from going to university, so during that time I worked in the mines. I was finally able to get to university by writing poems praising the Party. It wasn’t a reflection of how I felt about them, it was how you had to behave. It was dictated by the need to go to university.”
However, Ndrek’s introduction to poetry and his love of the form was instilled in him much earlier, during childhood, by his mother.
“My mother was a really quiet, shy lady,” he says. “I used to hear her reciting all these rhymes when she was praying. Prayers in Albanian are very musical and rhyming. At the time I didn’t know anything about their meaning but I loved the rhymes and that was how I came to love poetry.”
At 17, Ndrek saw his first poem published in a prestigious Albanian literary magazine, and within a few years he would also witness changes beginning to happen in his native country. Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the rule of Ramiz Alia saw the start of “some breeze of freedom”.
“The new leader was younger and more open minded,” he says. “We were now less afraid to read illegal books like Orwell’s 1984 or Joyce.”
After graduating from the University of Shkoder, Ndrek began work as a teacher, moving to journalism in 1990. “I enjoyed journalism,” he says. “I was meeting new people, dealing with new problems everyday. It was all fresh. During those 13 years I covered what we called ‘black news’ - courts and police, and later I was a political and parliamentary correspondent.”
He also had four books published and wrote poems, reviews, essays and articles for Albanian magazines. Journalism also led him to meet Albanians’ most famous daughter - Mother Theresa. “I met her twice,” says Ndrek. “She was a very, very tiny lady and very humble, but full of energy.”
However, Ndrek’s political journalism would eventually result in him having to leave Albania, when his reporting came under fire from the Socialist Party of Albania.
“I thought we had full freedom so I felt I could report on the widespread corruption that was taking place in the country at the time,” he says. “I wrote a number of articles and was threatened with prison. A court case had started against me so I sought political asylum in Ireland in 2002 and was accepted. I chose here as my brother-in-law was here and said it was good. I have an empathy for the Irish and an interest in the country through its great writers.”
The road to Galway
Ndrek came to Ireland with his wife and two children, initially settling in Castlebar, where he continued to work in journalism and by teaching computer skills. One of the participants in his computer class recommended that Galway might be a better place in which to live and work.
“I have spent so much of my time in big cities,” he says. “But eventually I found that Tirana was too big, Dublin was too big, Castlebar, too small, but Galway is just right, we are very happy here.”
Ndrek initially worked in Ceannt Station and during that time completed a BA (Honours ) in Heritage Studies at the GMIT and an MA in Writing at NUI Galway. With the collapse of the Celtic Tiger though, Ndrek found himself unemployed.
“It was not a good place to be in,” he says. “Anyone who has spent time unemployed will tell you that. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do when I got up in the morning. I sent of 300 CVs looking for work as anything from a kitchen porter to a university lecturer. Then I saw in the Galway Advertiser a job being offered in City Hall. I applied, I was called for interview, and I got the job!”
Ndrek is now the assistant arts officer at the Galway City Council, where his work involved dealing and liaising with the more than 70 arts organisations throughout the city. He is also active in promoting the arts, having established City Hall’s www.artsingalway.com website and newsletter. “I think I’m doing a good job and I use my skills in web design and editing and the site is getting a great response,” he says.
Ndrek’s latest project is The Galway Review (www.thegalwayreview.com ), a showcase for presenting poetry, short stories, and reviews by emerging and established writers in Galway city. The site is only new but has already enjoyed thousands of hits, and is continuing to seek submissions from the public through firstname.lastname@example.org until Saturday December 1.
“There is The Dublin Review, The Paris Review, The London Review, and Galway is a city with many talented writers around, but yet there was no review to showcase their work,” he says. “So I suggested the idea to my boss, James Harrold, and he gave it approval. I asked Marie Holmes to be the guest editor for the first edition on-line - I prefer to keep to a background role - and it has been going very well.”
In January, The Galway Review will also be published as a physical copy, collecting many of the writings currently viewable on-line.
“This will be the first print venture for The Galway Review,” says Ndrek. “Everything may be on-line now, but websites change all the time. Stuff is deleted, or the website revamped, but with a book, it can be placed on a library shelf and in 50 years time, someone can still pick it up and read through it.”