Postcolonial Philosophy in Idlir Azizi’s Novel Terxhuman

Building Terxhuman on postcolonial thinking, hitherto absent in Albanian literature, Idlir Azizi has created a new literary genre.

By rebelling against his country’s dominant Euro-centric discourse and disobeying the fundamental rules of Albanian grammar, writer Idlir Azizi has created a new kind of Albanian literature. In today’s essay, researcher Adem Ferizaj analyzes Azizi’s Terxhuman and helps us understand the implications it might have for Albanian-language literature and Albania as a whole.

The pyramid crisis in Albania and the Kosovo Liberation War are the only two Albanian incidents that simultaneously made headlines in The New York Times, Le Monde, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the 1990s. Since Western journalists’ interest in the Albanian lands depends on political turmoil in the Balkans that could ruin European “geopolitical stability,” this comes as no surprise. When Western editorial offices are urgently in need of articles about this region, the local who organizes meetings, provides information on the addressed issue, and translates interviews becomes indispensable for them.

In Albania, this local is often referred to as a “fixer,” although the word terxhuman (which shares a root with the English “dragoman”) is used as well. The latter is also the title of Idlir Azizi’s 2010 novel, which takes this profession as a starting point to address Western arrogance towards Albanians and to provide an unprecedented analysis of Albanian society. In a very original way, Azizi deconstructs the mainstream Albanian discourses that are based on Eurocentric concepts, or, to put it differently, on Western arrogance towards Albanians. In this way, Terxhuman (which has yet to be translated into English) interprets Albanian reality in an alternative and postcolonial way. Such an analysis did not previously exist in contemporary Albanian literature.

“as long as albania has its position both in the east and in the west [ . . . ]”

In Terxhuman, a native Albanian is paid to work for a British football journalist from the Financial Times. The fixer clarifies in one of the first sentences of the book that he “will [make] good cash on this occasion, that is, compared to what is usually earned in albania.” This implies that the country’s economic misery forces a non-Westerner to accept a salary that is ridiculous by Western standards but “decent” enough for non-Western countries. In addition, the journalist exploits the Albanian by stealing the intellectual property he contributes during the field research. The absurdity of this lack of basic recognition becomes evident when one considers that the journalist entirely depends on the fixer for this crucial step of journalistic work.

Since the terxhuman has been despised by the Western traveler from the beginning of European colonialism, this exploitation is a historically continuous one. According to the researcher Sarga Moussa, quoted in the novel, there is even an elementary link between the work of the fixer and the “spread of Euro-Western colonial thought,” which dominates Albanian political and cultural discourse. The reader of Terxhuman also learns, for example, that Gjergj Qiriazi, who worked for the Austro-Hungarian empire, was one of the most important Albanian terxhumans of the nineteenth century.

In Terxhuman, the journalist’s treatment of the Albanian makes it clear who holds the whip in this relationship, which at the same time can be interpreted as a metaphor for the lack of Albanian political agency in relation to Europe.

[ . . . ] neither oriental, nor western [ . . . ]”

The terxhuman, one of the protagonists of Azizi’s book, basically does not speak. He is a passive figure. He listens, translates, and sometimes makes observations. But the fixer’s inner criticisms of the journalist are never expressed out loud. Moreover, the criticisms articulated in this manner are trivial, such as the Albanian’s comments on the clumsy participation of the Financial Times journalist in the ovations for the Albanian football team, which has just won a match against Greece.

The English journalist, the other central figure of Aziz’s Terxhuman, is an active figure and speaks all the time. In terms of content, the Westerner’s contribution reads like an introduction to postcolonial thinking. On the relationship between Albanians and the West, he says: “To be honest, I have only come across negative descriptions regarding albania. I wonder why albanians often refer to some supposedly positive western opinions on them and on albania.”

The journalist is aware that he could easily become an “ethno-tourist,” so he feels the need to lecture the Albanian on postcolonialism. Ironically, this happens while the Westerner is about to financially and intellectually exploit the terxhuman. Consequently, what the journalist says is in great contravention to his actions. This contradiction is reinforced through the journalist’s search for “exotic” stories about Albania. To put it differently, the journalist reproduces Western stereotypes of Albanians even though it is a violation of postcolonial principles. Hence, the reporter remains a (neo)colonial agent who falls into the trap he has identified.

Through the figure of the Financial Times journalist, Idlir Azizi makes a pathological phenomenon of world hegemony visible: the Western liberal-leftist, the embodiment of Euro-Atlantic “progress,” who is unable to see the continuity between his own actions and the deeds of his colonial predecessors. To put it bluntly, his criticisms of global injustices are meaningless as long as his actions do not fundamentally diverge from the legacy of colonialism.

[ . . . ] both oriental in spirit, but also western in lust [ . . . ]”

The book’s third protagonist is the “self-proclaimed corrupt” professor who is fired from his post at the University of Tirana due to rumors that he might be an Islamist. The professor, sometimes called “the hadji” in the novel, remains an unforgettable character even when Terxhuman is over. He represents an alternative discourse that is censored in Albanian-speaking countries. The professor strips the mainstream Albanian discourse from its Western framework, namely from Western arrogance towards Albanians, and gives an original analysis of cultural and political issues in Albania. One could say that the professor illustrates the English journalist’s postcolonial theory with the example of Albania.

When the journalist interviews the professor, with the indispensable help of the fixer, the professor speaks more to the terxhuman than to the journalist. This is because the journalist is indifferent to what the professor says. The reason is simple: What the professor says does not fit the mold of “exotic” journalistic articles on Albanians. But for all those who are interested in understanding contemporary Albania in a more fundamental way, the professor’s statements are the highlights of Terxhuman. Here a short (non-exhaustive) list of the issues addressed:

The professor, or the hadji, speaks about “our [Albanian] senseless Catholic-atheist communism” and “the new televised post-communist homo albanicus [who is cryptically capitalist].” The denominations chosen by the professor are more accessible than the terms commonly used to describe recent Albanian politics, like “the political and economic transformation of Albania,” which is often used in academic circles.

“[ . . . ] both european in declarations, and muslim in majority [ . . . ]”

The content of the professor’s speech is more accessible than an explanation by the average scholar. Here is an example: He characterizes the class struggle under communism as “a constant and useless invention, since classes themselves did not exist [ . . . ] in albania, and they still do not really exist even today[.] albania is a declassified country.”

The professor describes today’s Albania as a society that is “not open-minded, but legs open” when it comes to the key role non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play, namely the funds that are the basis of almost every political, economic, or artistic enterprise in Albania. The professor includes Albanian politicians and intellectuals, the authors of the Eurocentric Albanian mainstream discourse, in this category too. He calls them the descendants of “Albanian micro-bourgeois communism” for whom winning “their children’s bread” is the most important cause. For this reason, they have depoliticized their political work by accepting everything the world hegemony demands.

The “wrong” translation by Fan Noli, one of the most important Albanian thinkers of the twentieth century, of William Shakespeare’s “to be, or not to be” as “to live, or not to live” is given an alternative interpretation in the sense that the non-Westerner’s existence is more often a struggle for survival than a life. If one wants to concretize this hypothesis, one can say that if a Westerner is diagnosed with cancer, he is likely to survive due to the functional health system, while the lack of such a system in the non-Westerner’s case means that a cancer diagnosis is essentially a death penalty for him or her.

“[ . . . ] both capitalist as individuals, and former communist as society [ . . . ]”

The professor deconstructs the myth of democracy as a universal government system by explaining that “in essence we are still a population that maintains the issue of honour [ . . . ] but Christian-based democracies rely on trust and service.” The professor uses this theoretical foundation to explain the particularities of Albanian corruption:

The peculiarity of albanian corruption, or the corruption that accompanies albanian peculiarity, is that it is still very kinship-related [ . . . ] and, consequently, the institutional side of honouring is left aside, hence there is no honouring of the institution itself, as in christian culture.

If one accepts the professor’s explanation, the criticism of “corruption” or “organized crime,” repeated endlessly by the European Union, Western embassies, and NGOs in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, seems meaningless and unhelpful. It functions as a tool of domination that justifies the status quo, in this case the social misery of the Albanian lands, which is also one of the most consistent features of modern Albanian history.

“such countries with an oriental spirit, like albania”

The novel’s originality and innovation are not the only reasons that Aziz’s Terxhuman has created a new genre in Albanian literature. Another element is the language: by breaking some elementary rules of Albanian grammar, Idlir Azizi has also refreshed the language. All nouns, for example, are written in lowercase, and words and phrases common in spoken Albanian are expressed in a colloquial way.

Through these violations of grammatical rules, Azizi achieves two things that are consistent with postcolonial principles. Firstly, he shows that language is a not an isolated matter, but changes over time, especially at the lower levels of society. And in the long run, language must integrate new elements. Secondly, the author distances himself from the Albanian intellectual elite, the puppet of Western hegemony, which has so far taken no steps in this regard and considers the popular language as an element of Albanian “backwardness.”

Azizi’s Terxhuman has also broken the conventions of artistic work that usually reproduce the dominant discourse—in the Albanian case, a self-humiliating discourse. To create an alternative discourse and to use it artistically demands at least twice as much work as simply chewing the dominant discourse.

So far, the postcolonial Albanian discourse has been produced only through scientific works, which Albanian elites continue to ignore. One example is the work of Behar Sadriu, who published an academic article in 2016 that argues that the war in Syria is used by Albanian political elites to promote the idea that Albanians are “good” European Muslims. Piro Rexhepi, too, has continuously analyzed the Balkans’ most marginalized societies, the Bosniaks, Albanians, and Roma, from a postcolonial perspective, as in his and Ajkuna Tafa’s 2017 documentary film Skopje, Sarajevo and Salonika – A Post-Ottoman Trilogy. A third example is Enis Sulstarova, whose 2006 book The Escape from the Orient: Albanian Orientalism from Naim Frashëri to Ismail Kadare is a monumental work of postcolonial Albanian thinking.

The greatest achievement of Terxhuman is that it introduces this way of thinking into the artistic sphere. In addition, Idlir Azizi has truly created a new vocabulary as well as a semantic and symbolic universe, illustrated by the expression “those countries with an oriental spirit, like albania,” which will make it possible to further spread Albanian postcolonialism.

The original version of this article was published in the Albanian cultural magazine Peizazhe të fjalës on November 19, 2018. Translated from Albanian into English by the author himself.

 A French translation of the original Albanian version was published in the French cultural magazine on December 5, 2018.

Adem Ferizaj is a researcher publishing in four languages (Albanian, German, French, and English). His work focuses on postcoloniality in the Balkans and the EU. He completed his trilingual (German, French, and English) BA in political sciences and sociology and an MA in international relations at Sciences Po Paris. He has worked for NGOs in Germany, Finland, and the Czech Republic, taught German in Kosovo, and is currently employed at one of the biggest television broadcasting services in Germany. You can follow Adem Ferizaj (@ademfer) on Twitter.


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