8 September 2017
It is a timely moment, in the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari’s centenary year, to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable individual has made to Albania’s cultural and political life.

Musine’s youth, inspiration, imagination
Musine Kokalari was born on 10 February 1917 in Adana, Turkey to a progressive family. The Kokalaris returned to Albania in 1920. The family was at the centre of literary and political activity. At an early age, Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore.

In 1938, Musine embarked on university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. Musine kept a diary about life under fascist rule. My University Life was later published . In 1941, she published her first book As My Grandma Says. In 1942, Musine graduated with distinction.

Musine as a writer and political dissident
During her studies, Musine was active in anti-fascist and anti-communist movements, and she continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942. Musine co-founded The Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result, the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front kept the family under close surveillance. Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed. Musine herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945.

Musine’s trial
Musine was involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections and for multi-party elections. Musine hoped that representatives (from the United Kingdom and the United States) would monitor the elections. The 37 members of the Coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation.

In 1946, Musine stood before the military court in Tirana. The authorities and bystanders threatened, intimidated and coerced her. Musine’s trial was transmitted live via loudspeakers to the public outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her image made the front page of the broadsheets two days running.

Musine’s imprisonment, exile and legacy
Musine served 16 years of a twenty-year sentence. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer in construction. Musine remained resilient. Remarkably, Musine managed to complete, in secret, How the Social Democratic Party was Founded in the 1970s. In 1983, she passed away, two years before the decline of the Albanian dictatorship, from cancer.

The near full isolation imposed on Musine by the Communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world the powerful voice and writings of Musine Kokalari.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on Musine Kokalari.

For the viewer Musine’s image captures an important experience with the law. This is not only an account of the maladministration of justice; such an account of the crime transcends the past and becomes critical to realising justice and for memory, when it becomes part of current discourses about the communist past.

Agata is curating an exhibit of photographs of Musine for the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. The exhibit opens in the week 11 September and closes 16 October 2017. See https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk (What’s On). A short, ‘arty’ film of Musine making her court statement accompanies the exhibit. Come and be inspired!