AmericanCouncilsResearchFellowships major grants for independent, overseas research and language training

Title VIII Recipient Partners with Albanian NGO

03 Nov 2011

Title VIII Southeast European Language Training fellow Jonathan Eaton is making the most of his time studying in Albania. Jonathan -- a graduate student in anthropology from the University of Toronto -- reached out to a small Albanian NGO and was able to assist the organization with a heritage preservation project, all while improving his language skills. He reflects on the experience as follows:

A Concrete Collaboration in the City of Stone
By Jonathan Eaton, Title VIII Southeast European Language Training fellow
Tirana, Oct. 31 2011

With the support of the American Councils Title VIII SEEL grant, I had the chance to spend two weeks in mid-October living and learning in the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra. There I was able to pursue my passion for heritage preservation and explore this country’s fascinating recent past.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its remarkably preserved Ottoman-era town center, Gjirokastra hides a secret below its towering stone houses and cobbled streets. Deep underneath the city’s ancient castle, the Communist regime carved a vast network of tunnels and rooms in preparation for invasion and nuclear war. When it was constructed in the 1970s, this top secret complex was intended to house the top party and local government officials in the event of an invasion by NATO, Yugoslavia or the USSR, all of which were a concern for the paranoid regime. Such a space tells an alternative story of the city that lived and grew for centuries above the ground. For many local residents, the tunnels represent a history of pain, repression and intrigue. In the years since the fall of the old regime, they have been partially looted and then left to decay. Yet, a local NGO has seen these tunnels as an opportunity to help Albanians and foreigners alike learn about the harsh history of the Communist period in Albania. The Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization (GCDO), which has worked on projects ranging from historic restoration to local craftsmanship, is working to develop a Cold War museum there, relying on both exhibitions and the architectural integrity of the space to tell the story of these tunnels, this unique city and its relation to the world throughout those turbulent years.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to work on a volunteer basis with GCDO on this latest heritage project. My role has been to develop and implement a survey of local government officials, educators and citizenry, to write a progress and feasibility report on the project as a whole, and to help coordinate its collaboration with potential donors and scholars. In addition to being a fantastic experience in heritage management and development, my time spent in Gjirokastra has meant a massive boost in my Albanian language skills, as well. Any time spent outside of the capital Tirana provides many more opportunities for casual encounters and more prolonged discussions in Albanian. Back in Tirana, however, I can still collaborate on this heritage project while studying Albanian. I am helping GCDO draft an application for a cultural preservation grant that would restore the tunnel complex to a safe and sustainable state and open it to visitors as an exposition on the Communist period in Albanian history.