A visitor to Albania's ethnographical museum here could easily get the mistaken impression that Albanian peasants living in the 19th or early 20th centuries were all bald. The plastic dummies used in an exhibition depicting the peasantry's way of life prior to the communist takeover in 1945 are decked out in colorful folk costumes. But they are all completely hairless.
Questioned on this point, an Albanian guide explained that the models were imported at considerable expense from Italy and had arrived in Albania with long-haired wigs. "This was not our style, so we look them off," she
It says a lot about the monolithic nature of Albanian society that a ban on long hair applies even to the dead. It seems that the only exceptions to the rule are Marx and Engels, the founders of modern communism, whose bushy portraits are to be seen all over this obscure Balkan nation sandwiched between Yugoslavai and Greece.
The rigidity of Albania's unique form of communism is summed up in a slogan of Enver Hoxha, the country's Stalinist ruler. Displayed prominently at all border posts, it reads: "Even if we have to go without bread, we Albanians do not violate principles; we do not betray Marxism-Leninism."
The rest of Eastern Europe may be in turmoil as a result of the upheavals in Poland. But in Albania few concessions are made either to the consumer or to "bourgeois freedoms." Religion was abolished in 1967. Private cars are banned. So, too, is birth control, pop music, pornography, travel abroad, and all forms of cultural expression other than those sanctified by the Communist Party. And of course long hair.
Asked how left-handed children are treated under the Albanian educational system, a teacher replied: "Oh, we take great care of them. We tie their left hand to the desk and smack them whenever they try to use it."
A smartly dressed traffic policeman stands in the center of Tirana's Scanderbeg Square. It is probably the busiest crossroads in the entire country, but he has little to do. Approaching drivers sound their horn to receive individual attention and the occasional bicyclist stops for a chat.
Elsewhere in the square, two old men hug each other repeatedly in the middle of a pedestrian crossing oblivious to the remote possibility that they might be run over. A horse and cart (still the principal means of transport) trundles under a sign reading. "Hail Marxism-Leninism."
In a packed meat shop nearby, there are strictly segregated lines for men and women on either side of the store. When new supplies eventually arrive, the head of each line is served alternately.
The placid scene in the square becomes animated around five o'clock each evening, the start of the daily promenade, when what seems like Tirana's entire 200,000 population comes out on the streets. From the modern Palace of Culture (begun by the Soviet, carried on by the Chinese and finished by the Albanians themselves), they wander around Scanderbeg's statue and down the leafy Stalin Boulevard.
Given Albania's suspicion of outsiders, it is difficult for the foreign visitor to gauge what life is like for the ordinary Albanian. But one gets the odd insight. In the southern Adriatic resort of Sarande, a party of factory workers on vacation dutifully chants a hymn of praise to Hoxha before trooping off to bed. Clapping their hands in unison, they sing, "Enver Hoxha sharpens his sword."
At a textile factory, a worker named Donika Vanitali has a special plaque on her Chinese-built machine. It records that, during an eight-hour shift, she distinguished herself by producing 81 kilos of cotton thread instead of the planned 78.
Andrea Bode is not so fortunate. For the past few months, she has persistently failed to fulfill her quota. Along with several others, her name has been stuck up in red on the factory bulletin board and she is severely criticized at political meetings. Her pay also has been cut.
Other workers are criticized for arriving late or for "alien manifestations." The manager explains that this last category covers a variety of offenses ranging from listening to foreign radio stations to aping decadent Western fashions or displaying religious feelings.
All workers at the plant, whether male or female, are obliged to spend 17 days a year in military training. Special political classes are arranged at least two evenings a month with themes like "The Education of Albanian Youth in Marxist-Leninist Ideology." Home-work is set and marked to ensure that the lesson have been properly understood.
Living standards for Albanians still rank among the lowest in Europe. But there is little evidence of the grinding poverty or hunger that characterized prewar Albania -- and his is undoubtedly an impressive achievement for Hoxha. Some ethnic Albanians from the United States, returning for the first time in decades, talked enthusiastically about the number of new factories and the expansion of towns.
The average monthly wage is $90 -- and differentials are small. Even Albania's best-known writer, Ismail Kadare, whose works sell in tens of thousands of copies, receives a salary of only $110 a month. Rents are low (about $5 a month), but consumer goods such as television sets are scarce and expensive. Food supplies appear to compare favorably with some other East European countries such as Romania and Poland.
Apart from small household plots allocated to peasants, all private enterprise is forbidden. Officially, private produce must be sold through state marketing cooperatives. In the town of Elbasan, gypsies selling chickens on the black market disappeared rapidly when a policeman approached.
Thirteen years after Albania was formally declared the world's first atheist state, there is no outward sign of religious activity. At least 2,000 churches and mosques have either been pulled down or turned into sports arenas, youth centers or barns. In the northern town of Skoder, there is an atheist museum -- a showpiece for foreign visitors.
The guide lambasts the "antiscientific character of religion," claiming that "according to Moslem tradition, the earth is held up by a woman standing on top of an ox, which itself stands on top of a fish."
Blowing his nose in his hand, he adopts a tone of withering scorn: "We have proved this is not true."