October 2004

A commendable book,
“Mirash Ivanaj – a brilliant star in the Albanian firmament”

By  Pertefe Leka

Mirash Ivanaj – An Accomplished Albanian FigureDr. Iljaz Gogaj places Prof. Dr. Mirash Ivanaj where he belongs in the Albanian history, if one considers the latter’s proclaimed credo:
“It has always been my firm will to serve my homeland in any possible way, and unconditionally when it comes to my country’s benefit.”

This powerful dictum marks the start and the endpoint of the book author’s work of many years in investigating Mirash Ivanaj’s illustrious personality and his multifaceted activity.

Having been given the chance to study for years the records of the Ivanaj family stored into Albania’s State Archives, Iljaz Gogaj has strived to restore and describe the complex figure of this erudite and wise man – one of the most knowledgeable people that Albania has ever had in the fields of education and jurisprudence.

Through a highly professional review of the rich archival and bibliographical data, the author discovers events, facts, and testimonials by public personalities and common people, who complement what is known on Ivanaj’s role in the development and progress of schooling and education in Albania, during the years 1920-1930.

Dr. Iljaz Gogaj has authored a number of papers and articles, as well as eight books on the history of Albanian education and pedagogy, through different periods. He spent a long time with the present book, managing to publish it at the very moment when Albanians need examples of the kind. He started to approach the topic at a time when one couldn’t even mention M. Ivanaj’s name with impunity; then he was able to keep going by researching personal journals of Ivanaj’s former students; accounts and memoirs by Ivanaj family’s acquaintances and people who had shared with him the prison experience, informal conversations in Tuz1  (Montenegro), recollections of family members and relatives, and last, but not least, Skënder Luarasi’s posthumous notes published by his son, Petro Luarasi.

In the period following the year 1990, many authors and researchers have published papers and articles on M. Ivanaj. These contributions stand on their own, and help reveal different aspects of Ivanaj’s personality, according to the points of view chosen by their authors.

Other papers presented in scientific conferences on Prof. Dr. M. Ivanaj will soon be published, due to their value in establishing historical truth. Gogaj’s book is nevertheless the most complete contribution on the topic, because it covers the many stages of M. Ivanaj’s life and presents to the reader this noble Albanian’s soul in itself, in the context of the epoch.

The book begins with Ivanaj family’s historical background. Even though the family tree, dating back to 1444, has not been provided, the author depicts ample data on the family ancestors. The brothers Doda and Leka (Mirash’s father and uncle) are still remembered in the area of Triesh (Tuz), for their gallantry and courage. Doda, the father, had been sentenced to death three times by the foreign rulers2 , because of his attempts to organize some form of autonomy in the region.

Chapters that follow a chronological line and give a detailed account of M. Ivanaj’s biography, structure this book. It is the author’s merit to have identified new ground worthy of further research by his colleagues in the future.

After describing the geography of the region where Mirash was born and grew up, the author’s account becomes more detailed when the two brothers, Martin and Mirash, attend school together and excel as students and for their literary gifts.

After graduating from high school with honors, Mirash earns two university degrees, in literature and jurisprudence, by the Royal University3  in Rome, Italy. He has already made a name for himself, and could have easily found a position in the Academia. Nevertheless, he decides to return to his homeland, where he believes “he is needed”.

A separate chapter deals with the period in which he works as the editor-in-chief of the “Republika” newspaper, while penning a number of articles that tackle hot issues of some urgency for the time.

A devotee of the Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, Ivanaj considered the republic to be the only rightful and logical form of government. It is no accident that, as part of his newspaper’s political statute, he included an article demanding public education of the Albanians. “Taking into account Albania’s deplorable religious tripartite, only a unified national school would guarantee the national unity,” Ivanaj says.

With regard to the government, “Republika” firmly asked for political stability based on republican ideas, so that the state would run based on a strong and stable system of laws.

Gogaj doesn’t go into much detail when it comes to Ivanaj brothers’ literary exploits in Serbo-Croatian. He just refers the reader to Lazer Radi’s [1993] book, about Martin & Mirash Ivanaj “Epopeja e Njeriut” (“The Epos of Man” by Martin and Mirash Ivanaj), in which some of their poems have been translated into Albanian. Other authors lately have rendered some of these poems in English. Photocopies of the originals4  kept by Drita Ivanaj (Mirash’s niece) might represent an attractive challenge for researchers willing to undertake their translation and commentary.

The most interesting chapter in the book deals with M. Ivanaj’s term as principal of the Public High School in Shkodra (1925). Having started as a teacher, subsequently promoted to principal, M. Ivanaj managed to redesign the entire structure of this institution from its very foundations, with regard to what was being taught to the students and the methods used for that purpose. He was able to transform the school into a place where students of different religious persuasions could interact in harmony. The school’s mission was, according to M. Ivanaj, to prepare devoted Albanian citizens of a unified national outlook. A church-going Catholic with an unyielding faith in God, M. Ivanaj showed sincere consideration for the other faiths. For this reason the citizens of Shkodra used to think that Ivanaj’s school was safe for their children’s faith and morality. As a result, not only Catholic parents would take their kids unhesitatingly to a public high school, but also Muslim parents wouldn’t object to their kids attending a school managed by a Catholic principal.

At that time, the public high school programs in Albania were based on the French high school programs adopted by the Teachers’ Congress in 1922. Holding reservations towards implementation aspects of these programs, Ivanaj did all he could to help build an authentic student’s national education without compromising the more generic scientific and cultural goals.

The book contains the historic photo of the first class to graduate from the Public High School in Shkodra, showing a group of capable young teachers, who would later apply the Mirash’s wise teachings in real life (the first six graduates of Shkodra High School, namely Qamil Golemi, Jahja Domnori, Refik Shpuza, Rexhep Bërdica, Xhemal Lopci and Ahmet Ashikja, with the imposing principal M. Ivanaj in their middle). Mirash himself had to say enthusiastically: “…a maturity exam in the Albanian language takes place for the first time in a public high school in Albania. May this be a lucky step forward that would also mark the beginning of an independent Albanian nation in the field of education.”

The book draws data from a number of memoirs, notes and journals by former students of the aforementioned high school, although there remains a lot more information worthy of historical investigation and interpretation. The notes conserved by the families of Qamil Golemi of Shkodra and Zarif Shehu of Tirana – both well-respected teachers in their time – are of utmost interest in the field of the history of education in Albania, because they reflect a certain purity of values and the recognition of national ideals.

The high school students had the opportunity to practice Ivanaj’s teachings. In November 28th5  , 1927, they took to the streets, marched to the city center and asked that the Italian flag, raised alongside the Albanian one at the State Bank in Shkodra, be lowered. When the students Jahja Domnori, Jup Kazazi and Agustin Shestani tried to pull the flag down by force, the police intervened and arrested them. On this incident, Jakov Milaj writes in his memoirs: “as the police asked the principal to exert his authority with the students, Ivanaj summoned the students in his office and told them tenderly that they now were old enough to understand what was good and what wasn’t good for the homeland, and that his only advice for them was to mind their studies, because otherwise they would not know what to do.”  “These words – Milaj writes – sounded like an approval to us, maybe even more.”

Mirash Ivanaj gave a lot of importance to extra-curricular pursuits, sports, arts, culture and recreation. He was himself among the founders of the “Besa Shqiptare” association (“Albanian Pledge”) of the public high school students in Shkodra. His efforts also addressed the need for fraternization among students originating from different Albanian regions – such as Dibra and Kosova, Ulqin and Chamuria.

Anecdotic information provided by the 100-year-old physical educator, Irfan Tërshana – a friend and colleague of M. Ivanaj – confirms the great work done during that time for building sport grounds using not only public money but also Ivanaj’s own funds. The goal was to attract as many students as possible to the public high school, in competition with the private6 schools that failed to follow the public education programs. Later, as a government member, Ivanaj would create the National Federation of “Vllaznia Shqiptare” (“Albanian Brotherhood”), which aimed at uniting the Albanian youth in a single solid national entity against outside threats.

In the field of music, he demanded the creation of the school choir and of a small brass ensemble.

He advised students on their after-school readings in order for them to broaden their cultural horizon; insisting on what Fan Noli and Skënder Luarasi had translated from the world classics. He often let them borrow books from his own personal library, deemed to be one of the largest private6  one of that time in Albania (16,000 volumes). He also appreciated folk culture and encouraged teachers to collect folklore, promising them that their work would be published. He was interested in archaeology and assigned passionate instructors to keep abreast of the excavations carried out in Buthrintos and Apollonia7  by foreign teams of archaeologists. By mentioning all these activities, the book paints a complete portrait of Ivanaj’s, while showing his many links with personalities of Albanian national education, outstanding writers and renowned intellectuals: Aleksandër Xhuvani and Mati Logoreci, Safet Butka and Hilë Mosi, Anton Deda and Gjergj Kokoshi; the journalists Xhevat Kallajxhi and Nebil Cika; the famous architect Qemal Butka; his political prison pals Mitrush Kuteli, Jakov Milaj, and his close friend Demir Vila. The author also mentions Ivanaj’s relationship with Branko Merxhani, with whom he shared his exile in Turkey; as these two scholars laid the foundations of the modern Albanian philosophical thought, there is room for further research on this relationship.

Mirash’s elder brother, Martin, further complements the former personality; because he was a brother, a friend and a companion, says the author. The book doesn’t disclose much on Martin, since a separate volume is being prepared on his many contributions in the field of jurisprudence and in the study of the Code of Lek Dukagjini8 . As a lawyer, a Head of the Court of Review (Supreme Court, in English), and a member of the State Council, Martin Ivanaj built a solid reputation as an expert and skillful interpreter of State Law, in the name of Justice.

Martin’s daughter and Mirash’s niece, Drita, occupies a well-deserved space in the book. She is the only heir of the family, and proudly holds up to her parents’ prominent heritage. Her name Drita (“light”, in Albanian) now also stands for the effect her family has had on the Albanian nation. Her efforts to create two foundations, one in New York and one in Tirana, Albania, exemplify this mission further.

The author himself acknowledges in the book’s preamble that its publication was made possible thanks to generous help by the “M. & M. Ivanaj” Foundations in New York and Tirana, as well as by Rrok & Victoria Ujkaj in Detroit.

The book’s central chapter deals with a momentous development in Ivanaj’s life: his transfer to Tirana, first as an instructor and later as Minister of Education and President of the State Council. He became well known at that time not simply because of the high position he was given, but for introducing radical reforms in the school system.

He accepted the post of minister because he thought it to be in Albania’s national interest, even though, as a republican, his convictions conflicted with the very idea of serving the King. On the other hand, King Zog’s shrewd decision to have him nominated for an important government position was due to the King’s being aware of the benefits of having someone with the skills and incorruptibility of Ivanaj in charge of education and other sectors.

The many telegrams sent from Shkodra and from other regions all over the country – not to mention those from the Albanian Diaspora and Albanian students abroad – attest how well Ivanaj’s government nomination was received.

The “Gazeta e Korçës” (“The Korça’s Gazette”) newspaper portrays M. Ivanaj as follows: “A firm will – German-like; an inexhaustible eagerness for work – American-like; an entirely democratic stance towards his dependents – Frenchman-like; a fascinating aplomb which can’t but elicit sympathy – Englishman-like; and last, but not least, an optimistic enthusiasm and an unfaltering sense of direction – Italian-like.”

Prof. Ahmet Gashi, a well-respected teacher from Kosova, would write in his greeting cable: “Our national education found its real leader in your person.”

As Minister of Education, Ivanaj would put his intellectual abilities entirely in service of the school reform. This reform wasn’t just about the abolition of private schools in Albania, but dealt with the whole schooling structure. Ivanaj had undertaken an analytical survey of Albanian schools including the private institutions. He requested of the private schools to adhere to both the public programs and their own special programs. Upon receiving non-compliable responses, he decided to abolish the private schools altogether.

The reform proposals that Ivanaj presented to the Albanian Parliament were well researched and fully backed up with proper arguments. As such, they were met with enthusiastic approval. Ivanaj’s friend, Demir Vila, would call the amendments to the Kingdom’s Constitutional Law as “shimmering gems” and “inextinguishable lights” which would show the young Albanian generations the path to their country’s prosperity.

The main points of the reforms included: the abolition of private and foreign schools, both elementary and secondary; the professional evaluation of teachers and their treatment; the students’ code of conduct and disciplinary rules; the public school budget, resources and equipment; the new criteria for planning and awarding scholarships; issues of methodology and documentation; the new guidelines for culture and arts; sanitary requirements and the need for cleanliness and protection of students’ health.

Xhevat Kallajxhiu’s “Democracia” newspaper (“Democracy”, in English), published in the southern tip of the country, would express its enthusiasm for the reforms, and stated that  “only the public school is able to rise above the religious differences and create that kind of fraternization on which the new Albania will stand.” Further south, Athens objected to the nationalization of the school system, perceiving it as an obstacle to the free flow of the Greek propaganda towards Albania. The Greek government brought the issue up in the League of Nations, via a petition containing other issues unrelated to the schooling for the Greek minority in Albania. At the same time, there was talk in Greece about a possible armed intervention in Albanian territory, to “liberate” Northern Epirus (The Andartes association, February 18, 1934). The Albanian envoy in Geneva, Mehdi Frashëri, rejected the Greek allegation, but couldn’t stop the League of Nations from asking the re-opening of private schools in minority territory in Albania; but that very same League declined to hear anything about how Albanian kids fared in their schools in Kosova and Chamuria. With regard to the complaints by the Catholic clergy in Shkodër, Ivanaj had this to say: “Catholic parents not only have never complained with the government, but they eagerly continue to send their children to public school. The reforms were voted, after all, by the Catholic MPs too.”

Among the institutions affected by these reforms were Harry Fultz school and the American Youth Red Cross; but their reaction was balanced, and they refrained from expressing their dissent in public, which proves that their activity in Albania didn’t serve any political or subversive purpose, or even interests contrary to Albania’s national ones. Ivanaj was well aware of this, but he also knew the law had to be enforced with impartiality. Ironically, the Communists would accuse him later, in court, for being pro-American…

The Italian government, on the other hand, didn’t dissimulate its overall disappointment, since the reform would hinder the Italian influence in the areas of language, culture and religion, which were crucial to streamlining of the Italian expansion in Albania.

The Minister’s resignation was to be expected. A man of firm character and used to accomplishing whatever tasks he had set to himself, he could hardly bear with interferences in the path of reform implementation. The letters sent to M. Ivanaj by personalities and other people after his resignation show that the support for his efforts was large and strong, and his ideas would withstand the trial of time. The reform in education would turn out to be Ivanaj’s greatest achievement, which would confirm his unmatched administrative skills, broad cultural horizon, sound logic, ability to look forward, and inflexible will.

Ninety per cent of the teachers were of the opinion that Ivanaj’s times were gone for good, the papers wrote in those days. The great artist Marie Kraja, who used to be a teacher in that period, would stress the impact of the reform on Albanian woman’s emancipation. This is confirmed today by the several generations of woman teachers and members of the intelligentsia who graduated from the “Nana Mbretneshë” (“Queen Mother”) Institute.

M. Ivanaj was the first Minister of Education to demand and contend the need for high school students to wear distinctive uniforms.

In spite of Ivanaj’s resignation from his government position, King Zog held his abilities in high esteem and could not afford to leave him out of the highest echelons of the Albanian state. In appreciation, the King presented the former minister with the “Commander of the Scanderbeg Order”.

The King therefore named Ivanaj President of the State Council, given that Ivanaj possessed a lawyer’s diploma too. An organism with consultative, not political functions, the State Council had a role in the juridical consolidation of the Albanian state of law.

As President of the State Council, Ivanaj showed his exemplary lawyer skills. It was at that time that he undertook the publication of the whole corpus of the Albanian legislation during the years 1912-1937, even though he couldn’t implement this project due to Italy’s military occupation of Albania in 1939.

In his journal, M. Ivanaj mentions his taking part in the wave of popular protests, alongside Qemal Butka, and their demand for being given weapons so that they could actually fight against the occupying force. He also has words of praise for Safet Butka, the leader of the high school students’ protest. It was a black day for Albania, and a black day for M. Ivanaj too, who had to leave the country together with many other intellectuals.

A note of sadness permeates the chapters centered on Ivanaj’s life in exile, his brother Martin’s death, and finally his return to Albania hopeful that his help would be needed, to bring the country back to life.

He was even cordially received by the communist leader Enver Hoxha, although the latter would never forgive Ivanaj the decision to suspend his student’s scholarship, due to neglect of exam requirements.

Once WWII was over, Mirash Ivanaj could have gone back to Italy and found easy employment and help from all those who knew about his many skills and qualities. He chose Albania nevertheless, but only to be punished with arrest, imprisonment, tortures and death behind the bars. His life ended tragically, but his reputation and glory live on. The nation could never forget him, the author writes, because he had already become a living incarnation of the most essential Albanian values.

The book ends with Mirash Ivanaj’s physical and moral portrait, reconstructed through the data that the author has been able to collect; and especially letters, telegrams, articles, private communications and literature; but also speeches in Parliament, and the minutes of two audiences: with King Zog and the dictator Hoxha. The most valuable source has been, nevertheless, the correspondence between the two brothers. There are more than a thousand pages of correspondence for the years 1925-1926, that isn’t just centered on private concerns and issues, but also deals with major problems for the Albanian nation and people.

The author himself has put a lot of emotion in this documentary effort, by erecting a monument to Ivanaj’s honor. His artful portrait and description will keep its significance for future Albanian generations. Gogaj writes: “among illustrious lives, Mirash Ivanaj’s is to be envied, because the intense focusing on an idea set off the fire through which his individuality shines on.”

The book is valuable not only for its contributions in history, but because it prods the reader to positive action. As such, it has a lot to give to teachers, students, sociologists, linguists, politicians, journalists, writers, and managers.

It is also to be considered as an appeal to all Albanians to unite, wherever they are, in order to work together for the benefit of Albania and the future Albanian generations.

As the author states it himself, “All those who want to lead the people toward new horizons, and who really strive to do something for their country’s progress, should never forget to demand from themselves qualities as preciously rare as Ivanaj’s.”

1. M. Ivanaj’s birthplace.
2. The Ottoman Empire domination of the Albanian regions lasted throughout five centuries.
3. Now known as  “La Sapienza”.
4. Available in the National Archives of Belgrade; they are dating back to the very early 1900’s.
5. November 28th is observed annually by Albanians, throughout the world, as “Albania’s Independence Day” since the year of its establishment in 1912.
6. Public Libraries did not exist in Albania in those days.
7. These archeological sites are located in southern Albania. In 1992 Butrinti was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List
8. Set of customary laws attributed to Albanian prince Lekë Dukagjini, passed down verbally through  generations, until written in the 19th century, and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo from the 15th until the  20th century.