Cultural Inertia, the Old Lek and Theatre of the Absurd.
By: Ekphrasis Studio
(Note: This article was first published in 2010, and as of 2015 it is still relevant as ‘old lek’ is still commonly referred to by most consumers and on many leading television programmes and game shows.)
“Old Lek”. In Albania children use it. Teenagers use it. They were not yet born when the change was made, yet they overload their lexicon with extra decimal points, zeros and the words ‘old’ or ‘new’ before each mention of it.
Adults use it. While this may have a stronger argument for the continued use of the “old” lek, a similar transition more recently was embraced across Europe, when in early 2002, each member state had fully moved to the Euro, and abandoned the use (and words) of their legacy currencies.
The Albanian lek was introduced by King Zog in 1926, while the “new” lek first appeared in August of 1965, a few years before Albania was declared an Atheist state. That is 45 years ago. That is as long as the entire Enver Hoxha regime. So, one could argue that “old” lek could be called, “King Zog Lek” or even “Enver Hoxha” lek. Could it also be called “Absurd” lek?
Point 1 – Subverting logic. Like many situations in Absurd drama, use of the old lek in 2010 is logically impossible. The ‘old’ lek was officially used for 39 years, and it is now the 45th year since the ‘new’ lek was introduced. Instead of conforming (or even evolving over the course of decades) to the ‘new’ face-value lek, an absolutely un-real experience has been created where 1 is not 1, but 1 is 10. Although it is nonsense, it offers a chance to go beyond the superficiality of what is written on the money, even if only in the minds of those using it. It shakes up the conventional daily activities by making the money user wonder if a price is ‘new’ or ‘old’. Added to this confusion is the fact that most shopkeepers do not (in fact refuse to) display prices. However, it is usually without conflict, as both users of money know the real price and just insist on speaking a false price, as they have been doing for many years. It is not what is being said that matters, but the ‘hidden’, implied meaning, as in – 2,000 is really 200, and 50 is really 5. Some will even argue by pointing to the 500 written on the bill, stating that it says 5000!
In order to communicate effectively, one must use language properly, and use language that people are likely to understand.
However, Theatre of the Absurd sees this differently.
Point 2 – Distrust of language as a means of communication. Theatre of the Absurd very strongly suggests that language is an unreliable and insufficient tool of communication, by almost mocking language in using conventionalized speech, clichés, slogans and technical jargon…much like the use of the ‘old’ lek and its additional ‘new’/‘old’ reference before, as well as the extra decimal spaces and large numbers.
A buyer walks into a shop, and sees a store full of products, but no prices listed anywhere.
“How much are the potatoes?” she asks
“Six-thousand-five hundred-and-fifty-five old lek.”
The buyer then pays 655 ‘new’ lek, and continues on her way.
While this may appear as an amusing scene in a play, running a country should not be viewed as theatre!
The absurd philosophy of Albert Camus has suggested that in order to objectively view life, one must stop being an actor – which is the experience foreigners have upon arriving into the great theatre of the ‘old’ lek. As foreigners are not conditioned actors in the play, they very quickly see the silliness in it, just as one can see the silliness of joy when not enjoying it ones-self.
Point 3 – No clear time and place. Time, in many ways is stuck in Albania. Although many things are happening very quickly in the country, other things are not. Many people still live in conditions similar to decades ago, and most cannot freely travel abroad to compare the local state of time and place with that of elsewhere. As well, coincidentally, academics relate the emergence of Absurd theatre as a reaction to the disappearance of religion in the 20th century. The coincidence here lies in the fact that ‘new’ lek appeared about the same time religion was banned in Albania. Religion returned in 1991 after 30 years being outlawed and was fairly strongly embraced, however, the ‘new’ lek after 45 years has still not caught on. Change, quickly as it occurs in certain realms, it is resisted in others, as is the case with the ‘new’ lek.
Change. In the English language, we even use the word change as a concept of currency: small change, pocket change, spare change. Yet in Albania we are stuck in an absurd state over referring to a sum of money by a different number than is written on it. The ancient philosopher Hericlitus wrote words to the effect that ‘Life is flux”, meaning to resist change is to resist life.
Describing a coin that says 100 lek, as being one worth 1,000 lek, is not really much different than continuing to refer to Yugoslavia in 2010, but surely very few Albanians would actually still refer to Montenegro as Yugoslavia, or Podgorica as Titograd.
Language (like currency) will evolve, and can be seen in English words like thy, thou and thee, which are no longer used (or currencies such as peseta, franc and drachma which are little more than memories).
So why is Albania stuck so far in the past on this issue?
Lets look at the word Inertia. Inertia comes from the Latin word, “iners”, which means idle, or lazy. Idle refers to lack of motion or energy, and to be idle means to be doing nothing. Lazy, refers to slow moving or disinclined to work. With these words in mind, the picture begins to become slightly clearer.
Point 4 – Isolation and loneliness. In Absurd Theatre is often seen as an attempt to discuss man’s connection with the universe. As stated in Point 3, most Albanians still cannot freely travel abroad, due to visa restrictions. Many more cannot even travel far within the country and for them there is no doubt a sense of isolation. For those with loved ones abroad, a definite sense of loneliness. The lek is also isolated in that Albania does not produce much to give it value. ‘Old’ or ‘new’ lek, it is not a major global form of hard currency, thus relatively unimportant and somewhat idle. Couple this with unemployment estimates ranging from 12%-30%.
Going back to the word inertia, Isaac Newton defined it as “a power of resisting”, by which every body endeavours to preserve its present state, whether of rest, or moving forward in a straight line. Thus, an object not in motion would remain at rest until some force causes it to move.
If the object not in motion is the “old” lek, no such force has succeeded in making the popular change from “old” lek to “new” lek. Despite the decree Nr. 4028 “On the Currency Exchange” dated July 14, 1965, “old” lek is still referred to by government officials, media outlets, educators, and virtually every business in Albania, let alone by the people.
The 20th century philosopher Carl Jung claimed that “We inherit (predominantly from others) the greater part of our belief system at such a young age. The beliefs that we hold will remain in place and continue to influence the way in which we live our lives, unless we examine/challenge them, or learn from new experiences that bring them into question”
For decades in Albania, one of the most regular daily exchanges has not been challenged and saying 1,000 to mean 100 is as prevalent as ever, and this does not appear likely to ameliorate itself any time soon – even in the year 2010!
Culture is comprised of self-reinforcing cycles, which can be affirmed in Jung`s claim that we inherit the greater part of our beliefs. We look to others for assurance in our actions and they look to us for confidence in theirs. This concept can be seen as a type of civic renewal. Families reinforce values, and it seems the case that grandmothers and parents feel better telling their kids “here’s ‘300 old lek’ for a snack”, instead of the real 30 lek that is printed on it. These values, like the ‘old’ lek are absurd!