Sunday, May 8, 2011

Albanians Getting Fresh With Malcolm X?

Last week I arrived in Tirana and noticed a car that had a Malcolm-X type “X” cardboard placard hanging from its rearview mirror.   At first I thought nothing of it, as it’s not uncommon to see various iconic symbols in all parts of the world.

But then, as the day progressed, I spotted more and more cars with the “X” symbol hanging from the rearview mirrors.  Now I was getting curious.  Are the Albanians big fans of Malcolm X?  Or, perhaps, did this “X” symbol mean something different to the Albanians than it did to me? 

Also around town I could see that some kind of election was about to take place as the streets are plastered with candidates’ campaign posters.  I learned that local elections—for Tirana’s mayor and other positions—were slated for the following Sunday (today).  I thought—because the X seemed to be everywhere—perhaps one of the local candidates had co-opted it as part of a political campaign.

By mid-week, this X thing had really gotten my curiosity up.  I began to ask every English-speaking Albanian I encountered:  Do you know who Malcolm X is?  No one did.  I took pictures of the X and showed people.  Do you know what this means?  No, they didn’t.  Or, “it’s an “X,” they’d say.  But does it have any special meaning? I’d ask in follow-up.  No, was invariably the answer.

On the way back from F. Kruge, our bus had an orange X hanging from the mirror.  I asked a young Albanian about it.  He told me:  “It’s for freshening the air.”  That was a new piece of information, finally, but I still wasn’t satisfied.

I pressed further.  But does the “X” here have any special meaning?  “I don’t think so,” he said.  “But I know three X-es together means something bad.”  I think he was referring to something that is “triple-X,” but I didn’t want to go down that road.  Later in the day I re-confirmed with my hostel host:  the X cards hanging from the rearview mirrors are indeed car fresheners.

This, of course, just raised more questions.  Was this actually Malcolm’s X symbol on the car freshener?  Or did it have nothing to do with Malcolm X?  Was it the Roman numeral for ten?  Was it just an X?  And if so, why X?  Why not Y or Z?

Of course, I hit Google and found a couple stories from 1992 discussing the then-current release of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.  Back then, items bearing an “X” or Malcolm's image reportedly became a $100 million industry.  The items included the more popular hats and T-shirts, and also—I learned—Malcolm X car fresheners. 

One November 1992 story from the Baltimore Sun quoted the maker of the air freshener as saying he anticipated selling the item “in the millions.”  In reading this, I started to suspect that perhaps, nearly two decades later, someone had a glut of these fresheners in a warehouse somewhere and pawned them off on Albania.  But that scarcely makes sense.  How could the fresheners have retained their efficacy for 19 years?

Last night, I went to a recommended restaurant that serves delicious Albanian fare.  I feasted on the most scrumptious  stuffed peppers (they call it stuffed paprika) while I finished reading my latest hostel book-exchange selection concerning another famous American leader; this one Frederick Douglass.  My waiter was friendly and chatty, so I gave the Malcolm-X thing one last try. 

“Do you know who Malcolm X is?” I asked.  He did.  He told me he learned about him in school.  I told him what was on my mind about the car fresheners.  My waiter explained that perhaps this was the Malcolm X symbol, but he is quite certain that 90% of Albanians are not familiar with Malcolm X.

I have a bad habit of wasting time in self-created rabbit holes, and I’m afraid this is yet another example.  I now have spent six days thinking about this, and I’m still not to the bottom of it.  I have to let it go, I know.  For one thing, I’ve got to go pack and hop a bus to the next town of Berat.  I’m hoping the bus won’t have an X-freshener hanging on the rearview mirror because, seriously, I can’t take it anymore. 

A mural painted in a local restaurant.  I see Martin, but no Malcolm.