A safe place to land

Jonida Beqo fled communist rule in Albania and found freedom on an Atlanta stage. Arts writer Andrew Alexander tells her improbable journey of oppression, violence – and triumph


EVENT PREVIEW

"Harabel." 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 3 and Nov. 9. Through Nov. 10. $20-$35. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. NW Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849.

Explorewww.theatricaloutfit.org

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Andrew Alexander saw a preview performance of Jonida Beqo’s show “Harabel” when it was in development earlier this year and knew right away she would make a fascinating subject for Personal Journeys. In the midst of a busy fall season covering the arts, Andrew said this was a story he found himself returning to again and again. “When other stories had been filed away, I pulled this one out and pored over the words, thinking about how to best honor Beqo and her amazing story,” he said. The AJC is grateful for Jonida’s generosity during the long interview process and the trust she put in us to tell her story.

Suzanne Van Atten

Features Enterprise Editor

personaljourneys@ajc.com

ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER

Andrew Alexander is an independent arts journalist working in Atlanta, where he has lived off and on since the age of 2. He loves art, travel, bourbon and old records. In September, readers voted him Atlanta's Best Art Critic in Creative Loafing's annual Best of Atlanta issue.

Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.

Tell us your Personal Journey at personaljourneys@ajc.com.

Jonida Beqo knows the backstage rooms at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s well. As a costume designer for Theatrical Outfit, she’s often found there searching through the stock room for a cap in just the right shade of blue or measuring an actor’s sleeve-length in the rehearsal hall. Actresses love to perform in the beautiful dresses Jonida, 32, makes. Other designers have been known to gather around to watch the way she sews a double hem, marveling at her effortless speed, the tightness of her stitches.

Audiences see the results of her work — the elegant topcoat of a Victorian gentleman or the dirty apron of the farmhand’s wife or the crisp uniform of a hotel maid. But they never see her. If an audience can forget she exists, then she has done her job well.

But this night is different. It is opening night of the show Jonida has written, a play in which there are no costumes to speak of and only one performer. She prepares alone in a bare dressing room, a drawing of Pippi Longstocking by her daughter on the table in front of the mirror, gospel music playing on her iPad. She finishes her make-up and stands, solemnly stretching like a swimmer preparing for a long-distance race.

For the next three weeks Jonida (Yo-need-ah) will step out from behind the scenes and stand alone on the stage to tell a story, one she calls “Harabel.” The word means sparrow, a small thing, often forgotten, nearly invisible. It is the story of a girlhood in one of the most isolated and authoritarian countries in the world, of an adolescence in a region torn by violence, of a journey to adulthood in a strange new country.

It is the story of becoming an American, becoming an artist, becoming visible. It is the story of her life.

Beginnings

Jonida was born in Albania under one of the strictest communist regimes in history. The capital Tirana where she lived is only about 150 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the coast of Italy — the ancient cradle of Western civilization, the modern European democracy — but it might as well have been worlds away. Even as a child she understood that the Albanian government controlled what came in, which was very little, and what got out, which was even less.

Although naturally talkative and outgoing, Jonida learned a sense of guardedness from her father, Atdhe, a mechanical engineer, who was labeled a silent dissident by the government.

“There were always people who were opposed to the regime, and my father was such a man,” Jonida says. “He was not allowed to go to college because he had poor political standing. But he was very talented at what he did, so he was pressured to perform.”

Atdhe taught his children — Jonida and her younger brother Rubin — to think critically, to not believe everything the government said and to parse their words carefully. And he planted the idea that freedom was obtainable in the United States.

“He had this ideal of America as a place where people are free to do what they want,” she says. “I was exposed to the notion of this great country, the idea of freedom and democracy…”

Jonida and her brother slept in the living room of their family’s tiny one-bedroom apartment in a crowded five-story concrete building in a row of others just like it. Her father was a clever tinkerer. The sturdy little bunk bed he built for his children was the envy of the apartment block. He secretly extended the family’s TV antenna to get news from beyond Albania’s borders. Though she understood little of it, Jonida loved to watch Disney cartoons and “Saved by the Bell” dubbed in Italian, transmissions, it seemed, from another world.

One of Jonida’s favorite activities was to visit her librarian mother, Dallandyshe, at work. When no one was looking, she would slip into a little windowless back room where books banned by the government were kept. There she would read forbidden texts: Jack London, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

“A lot of American literature was forbidden,” she says. “Some of them, it’s ridiculous in retrospect. Why the genius of Theodore Dreiser would be forbidden? Like Jack London, it captures the spirit of entrepreneurialism, you could achieve something by yourself.”

The Albanian government was the last communist holdout in Europe outside of Russia when it fell in 1992. The country opened up and a sea of words poured in: Jack Kerouac, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, José Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsburg. Jonida, 12 at the time, read the last one again and again. Half of it didn’t make sense — those references to interstates and Wichita and Bessie Smith — but the rhythm of it, the unusual and daring breaking of the lines, was exhilarating.

“For 50 years we were under one of the toughest communist regimes in history, same as North Korea,” she said. “For many years, people on the outside didn’t even know what went on. America was always depicted as the imperialist threat to our ‘utopia.’ When it changed, everyone’s eyes turned toward America.”

First Christmas

One day a friend invited Jonida, 15, to visit a place she had never been before. For most her life, it had been illegal to go there. Just the word suggested something illicit, taboo: Kishë, church.

Under communist rule, atheism was constitutional law in Albania. All religious buildings had been repurposed or destroyed. Talk of spirituality was forbidden. Jonida had seen churches in movies before — vast cathedrals with soaring arches, beautiful altars, stained glass — but this place was just a plain classroom above a gym, with folding plastic chairs and a music stand doubling as a podium.

It was Christmas Eve and the room was packed. American missionaries told the story of the birth of Christ, and they introduced a young Albanian man named Erion, who delivered the sermon.

Afterwards, visitors were encouraged to stay around and ask questions. Jonida sat with Erion and they talked about atonement, the Christian belief that the death of Jesus pardoned mankind’s sins.

We are all broken people, he told her. The words hit home. Broken people.

“It made sense to me,” she says. “I just got it. We did a lot of debating and then I prayed with him and that’s how I received Christ’s forgiveness. It made a radical change in my life. For two and a half years I got very involved there with the church and in the community.”

Jonida’s parents didn’t understand her conversion, but they were supportive.

The period after communism was a time of great unrest in Albania. In civil war there are sides, an eventual victor and a loser. There were no distinguishable sides in Albania in early 1997, just chaos. No police, no military, no government, no school. Economic collapse, coupled with the looting of military arms, resulted in rampant violence.

Jonida’s mother often began the day by sweeping gun shells off the balcony. Her younger brother was so frightened by the random gunfire outside their home, he wouldn’t sleep in the top bunk anymore but climbed down each night to curl up next to his sister.

Neighborhood boys, who months earlier were playing soccer in the street, carried AK-47s. When they were bored, they would use hand grenades for target practice while residents watched in terror. One night, boys stole a tank from an abandoned military yard and drove it through the neighborhood. Eventually they turned it into a business, charging for rides. With telephone service out, people would pay a lot for a safe trip to a relative’s house to see if everyone was still alive.

The UN finally sent in peace-keeping forces, and the people of Tirana tried to resume their daily lives. They returned to work and school. They returned to the looted shops to see if there was bread to buy. They dusted themselves off, swept up the rubble, scrubbed away the obscene graffiti, and they started to live their lives again.

And incredibly, they fell in love.

On Erion and Jonida’s first date, they went to the zoo and were shocked to find the cages empty, the doors open. They walked from cage to cage, reading the labels, imagining the animals that lived there. And Erion talked about America, the place where people were free to study what they chose, to live where they liked, to become whatever they wanted. His sister was married to one of the American missionaries, he said, and he planned to study there one day.

They dated for a year before becoming engaged.

“I truly fell in love with him just by knowing him and knowing his heart,” she said.

As Jonida imagined a future with her fiance, she found comfort in reading the Book of Psalms.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young in Your altars. Psalms 84:3.

She pictured a tiny, vulnerable sparrow flying above the barren earth, above the devastation, the machine gun fire, the barbed wire, the minefields. Where were the altars in which to find a home? To stop, to land anywhere was to die. Leaving seemed the only hope for a better life.

The journey

The place of hope in America had a strange name. Jonida practiced saying it to herself in 1998 as she packed two suitcases: one for clothes, one for books.

Decatur, Alabama.

Erion’s brother-in-law was from there and knew people who could help the young immigrants get settled.

“It was a ticket out, a pragmatic decision,” Jonida says. “I believe there was an element of providence in it.”

Her parents were sad to see her go but eager for her to continue her studies in America. She had finished high school the year before, and they knew it was for the best.

Government agencies in Albania were so haphazard at the time, the passport Jonida was given looked fake. An air bubble trapped in the plastic lamination obscured her photo. On the first leg of Jonida and Erion’s journey to Vienna, an Austrian flight attendant snatched her passport away and spent the flight examining it, pushing at the air bubble with his thumb. When they landed, he handed them over to Austrian authorities who questioned them for hours. They were finally released when Erion convinced them they had no intention of staying in Austria.

At JFK, it was a similar story. After hours of questioning they finally were permitted through customs into America. It was late and they had to spend the night in New York before flying on to Atlanta and driving to Alabama, so Erion found a cheap motel near the airport.

On their first night in the land of freedom and democracy, there were broken expectations in the leaky faucet, the dirty bedspread, the wheezing, dripping air conditioner. Although she was exhausted, Jonida lay awake staring at the ceiling, wondering if a mirror over the bed was an American custom she would one day understand.

In Alabama, Jonida lived with a host family and Erion lived with a group of students across town. He studied math in Huntsville and she attended Calhoun Community College. Before arriving in Alabama, Jonida had imagined she would find a close-knit circle of students discussing poetry, music and philosophy at her new school. But she found little community there. Most of the students were older, with jobs and families that pulled them away the moment class was over. She was the entire international student body. Christiane Amanpour was on CNN every day reporting from Albania, but when Jonida told people where she was from, they said they'd never heard of it.

Delighted to learn that Decatur had so many churches, Jonida soon discovered not all Christians were like the ones she knew in Albania. To her, faith meant freedom. Here, church leaders seemed more interested in proscribing do’s and don’t’s that condemned those who didn’t fit a particular framework.

She’d never felt more alone in her life.

Years later, Jonida would hear the term “post-traumatic stress,” and she would know that it described what was happening to her during her first months in Alabama. But no one ever spoke of such things in Albania, and no one spoke of them in Alabama either.

Not long after their arrival in Decatur, Erion was diagnosed with arthritis of the spine. Jonida realized she needed an income. In Albania, a handmade dress was a make-do necessity, but here, she was surprised to learn, it was a luxury. Sewing was a skill she’d learned watching the women in her family, so she placed an ad on Craig’s List. Soon she built a clientele of wealthy women, women whose last names adorned hospitals and museum wings. They liked her work, and they seemed to like her because she was quiet. She wondered if this could be her life: The girl who sews, the one people barely notice, the one from some unimportant little country that no one had ever heard of or cared to know about.

Becoming Gypsee Yo

One day at school, Jonida spotted an audition notice for a production of “Merchant of Venice.” She loved the play and thought it might be a good way to break her isolation. She was cast as Nerissa, the heroine’s comic woman-in-waiting. She enjoyed rehearsals and meeting the other members of the cast. One of the professors offered to help her with her pronunciation. She pitched in to create costumes and sets.

The show ran for 25 performances, mostly for high school students, and she took pleasure in making them laugh. Though she was invisible as Jonida, people saw her as Nerissa.

She liked capturing the audience’s attention, gaining their trust, hearing their breathing patterns change as the story unfolded.

“Whenever I sense it happening, it is to me a true act of worship, and I can say that in the moment, I feel God’s presence,” she says.

Jonida finished school in 2002 with a degree in performance and design. By then she felt like an American, a Southerner, even. She and Erion married and moved to Kennesaw to be near the River Church, a progressive non-denominational church with outreach services to troubled parts of the world like Albania. Erion got a job as a software engineer, and Jonida began making costumes for theaters around town.

Throughout her life Jonida had always loved reading and writing poetry. As a child in Albania, a student in Decatur, Ala., an adult in Atlanta — poetry was her constant companion.

She mostly composed in her head, while driving in the car or sitting in front of the sewing machine or standing at a sinkful of dishes. A phrase would come like the hook of a song, and she would repeat it, explore the rhythm of it, build on it.

She might create 20 such poems in a day or she might go six months without creating one at all. Memories of the violence and chaos of her youth often figured prominently. She seldom put them to paper, a process liked pulling teeth to her, but there was always a period of inhaling — gathering information and details — and then exhaling, letting the words in her head flow out in the form of a rhythmic lyric.

One summer night in 2005, Jonida was invited to a poetry open mic night at Java Monkey café in Decatur by her friend Lorena. The rustic, low-key coffeehouse is the epicenter of the local performance poetry scene. Lorena encouraged Jonida to add her name to the sign-up sheet and perform one of her poems. Even if she put her name down, Jonida said, they would never call it: No one knew how to pronounce it, so they’d just choose someone else.

“We’ll just put down a nickname,” Lorena said, snatching up the clipboard and scribbling down the name Gypsee Yo: Gypsee because Jonida often wore long, ruffled, skirts, and Yo for the first syllable of her name, Jonida.

Jonida and her friend sat in the café sipping jasmine tea and listening attentively as names were called and poets took the stage to perform.

Gypsee Yo, host Kodac Harrison called out to the audience.

Gypsee Yo?

It took a moment for Jonida to realize he meant her. She stepped to the microphone, looked out at all the faces in the crowded café and recited “Girls Get Cut,” a poem she knew by heart. It’s a passionate lyric, one that begins quietly and develops into a rhythmic rant, juxtaposing all the different forms of oppression young women face around the world. It ends as a sort of wild scream against war, rape, genocide, misogyny, complacency:

Every day, every hour, every minute, every split-second, everywhere in the world, girls get cut.

When Jonida finished, there was a moment of sustained silence. Then the audience stood and cheered, they clapped and yelled and whistled, they banged on tables so the cups and saucers shook. Harrison rushed up to her, his face flushed: The featured performer he’d booked the following week had canceled, he said. Could she come and perform again? And so she did, week after week.

“It was amazing,” she said. “The time I stumbled upon the scene, it was phenomenal. There were a lot of great people to learn from and to listen to. Everybody kept referring to me as ‘Gypsee.’ I kind of liked it that I was this persona. Having an alias made it easier.”

Jonida was raised not to bring attention to herself, not to seek praise, but Gypsee Yo didn’t have that problem. She was invited to join a competitive slam poetry team and they traveled the country, winning bouts in Austin and Columbus, Ohio. She got more comfortable and started competing on her own, taking more risks with her work. The more often she was seen and heard, the more fully she felt alive.

Over the next eight years Jonida became Atlanta’s Slam Champion, a three-time National Poetry Slam semi-finalist and two-time first runner-up for Woman of the World, a major all-women poetry slam competition. Her competitors might have hoped the changes in her life that temporarily kept her away from the circuit — the birth of her daughter, the birth of her son, becoming a U.S. citizen — might mean an early retirement, but no such luck. She returned after each hiatus with more confidence, with better material.

For years Jonida kept her life as a costume designer separate from her life as a spoken word poet. When she was in the costume shop, she seldom mentioned her accomplishments outside of it. Most of the people she worked with didn’t know she had another name: Gypsee Yo, Southern Queen of Slam.

But she knew the Balzer Theatre occasionally went unused between productions. Many of her poems, when placed together, had a narrative, autobiographical thread. She wondered what it would take to compile them all into a performance to tell her own story.

One day Tom Key came in to the costume shop to be measured for a suit for the lead role in “The Man from Atlanta.” The executive artistic director of Theatrical Outfit is one of the most admired theater performers and directors in the city. Quietly Jonida measured the length of his arm, his collar, his waist. He smiled at her and started to hum an old gospel tune. She kneeled to measure his pant leg from waist to hem. Finally, she cleared her throat and said, “Mr. Key, did you know that I’m a performer, too?”

‘Harabel’ comes to life

If she’s not nervous before a performance, she knows something is wrong. She quiets her nerves by reminding herself that after all the journeys in her life, the one from the darkened backstage into the spotlight is by far the simplest. She will just walk out there and tell them her story. She will tell them about the empty zoo cages and the machine gun fire, about her journey to America, about finding her way in the flatness of Decatur, Ala., and becoming Gypsee Yo. She will tell them, and she will make them understand: No place is insignificant, no one is ever truly invisible if they can learn to open their hearts to other people.

Jonida is not superstitious nor does she believe in luck. So why should she be nervous? When all the eyes are on her and she begins to speak, it is an act of worship. It is a gift, this stage, a safe place where the sparrow finally lands.