Melihate (Meli) Qena: I come from a family of workers. My father was a baker, a breadmaker. He comes from the village of Has. Hasjonët are known. Hasjonët are known for working all around Yugoslavia, wherever they work, they mainly work as bakers. So, my father baked very good simit, the best bread, the best croissants. And we always had hot bread at home. We often sustained ourselves with bread and pickles.
We are nine children. We were nine children. I don’t have my brothers anymore. My older brother was engaged in the arts. He was an actor and director. He finished the School of Film in Belgrade. And of course, as often happens in big families, the other children were influenced by the choice of their older brother. I don’t know, maybe it is a kind of instinct or something, I don’t know what to call it…Maybe it was because we didn’t know what to choose, we saw the older brother and went after him. So, mainly our whole family was engaged in the arts and this is not a privilege. Maybe this is more of a misfortune in our society, having a whole family engaged in arts because art was never valued in any period the way it should be.
So the whole family became a victim of a job that doesn’t bring much income. My brother… I told you, Muharrem [Qena] who was a director and actor. Then Xhevat [Qena] was an actor. My third brother, Nehat, he was a culture editor, he worked for Rilindja, and my youngest brother Agim Qena, for thirty years he drew the comic Tafë Kusuri. And people, I am talking according to what other people have told me that they always read Tafë Kusuri to measure the pulse of the society in that way. Where is the society going, what is happening, because he had the ability to say in a few words, everything that was happening. I believe that caricature is a very difficult profession, and he went first, he passed away first, he was very young, before turning fifty.
We are five sisters. My sisters are teachers, English language teachers and I am, I dealt with…I finished Acting in Belgrade. Then after returning to the theater, I had a disagreement with those in the theater because a whole generation of people my age were actors… So they told me, “We don’t need you.” And I told them, “But you gave me the scholarship for four years.” “It’s alright, the scholarship doesn’t matter…” So, long story short, I never worked for the theater. I have worked for television since the time it was established here. In fact, there was television even before, before ’74 we had a show in Albanian in Belgrade. But in ’74 it moved to Pristina with its whole program, and the Television of Pristina was established.
And I wonder how after the war people accepted starting everything from the beginning. Not to take those who had been employed before… I mean, they recruited a whole new staff… which in my opinion is wrong. And I believe you can never find such an example as ours in any nation in the world, you can’t find people who don’t save what has been before and who think that everything begins with us. I am just telling you to give you an idea, in Belgrade I had a photograph in front of the staircase, I had a photograph of an actress, an amateur actress, she wasn’t even an actress and I was forced to learn at which coffee shops she performed, because in fact back then they didn’t have a theater.
But they say they have the theater from 1800, from their very first appearances. So, I believe that we are the only nation that erases the past. I believe that there might be a women’s complex in our society, women want to hide their age, looks like we want to hide our age too and we always want to be young (smiles) in profession and work and this is not something to brag about. It is a big shortcoming, in my opinion. In television I mainly worked with children’s and educational shows.
Aurela Kadriu: Before going there, Meli, maybe some more details about the setting in which you grew up, as a child?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: Okay.
Aurela Kadriu: What do you remember, what memories do you have?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: I…The childhood of my generation is so different from the childhood of children nowadays, because for us, imagination was everything. We played with some slopes, with some random stuff…We didn’t have many elements which we played with. But it was more, all the games were played in our heads, in our imaginations and now…it’s like nothing is left to children’s imaginations. I don’t know what more they can imagine, what? They have perfect toys and sometimes I believe that a toy becomes monotonous. A child sees a toy, you buy it for them, it is an expensive toy, after five minutes they get bored of it because in order for something to be fruitful, one has to feel it, one has to be interested in it. To develop the imagination, to develop… that is when a work is fruitful. If everything is given to you ready, then this is like fast hamburgers that are all prepared, you only have to swallow them, and they are different from the food you cook yourself, slowly, according to your own wish and desire, and it tastes differently.
So, our friendship might not have been rich with toys, but it had another kind of quality. It had imagination, more socialization, we had a greater circle of friends, we were always together with our friends. Now I guess one is lonely from childhood, no matter if they send children to kindergartens and want to socialize them before they are used to their mothers and fathers. I don’t know whether a child knows their mother and father when they are sent to kindergarten, sometimes with a need and sometimes even without it. I know many parents where mothers are at home and however, they send children to kindergarten. Why? In order for them to socialize?
I don’t understand how a child can socialize with some stranger before they get to know you. That is why I think that this follows a child later in their life, loneliness follows them, a kind of fear to connect with people because no matter how much we think our children socialize, we don’t know that there are different temperaments, different kinds. Some socialize, some don’t, and those who are more sensitive are usually the ones who suffer more in these big, so-called, socialization circles. In fact, there are a lot of people, and most of them are alone.
Of course, that wasn’t the case for my childhood, because we were, we selected two-three, four-five people with whom we could share the pain, joy, sadness and everything. As for myself, I was alone most of the time. I wanted to be alone in a corner because I am telling you, I grew up in a house where there were a lot of children, but I always chose a corner where I played with my toys, some dolls I made myself. And I know that I played with dolls for a long time, maybe this was something that followed me later, or a kind of feeling that I would deal with Muppets later, excuse me (coughs).
So we were more connected, the whole life, even during school, childhood, we were more united, more…There were various clubs and associations in our schools which dealt with, each one of them according to their talent, children dealt with… and we were constantly under the supervision of our teachers, so we had a kind of care given to us. The best and the worst that could happen, happened inside the school, there weren’t this many coffee shops back then and I don’t think it was much of a shortcoming. The whole life was more organized, there were literary evenings every Saturday, we would go to classrooms or sports halls and listen to the poets. I don’t know whether people do that anymore, do these children listen to poetry interpretations?
The grandchildren I have at home don’t know any poems. I don’t know whether they learn that at school, I guess they are not asked to learn that at school. Because maybe there is a new program and this new program doesn’t consider it important for the children to learn poetry. I think if the world only deals with natural sciences and deals so little with poetry arts, that world seems harsh to me. And it is almost impossible for the human to live in this harshness, because art is what inspires the human, they make them more generous. So all the goods, a subtle and sensitive life come from art because the human is not only body, it is also spirit, and the inner part of the human needs to be developed. A human has some very thin fibers that can only be developed through arts.
Aurela Kadriu: Ms. Meli, do you remember how it was for you growing up in a family of artists? Can you tell us a little about that part?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: I barely saw my brothers during my life because they lived in Pristina and we lived in Mitrovica. So, when they would come occasionally, it was a feast because my oldest brother sang very well and he would take the guitar and we would gather around him and sing. My father loved the song so much too, and almost every night he gathered us children…we were a small choir. I was the one who almost always ruined that choir because I didn’t sing very well, but I wouldn’t sing so loudly so that I wouldn’t be noticed and I was somehow overshadowed.
But ours was always a joyful family. We didn’t have much, but we shared whatever we had with each other. It never happened, for example when we sat around the sofra, it never happened that we didn’t ask, “Does this belong to me?” Because there were many of us and each one of us had their part. So, we didn’t have much but there was a kind of solidarity, and that solidarity followed me in life afterwards. I don’t know maybe it would be better if somebody else who knows me spoke about this part because I don’t even like eating alone, or drinking alone, I don’t like it. I want to share this part of my life, I always wanted to share the good parts of my life with the others, except the part where I work, that is the only time I like to be alone, and that is the time when really, I am bored of everyone.
So, the life in a family with many children was interesting. But we didn’t have much, we were very poor at that time…Even though, the whole society was such but maybe we were distinct in that regard because we were many children at home and I often had to wait for my sister to return from school in order to take her shoes, or the coat. Once it happened to me during a class, because we didn’t have a hall for physical education classes and we would do it outside, in the garden. It was springtime, we went to the garden and played some ball games and I don’t know what, and I forgot my coat, there were trees in the school garden. I forgot my coat hanging on a tree, and when we went to the other class, I remembered the coat and without even asking my teacher, I ran and went out to find the coat. When I came back, my teacher asked me, “What happened? What was that?” I said, “I had forgotten my coat hanging on a tree and I went to take it.” He said, “Eii, the historical coat, the one that you are wearing generation after generation?” I said, “Yes, we take good care of it precisely for the fact that it is a historical coat.” Of course I was so touched by those words but I didn’t want to create drama in front of the children, that is why I said, “I take good care of it precisely because it is historical.” So even the teacher, since we had the same teachers generation after generation, remembered that four-five generations grew up wearing that coat.
It doesn’t matter, it might be important at a certain moment but then what matters most is the spiritual wealth, what you carry in your soul, what you have within you. Because before there used to be the associations of the Red Cross and if you didn’t have something to wear, shoes or jumpers, you could go there to take stuff. For example, on our street there was someone who…each street had a warehouse where they would take the stuff they needed, and we often went there to take clothes. I was distinct because I almost always dressed the best even though my clothes were from the Red Cross and so always when I entered the classroom I would hear sighs, “Red Cross, Red Cross…” And I felt bad because I said, “O my God, why do I not have a simple dress like the others, so that I wouldn’t stand out.”
So, with or without our desire, the circumstances were the way they were, that I was distanced from the others, and not for something good, however, I was not like the others and maybe this is what made me want to be alone, in my own world. Maybe if I happened to be in some other circumstances, I wouldn’t be dealing with this, I don’t know…
Aurela Kadriu: Where did you go to school, where did you go to elementary school?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: I finished elementary as well as high school in Mitrovica.
Aurela Kadriu: At which schools?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: At school…Back then it was called Svetozar Marković, the current Muharrem Bekteshi elementary school. Then there was the gymnasium, I went to gymnasium in Mitrovica. And then I enrolled in Russian language because at that time you couldn’t exactly choose what you wanted to study, but what they provided scholarships for. They were only providing scholarships for Biology and Russian and…I liked Biology a lot, I could also study Biology but just when I started studying Russian here in Pristina a class was opened, the call was open in ‘67, in 1967, a call was open for a group of Albanians who wanted to study Acting. I applied and got accepted, then I finished, I know the language well, I speak and translate from Russian time after time.
Aurela Kadriu: Can you tell us a little about the period of high school? How was it for you, how do you remember?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: Yes, the school and all the entertainment of that time. We gathered in physical education halls on Saturdays, organized balls, and dances which I barely attended. Once I went with my sister and I only saw a big hall because the seats were all around and in the middle, there was space for dancing. So the idea was that somebody would come to choose you to dance with, I was waiting and waiting for someone to choose me and nobody did, so it was almost the time to go and a boy came to me, he started to ask all the girls to dance with him, he asked the first, the second, the fourth, the third…they didn’t want to dance with him and in the end when he came to me, seems like he was bored and didn’t even ask me, he sat down. So I realized that I am not that lucky at balls and I never went again. Even though, at that time, that was the only entertainment event girls would attend. There was Rock and Roll, I knew all the games, but I exercised on my own rather than at balls.
So the only entertainment there was… And, I am saying, there was the drama group where we prepared drama plays, we prepared the school program. I was always part of it and I was one of the best interpreters, I believe that I am a better interpreter than an actress. Because I like poetry a lot and I do it with love, with will. And everything that is done with love, will certainly be successful.
Aurela Kadriu: Can you tell me how it happened that you went to Belgrade? What were the circumstances?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: There was an open call here in Pristina, because they wanted to educate a generation of actors because here we only had the High Pedagogical School, there was no faculty for acting. I guess they thought that it was too expensive to bring the professors from Belgrade, so they sent a group of youth among which I was too. There were two other girls, one from Peja, she was very beautiful and talented, she was shortlisted. Because first we had the audition, if you are accepted in the first circle, then you work with professors for fifteen days and then there comes the second admission exam. If you get accepted then you continue, otherwise you fail and cannot continue.
There were two other girls, one of them failed in the first circle, the other one who was from Peja, a very beautiful and extravagant girl, she got accepted. But during those fifteen days that we had to stay in Belgrade and work, one day she told me, “Meli, I am returning to Peja.” “Why?” I begged her not to leave me alone, because now I was all alone with seven boys in the group. She said, “No, I have to return because I am engaged and my fiancé told me, “Either me or the Academy.” And I said, “So what did you choose?” She said, “I chose my fiancé.” I think she made a good decision, she didn’t lose anything. And I never saw that girl again, I never met her, I only know that she was very beautiful…I don’t even know her name, I guess her last name was Bërlajolli if I am not mistaken. She was very attractive, not weak and skinny like me…I wasn’t something to look at. And, “No,” she said, “I am returning to Peja.”
She returned, I remained with my male classmates, of course I missed her… Even though we took almost all the classes in common classrooms with the Serbian group, we did the acting separately. We learned the texts in Albanian language, our professors had the translations. My brother Muharrem was a professor and at the same time a student, so we were mainly working with him. And I hadn’t talked to him initially so when he saw me in Belgrade he was like, “What do you want here?” I said, “Like that, I am studying.” “But why? This is not for you, you are sensitive, it is a difficult job…” Knowing me and knowing how extraordinarily difficult it is as a job, how much work and commitment it requires, maybe he wanted to spare me from it. But this is not something someone can spare someone of.
One goes as one does, maybe sometimes it is a matter of fortune when one thinks about choosing something completely different and then the complete opposite turns out. We think that one can affect their path. I believe that some things are connected to fortune, it is not that you can direct everything on your own. Life is not a symphony which you direct and it goes according to your orders, sometimes something you haven’t even thought about happens… but we must have our life path set, our fortune set. Maybe when we come to this life, we come with a certain duty and our fluids and atoms make us go that way, I don’t know.
Aurela Kadriu: Can you tell us about what you remember from that time in Belgrade? Everything…as many details as you remember from that time would be interesting for us. From the moment you went there for the first time, everything…
Melihate (Meli) Qena: At the time when I went to Belgrade, there was no Albanian student not taking homemade cookies with them because those cookies last longer and anything can happen when you are on the road, if there is nothing else to eat, you have one cookie. And I had my mother’s head scarf with around four-five homemade cookies in my luggage, back then the luggage was made out of cardboard… and we traveled by train for eight, seven-eight hours to Belgrade. The train would stop at every station. So, when I arrived in Belgrade, I was so sad in the first days, I couldn’t get used to it at all, I kept my luggage in the wardrobe and always thought about returning, not staying there. I cried every night when I went to sleep, my pillow was always wet because of my tears, and I thought of returning. In the morning when I woke up, there were many students from Gjakova studying in different departments and when they would see me they would be like, “Meli, try to go to classes today and then we will see in the evening.”
When I returned in the evening, we had a club in Belgrade, Përpjekja [The Struggle] and I spent most of my time at that club, if it wasn’t for the Përpjekja where Albanians would gather and where we had all the instruments, we would sing and there was even television, then I don’t think I would be able to manage to stay, I would return. So the first year was mainly the year of getting used to living there…maybe the year of regret for why I had gone there and why I was alone, without any other girl.
And so I thought more about how to return than how to stay. In the first academic year I was so bad that I almost failed, because I made almost no rehearsals. And then (smiles) when I got used to living there, my professors were like, “Now we see what you are…We saw it, we knew it, but you didn’t open up…” Because art is a strange job, very complicated and subtle, it takes a lot for someone to open up and the pedagogues have to be very patient until a young person, an actor opens up and reveals everything they keep within themselves. This cannot be done with force, it has to happen gradually. It takes patience and all the conditions need to be provided for the new actor in order for them to open up like a flower, it shouldn’t be done otherwise or you might lose a talent.
I have often heard pedagogues saying, “If the talent is there, then one opens up and shows themselves, if it isn’t there, they will go…” But it is not like that, a pedagogue needs to be patient. I believe that applies for other subjects and departments too, but especially for acting.
Aurela Kadriu: Was Muharrem in Belgrade or…
Melihate (Meli) Qena: Yes, yes.
Aurela Kadriu: Can you tell us a little about the first contact…
Melihate (Meli) Qena: Yes, yes. I was telling you that my first contact with him was in the acting class and we were learning improvisation. Improvisation… I showed up, he said… after giving a lecture to me, “Why did you come, how did you come without even discussing it, this is a difficult job, this is…” Anyway, “What have you prepared?” I hadn’t prepared anything, so I just remembered then to do something like taking water out of the well with a bucket and I pulled the bucket down, I was trying to improvise like I was pulling it up.. He said, “The bucket is heavier.” And then I tried… He said, “Even heavier.” I tried more, “Even heavier.” And I almost fainted, he said, “Do you see now how difficult art is? This is only the beginning…” I said, “I will most certainly not fill the buckets to the point that I cannot carry them and…”
I mean, the first meeting, the first experience with him was very bitter, harsh because he didn’t want to help me, he wanted to convince me to quit the art and go back to Mitrovica. And I almost wanted to return, but maybe there was something greater, stronger that attracted me and I remained there. Since I stayed, I could also do something else in life, for example if I studied biology because I am so interested in flowers and plants, it is a world within itself…maybe I would be a lot happier, I don’t know. But art is a kind of discovery, a kind of growth, a kind of development…that is why it has some things in common with nature, plants, and everything.
Aurela Kadriu: Can you speak a little about that group, Përpjekja? Can you tell us about those gatherings?
Melihate (Meli) Qena: Përpjekja was an association of Albanian students where we would gather every evening. We had a group of musical instruments players, a choir and a group of interpreters. Whenever there was something concerning interpreting, they would invite me. Ehat Musa, the famous [classical] guitarist was part of that group too. Then Ukshin Hoti who was doing his Master’s in Belgrade at that time, was also part of the group for a long time, I know him closely. Many Albanian intellectuals were part of that group, there was Professor Cana who was doing his postgraduate studies. There were big age differences, from people doing their Bachelor’s to mature people who were doing their Master’s or Ph.D. studies there. There was a diversity of ages, experiences and various people who were interesting, coming from different fields.
And I am telling you that every Albanian found themselves there…this was like a big shelter for all the beginners, until they got used to living in Belgrade…Because Belgrade at that time was a really international city because people from all over the world came there to study. Then there was BITEF, the theater festival that is still being held, which was constantly held, even during the war. And there we met, we got the chance to meet various actors, directors and get to know them closely. At that time, Odyssey with Bekim Fehmiu was being shot… Faruk Begolli was also part of the academy, at that time he had already done some movies but didn’t have the right to get the diploma of the academy without going to classes. You could be an actor without the diploma, but they wouldn’t give you the diploma if you didn’t regularly follow the classes and if you didn’t get the signatures from professors.
So, after a four-five year break, during which Begolli played in movies and during which he became a star…when he would enter the academy building, we were like, “Could it be possible? He is coming to the academy, which means that he hasn’t graduated but still he has played in so many films.” So, we were all together at Përpjekja as well as at the academy. One day, in the entrance of the academy, in big letters there was written, “What does it mean to be great? Bekim Fehmiu, our guest.” And Bekim Fehmiu came, handsome, charming, it was the time when he was shooting Odyssey. The whole Belgrade was running after him, staring at him, especially women. There was a stage in every classroom in Belgrade, a mini-stage with the curtains and everything where we did the rehearsals and then there was the other part where the audience would sit, our professors, and they had put a big sofa on the stage for him, a sofa like a king’s throne. We received him with applause, he pushed the sofa and sat down on the stage and said, “I am available, whatever the students are interested to ask.”
First he spoke about the beginnings, how he went to the audition, how he got accepted and how he didn’t wait for the producer. The producer was a bit late and he went there on time, waited for five minutes, he didn’t come and Bekim left. And when the producer came back, he was surprised, “Who is the man who hasn’t waited for me? Is it possible not to wait for me, a famous name…” And he was interested in finding him, so that was one of the plus reasons why Bekim got the role, because he is a special character and is exactly what the producer needed. And he got the main role, Odyssey, which he played together with Irena Papa, who recently admitted her Albanian origin.