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The tent among the buildings

In the heart of Tirana, amidst the vibrant energy of popular houses and bustling marketplaces, a unique spectacle unfolds every Sunday, a tradition maintained for almost six decades. The artists of a small circus, hidden like a vibrant red spot in a concrete garden, defy the march of time, resisting the inevitable changes that loom over the city. The urban blueprint for Tirana's new capital foresees the complete demolition of this historic area, potentially erasing the rich history of one of the oldest European circus schools. As one traverses Skanderberg Square, passing colossal construction sites and modern skyscrapers bearing the imprints of renowned architects, an alternate side of the Albanian capital is unveiled—a scene reminiscent of an old 1930s movie. Decorated buildings with warm-toned traditional graphics, winding bazaars, and labyrinthine streets meandering through small yards conjure a nostalgic ambiance. Amidst this historical backdrop, a small tent emerges like a fantastical mushroom, a red oasis in the midst of a concrete garden—the Tirana Circus. Officially established in 1952 by a group of Albanian artists including Telat Agolli, Bajram Kurti, Xhuzepina Prendi, Bardhyl Jareci, and Abdyl Karakashi, the Tirana Circus conceals a more profound and captivating history. Enver Hoxa, during a period of collaboration with the Chinese government for logistical and industrial support, was captivated by a circus performance in Beijing. His fascination led to the establishment of a genuine circus school in Albania, offering a rare source of joy and lightness for families enduring the oppressive regime of one of history's cruelest dictatorships. During the dictatorship era, every Sunday witnessed hundreds of families forming long queues in front of the iconic red tent. The circus was not merely a children's entertainment; it was a fleeting escape, a respite from the relentless oppression that defined the lives of every Albanian family. Even today, the circus school is revered as an institution, drawing aspiring young acrobats and jugglers from every corner of the country. Teachers at the school not only nurture their students' artistic and physical growth but also contribute to their personal development, fostering a sense of camaraderie within a large artist family.

However, in the last three decades, the allure of the circus has waned, eclipsed by the influx of new imported amusements accompanying Albania's shift toward capitalism. The audience beneath the tent during Sunday morning shows has dwindled, as the new Tirana rises with skyscrapers encroaching upon the old popular buildings that cradle and shield the circus and its school. The city's new zoning plan, envisioning additional extensions in Skanderberg Square for elegant constructions, poses an imminent threat to the circus's existence. In recent years, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has stepped in, aiming to support the circus's activities, increase performances, and showcase young artists on the international stage. While this intervention may not halt progress, the charm and history of this small neighborhood circus should not be confined to the towering heights of a skyscraper in the heart of Tirana. The battle between tradition and modernity unfolds, and the fate of the Tirana Circus hangs in the balance, awaiting a decision that could either preserve its legacy or consign it to the pages of history.

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