I learned a few weeks ago that an old acquaintance of mine had passed away. He was an Albanian named Besim and I met him in my favorite after-work watering hole on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the early 2000s.
Besim was part of a group of five or six Albanian men who hung out at this pub once or twice a week -- and they were quite unforgettable. Proudly defying Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s smoking ban in restaurants, these Albanians puffed like crazy, drank heavily, and spoke and laughed loudly in a language that sounded strangely lilting.
Initially, I couldn’t identify their tongue or their nationality, but I was mesmerized by them. They seemed like characters from "Doctor Zhivago" or "Zorba the Greek," with their extravagant mustaches, gravelly voices and exotic countenances -- that is, like men from a distant and unspoiled past magically transported to the bland, stale, uncultured world of early-21st-century tech- and career-obsessed New York City.
I noticed that most of the other patrons in the bar were intimidated by these strange Albanians -- indeed, they looked like dangerous characters, the type of men you would not want to ever cross.
I found out that they were friends of the manager (a fellow countryman) and they spent an enormous amount of money (all cash with big tips) during every visit -- thus they were quite welcome.
They spoke in heavily accented (but understandable) English -- and, like most tough guys, they exhibited unfailing politeness to women.
Eventually, Besim struck up a conversation with me, asked me where I was from (India originally), and we had a friendly chat. Normally, I have no interest in conversing with men in bars, but this fellow was so unusual and intriguing I wanted to find out all about him and his country.
It turned out that Besim had immigrated to the States in the mid-1990s and settled in the Bronx, which (unknown to me at the time) has a large Albanian community. He said he studied engineering at a school in Tirana, the capital of Albania, but it was unclear what he actually did for a living; he obviously was not employed as an engineer of any kind.
I quietly assumed Besim earned money through illegal means (I had heard of an Albanian mafia), but I was never sure. I didn’t dare ask such questions, nor would he admit anything like that to an outsider like me.
Nonetheless, I was fascinated by his tales of Albania – an obscure nation I knew nothing about. Besim described Albania as a paradise – although, I sensed he was speaking through a proud, nationalistic prism of idealism.
On the one hand, Albania is a dark, romantic land of rugged mountains, ghosts, blood feuds, medieval castle, gypsies, populated by a valiant (and violent) people of extreme pride and a sense of honor.
However, under the bleak, repressive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Albania was desperately poor and isolated – the North Korea of its time.
This was the world Besim came from – and the more I spoke to him, the more he reminded me of my own father, despite the fact that this Albanian was about two decades younger.
Like Besim, my dad was born in a poor, harsh, tradition-bound society deeply imbued with ancient customs – an unforgiving environment that most were crushed by.
And like my father, Besim was simply bewildered by the modern (i.e., Western) world and saddened by the inexorable destruction of traditional culture and mores.
When Besim revealed his views on modern American society, I found myself agreeing with about 75 percent of his remarks. He was appalled by such things as rap music, fast food, obesity, reality TV shows, etc. He couldn’t understand why the wealthiest society the world has ever seen was filled with so many people who were either obese or unhealthy or addicted to drugs or mentally ill or poorly educated -- echoing my views almost perfectly. (Of course, Besim said nothing about alcohol, which he seemed quite fond of!)
On a deeper level, Besim was very disappointed by America and its people, since the reality contrasted so dramatically with the fantasy image he was fed through movies (smuggled, I suppose) and other sources. Despite the poverty of his homeland, he seemed to miss it terribly.
He saved his bitterest attacks for America’s youth, particularly the men, whom he castigated as weak, spoiled and unmanly – he essentially characterized them as being emasculated (though he used a far more vulgar term).
Again, his views on this particular subject mirrored my father’s opinion – and perhaps even my own.
Indeed, I realized much to my surprise and embarrassment that I was in agreement with someone who had a rather medieval and archaic mind-set and whose upbringing was vastly different from my own rather conventional, middle-class, bourgeoisie life.
While I generally enjoyed Besim’s company, some of his views left me aghast – for example, he was very racist against black people, extremely homophobic and somewhat anti-Semitic. But I wrote that off to his Old World nurturing and attitudes (again, a mentality I was very familiar with).
I lost touch with Besim a few months later and did not hear anything about him for about eight years – when I found out from a third party that he'd died.
I did not even known Besim’s last name, yet I’ll never forget him. He serves as a kind of troubling reminder of who I might have become had the fates decreed a different direction in my life and of some attitudes and complexes that remain entrenched in a brave new world that people like Besim and my father simply could not cope with nor ever feel at home in.