Arian Uçi is dead. He died from the Covid-19 virus. Arian was the owner of Bar Iliria, an unassuming cafe on a corner in Bllok, with a large front garden shaded by a grand walnut tree and small bar with a few tables and chairs inside. In front of the bar there was a sofa that was usually off limits, a piano on which he sometimes played, and a few hanging lamps decorated with colorful ties. Behind the wooden bar and the espresso machine there was a wooden door leading to Arian’s private quarters. Downstairs in the basement there was a space that could easily have been a night club, but was never used. Arian always worked the evening and night shifts alone. During the day, there was Shpresa who served wonderful macchiatos. The espresso machine was off after dinner time.
Bar Iliria was an institution. It was the opposite of the many flashy bars and clubs surrounding it, which spring up as fast as they pass away. An oasis of peace where Arian, whose father had been a notable jazz musician, played jazz or classical music, or sometimes nothing at all. Bar Iliria was one of the first bars I was taken to when I moved to Tirana 2010. It was clear I had to start at the bottom of the pecking order. In the evening, Arian would serve customers at his own pace. He would greet those frequent customers he knew warmly, and kept a polite distance from those just passing by. There was no menu, no fancy cocktails, but sometimes he would make delicious home-made fries served with a slab of white cheese.
In the beginning he hardly acknowledged my presence; me being a foreigner who could speak only few words of Albanian. But as I kept returning, he became more approachable. At some point, he started to greet me with “good evening.” Then a bit later, I could call him by his first name. The first time he smiled at me – perhaps I’d said something funny – felt like a hard-won victory, like I’d finally entered Iliria’s family. A family of artists, writers, film makers, who all liked to hang out in the lush garden, striking up chats amongst each other and with passersby, enjoying a nice raki in the evening breeze. I made a point of bringing friends there visiting from abroad. Iliria was one of the centers of my life in Tirana.
One time, I brought a group of students I had been teaching at a private university to celebrate the end of the semester. Arian chuckled when I brought them in, knowing they would have otherwise never set foot in a bar this unglamorous. Uncomfortable in the simple orange plastic chairs, some tried to order a margarita. He simply said he didn’t have any. In the end everyone settled on beers and raki and had a great time. When you ordered a gin and tonic, Arian would bring you a tumbler of straight gin and and a bottle of tonic with a separate glass. Some assembly required. Arian liked his bar the way it was, impervious to the massive changes that swallowed up the neighborhood.
Arian had been living on that same spot for a long time, on the edge of Blloku. He had known the kids from the communist nomenklatura and they’d hung out together. After many years, when one winter he allowed me to work on the sofa in the bar during the day, he told me the story that once one of his comrades had been able to smuggle in the White Album by The Beatles; since there was no writing on the sleeve or the LP, customs had allowed it to pass. I had to think about this white UFO landing in Tirana, bringing sounds from a completely foreign musical planet. How does the White Album sound when you’ve never heard pop? Like any other property owner in Bllok, Arian had been promised millions to sell his little bar to make way for yet another starchitect-designed “multifunctional building.” He talked about it sometimes, and every year there were rumors this was the year Iliria would close down for good. But he always refused to sell. He provided a safe haven of stability in a cityscape overrun by mafia-funded real estate, a White Album amidst the endless bass of cheap music. Now that he is gone, it will certainly not be long until the construction mafia will destroy Bar Iliria and build another hideous, emotionless concrete monster in its stead.
I remember Arian as a proud, content, and kind man. A man of little words, with a heart of gold. Arian was a man that has shaped so much of my experience of Tirana. And that beautiful man is now gone, taking a valuable part of Tirana with him. Farewell, Arian.