Kathleen Isley


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“Gezuar!” my newfound companion says, as he raises his glass toward me, ‘Cheers!’ We clink our tumblers in unison to celebrate the day. Not many symbols are so universal as this gesture of goodwill. When our glasses meet, it’s like a handshake. We are understood to be letting our guards down, each wishing happiness for the other with no ulterior motive. This ritual salute is one of the first words I was taught when I crossed into Albania four months ago. 

I am awed by the warm reception I’ve received here. Dozens of men and women have shared their homes with me. They have freely offered drinks, food, and conversation, for no better reason than that I am a stranger, and I happen to be walking by. It feels like a revolutionary act of acceptance, this choice to greet the world with open arms. When someone asks, through word or action, if I would like to know them; when they ask if I would like to be a part of their lives for an hour or a day, I never reject that generosity of spirit. 

So, here I am, sitting on a stool, set up to accommodate me, in front of an unknown man’s weathered front door. With our exchange of a single toast, we are infinitely closer to friendship.

The river snakes directly in front of us. The water runs low in the summer heat, but still adds its organic freshness to our surroundings. I smile with the man as we look out across the landscape. We lazily watch the pedestrians pass us by on the busy central avenue where he has lived for all his 70 years. 

As the sun moves across the sky, he starts talking, first about everyday things, his job, his family— then, as so often happens when I am patient, these common experiences grow into the telling of something more. While I am endlessly curious about everyone, this is the first person I’ve met in Albania who is both old enough to remember all the seismic changes that have rocked the country over the past half-century, and who also speaks a language I share. 

His words come slowly, enunciated with care. He seems to be sifting through his native tongue, looking for the right way to translate his thoughts into English for me. His initial caution yields to surprising candour as we drink. Still, he pulls himself back at times, as if he is not accustomed to sharing so openly. 

“That was the time of the Pyramidos, the Civil War.” His stories flow one into another like the liquor that we use to wash them down with.

The government histories don’t describe the pyramid schemes of Albania this way. The moment when capitalism crashed into a country full of people who had never experienced it in their lifetime is usually brushed over when it is talked about at all. 

“People had never heard of Coca-cola or even bananas under Communism!” The twenty-something guide on the city tour I took yesterday cheerfully explained, sweeping away the complex and varied reactions of an entire nation with a single anecdote. “My grandpa, he couldn’t remember to call them different things. He loved Coke, but when he wanted some, he always told us to get him a ‘red banana!’” 

She offered no acknowledgement of the turmoil and unrest that occurred in the years that followed. According to the official tour, the biggest issue faced by the Albanian people in this new era was learning the names of all the products that were suddenly available. 

There are many museums dedicated to documenting Albania’s years under dictatorship. When it comes to the transition away from Communism, these same institutions have little to say. It is only through my talks with individuals that I have learned of the government endorsed pyramid schemes and subsequent rebellion that occurred only six short years after Communism fell. 

Even the event’s name, when mentioned, ‘Pyramidos,’ seems to diminish its impact, hiding the desperation and violence by making it sound like a simple scam. The histories talk about scandal, riots, even a government collapse, but it isn’t called a war. Everyone I’ve met who lived here at that time says ‘war’ though, so I know it is true.

I look at this man’s hands. One clutching a glass. The other holding onto his boney thigh, unconsciously anchoring him here in the present. Hands have always fascinated me. They tell the story of a life better even than the eyes. His hands are covered in blue veins, parchment skin. Though old, they are still strong after decades of hard labour.

My eyes follow one withered hand as he lifts the clear raki to his lips. They are still full, those lips, and sensual. As if they forgot to age with the rest of him. As if they are ready to burst with unspoken words that there will never be enough time to share. He is like the city of Berat itself. Both are full of a history that is easier to see than it is to understand.

A beautiful stone bridge crosses the river in front of us to our left. A series of arches reach down, supporting it in the river. Like the rest of Albania, it is still standing strong after centuries of hard use. People tell me the bridge is important, though no one has ever explained why. When I ask, they only say that the bridge dates to a time when Berat was not yet a city, but was rather three different villages that traded together on market days. The old names are still remembered here with pride, part of the town’s identity. Gorica on one side of the water, Mangalem on the other, and Kalaja, a town housed inside a fortress, to crown the whole.

Since we are at the lowest point in the old city, along the water where people meet, the hills rise in front of us, as well as behind. They are covered in the architecture of the past. Elegant stone and wood combine to make picture perfect cottages. Each is capped prettily with burnt red tile.  The houses are built neatly in organised terraces. They trip up the steep inclines, every row hiding the small details of the one directly above it.

Little cobbled pathways meander here and there. Except for the main street where the two of us linger, the roads are wide enough for the feet of men and goats, but too narrow for modern cars. These streets disappear amongst the stacked buildings. Some paths lead higher toward a new level, others dead-end unexpectedly at a stranger’s front door.

Like so many places in this beautiful country, everything about the city seems to whisper of an idealised existence. Outside of the odd museum here and there, it is only when you talk to people deeply that you start to understand that the setting is only the scene, and never the story of a place. Many people I’ve met in peaceful-looking Berat tell me it was one of the hardest hit places in 1997, the year the worst violence arrived.

“When capitalism came knocking, we welcomed it inside. That’s when we learned to trust no one,” he explains. “We only wanted our money back; the government told us it was safe to invest. Then everyone lost everything. We had always helped each other. A person’s word, it should be enough. Suddenly, corruption is everywhere. What do you do when your home is gone, when there is no food anymore to put on the table, all because of political lies? That’s why the war began. But some thought, if the government could steal our futures from us, then so could they. You never know if it is the wolves or the rescuers that are coming. All keep their faces covered. All bang with bloody fists at the door.”

The past and the present bleed together in his speech patterns. I suddenly feel the urge to look more closely at the innocent passersby, examine their faces, question their intentions. I shiver, just a little, though there is no chill in the air. His words say that the unknown enemy could be anyone at any time. I wonder if this is the reality he lives even now, in his mind.

He licks his lips. His tongue is thin, so maybe it needs to borrow strength from their fullness. “This was the rise of the Albanian mafia. I lost my brother in the defence of a pile of old furniture and 2500 lek we kept hidden in a jar in the cupboard. If my brother was here now, I would tell him I preferred him to the lek. He was kinder. We didn’t think there was a choice then. We had to protect what was ours. If we didn’t, they would kill us anyway, maybe.”

He downs the raki all in one go, which he has told me I must never do. He has told me raki is for sipping, for savouring, like life. Savouring a drink that tastes like rubbing alcohol smells, strikes me as a dubious practice. Still, who am I to contradict a man with such experiences written in his hands?

Raki is made from grapes, but it is nothing close to wine. The people of the Balkans distill the fruit down until it is as close to pure alcohol as they can manage. Each country in the region claims passionately that theirs is the true and original version of the liquor. Though I know that a more nuanced tongue than mine might pick out subtle differences through the bitter bite, the finer distinctions of their argument in regards to taste are beyond my palate to discern. I know that the ownership of raki is important, though. After careful consideration, I’ve decided to resolutely believe that each country is right.

My new friend smiles, pours another glass and offers me the bottle. “You must try this one. It’s the recipe from my grandfather.”

I have learned through the course of my travels that every bottle of raki is a family recipe from a grandfather. The identity of the Balkans, captured in liquid form. It is a difficult lesson for me to swallow. It makes me feel like I am being embalmed alive. But I drink it. Even foreigners must honour the dead. In raki you can taste centuries of bitter conquest. It is the strength that is left when the sweetness of a country’s harvest is stripped away and evaporated. Every glass of raki that is offered is an invitation to participate. To taste the history of Albania on your tongue.

I know that I will drink more with him later, but for now, I feign acceptance. I take the bottle as if I will pour, then wait for him to close his eyes and continue speaking again so I can set it down gently, unnoticed on the small table that separates our stools. This is not an act of rejection. It’s only that raki carries the memory of nations, and I fear that collective power will rip his individual recollections away from my mind.

“That was the worst time,” he muses. “For sure the worst time.”

“Worse than communism?” I ask him. Curiosity guides me to break the promise I made to myself just an hour ago only to listen and never to push. I’ve seen records of the torture and surveillance. Toured the eerie mundanity of the House of Leaves. The information I read plastered across the walls of that building is not easily forgotten even in the face of this man’s immersive presence.

Descriptions of thirty-six discreet methods of torture were represented. The words and images of that exhibit threaten to shatter my focus. Phrases like, red hot wires being buried in the flesh and being banished to a coffin float through my mind.

Bugs, for surveillance, were planted everywhere in public spaces to catch an incautious word. All mail was sifted thoroughly as the Sigurimi (The State Security Intelligence) read between the lines, searching for a hint of disloyalty. Lest anyone thought they were safe when at home, family members were encouraged to spy on each other. 

The records indicate that an estimated one-third of the population interacted in some way with that humble looking building in Tirana. Either as victims, or as informants. Thousands of people disappeared forever after being dragged into The House of Leaves. If someone escaped, their family could be executed in their place, as conspirators under the law.

The lines on this man’s face, the veins that rope across the back of his hands, mean that he lived through all of this. It would have been the noise in the background of his days well into his adulthood. What could be worse than these things?

He leans back, relaxed, sipping now as if the glass he holds is full of nectar and not poison. “We all had a house then, food.” He lifts his glass to his eye, looks through the liquid, magnifying and distorting his iris and pale lashes to twice their actual size, and he laughs. “We had raki. We were together at least. Was it really so bad?”

He lowers the raki again and his eyes rest on mine in inquiry, as if perhaps I will tell him. There is a long pause. Finally, he speaks again, hesitantly voicing the answer to his own question. “If I thought that it was, well, I didn’t think it too loud.”

We go back to looking out at the river that splits the old city in two. Climb up through the winding avenues on either side, then stare down, and you will see two different perspectives, two unique ways of looking at the world spread out below.

My eyes rest naturally on the castle fort that dominates the top of the hill on the right-hand side. If I had not already climbed the pathways and wandered through its ruin, I could easily imagine a magnificent kingdom full of princes and kings. It is easier to understand the physical. Sometimes, all that is necessary is a short walk and a teaspoon of sweat to know which outlook shows the truth, and which one is an illusion.  

My gaze sweeps across the stone houses, the glass of their window panes sparkles in the brightness of the midday sun. Berat is called the City of Thousand Windows because of this view. 

From our perspective in 2023, it feels peaceful, perfect. The windows mean only beauty. Under communism, they meant the threat that someone was watching, ready to make you disappear should you doubt the perfection. During the Pyramidos, they must have been terrifying. I imagine sitting in darkness, watching my window, waiting for the looters to break through. One thousand windows can mean so many different things over the course of only 40 years. If the meaning of windows becomes difficult to comprehend when you consider such changes, what of the lives of the people behind them?

He glances from side to side, clenching his hand until his knuckles whiten against his thigh, then releasing his grip skittishly, as if he is shocked at himself for revealing these things. “Under Enver Hoxha, we had our thoughts quietly. So quiet even our own minds could never hear.” He pauses, and shakes himself. 

“Now all we ever do is think too loud. But what’s the point? Who really listens or cares? Fairy stories from a time that doesn’t exist anymore. All young people think about is money. For them, there is only one story left.”

He stares out past me towards a spot in the distance, his sharp eyes raking over the coals of the past. “To die for thinking too loud, or to die for 2500 lek?”

He seems to ponder. “Those thoughts, if we loved Communism or we hated it, those thoughts were all for each other. For a better world. The lek?” He shrugs and purses his full lips, telling them to continue to hold their secrets. He closes his eyes again and gently rubs his eyelids with calloused fingertips. “I don’t know. It was good to think it was possible to live our lives for each other. It was good to believe in something.”

He picks up the bottle from the table and pours clear dangerous liquid into the tumbler I have been strategically neglecting to fill. Glug, glug, glug, right up to the rim. My stomach turns over in anticipation of the pain. I hold up my glass, ready to drink with a smile.

“No matter what changes, we will always have raki!” He toasts. “Gezuar!”

Kathleen Isley

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Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Kathleen Isley is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction stories. Having experienced temporary global aphasia in childhood, M. Isley has never taken communication, in all its variety and beauty, for granted again. Formerly Program Director of the New Orleans Writers Residency in Louisiana, they have recently set out for parts unknown. M. Isley can currently be found holed up somewhere in an obscure corner of the Balkans, busily typing away.


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