TALES OF THE CITY

A last rite: Albanian wedding in a strip shopping center

“HI. MY NAME is Nicky.” The grinning young man in baby-blue polyester extended his hand. “I’m from Albania.”

I shook hands and grinned back.

“Originally,” he said.

It was my first Albanian wedding, so I didn’t know whether Nicky was a family member, a waiter, a friend or someone who had wandered in off the streets of downtown Lewisville.

“That fellow there,” said Ysen later, leaning over my champagne glass confidentially. I looked across the dance floor and saw Nicky, tie askew, waving a cloth napkin in one hand, his other arm draped around a fellow Albanian, kicking his legs high and dropping to his knees like Michael Jackson.

“That fellow there,” said Ysen, “is from southern Albania.” Ysen pronounced it SOO-thurn and smiled at me. “You can notice how funny they dance. Maybe not so different to you, but very different to me.”

Ysen, a linguist studying romance languages at North Texas State when he’s not busing tables at a North Dallas restaurant, continued to criticize the southern Albanian dancing as an amplified accordion player from Chicago rocked out on the Albanian classic “Mer Gjergjefin Goce Dil Te Mali.”

“What does that mean?” I asked Sal. Sal had wandered over to what we had come to regard as the Politburo Table (there were three of us, the only three non-Albanian-speaking people in a restaurant crammed with perhaps 90 wedding guests). Sal was a successful Dallas restaurant owner with a deep tan, a svelte, compact boxer’s body and dark, fierce eyes. Sal knew these things.

“I don’t know,” said Sal. “I forgot. Famous Albanian song, though.”

The six-piece band, called Skender Beu, finished that song and started in on another one. The music sounded like a combination of Turkish snake charmers, Czechoslovakian polkas played at 78 rpm and “The Star Spangled Banner” on the Channel 11 sign-off when the tape gets stuck on half speed. It was not Middle Eastern, though it sounded vaguely Semitic. It was not Greek, though the dancing looked like auditions for the Sweetwater Little Theater production of Zorba the Greek. It had a twang to it, and a fiddle and a clarinet whining in minor keys, like country/western love songs played by Moroccan terrorists. You have to get used to it. After about the thirtieth song, I almost started to like it.

“This one here very famous,” said Mike. Mike was Sal’s brother. He’d wandered over to tell us about the new restaurant he was opening in Piano. “It is song about Albanian boy who fought Turks in 1908 in mountains. Very famous story. Revolution song.”

On the floor were about 20 women, holding hands at shoulder level, their silver-and-black lamé gowns twinkling in the candlelight as they spun in a circle. Albanian women dance considerably better than Albanian men. The song changed again.

“Ah,” said Sal. “Te deshta me hakikat. I truly love you.”

“Great band,” one of the Americans told Sal. “Don’t they ever take a break?”

“Are you kidding?” Sal was indignant. “We tell when to take break. Very long walk back to Chicago.”

We had gathered-these Albanians, Albanian refugees, Albanian-Americans, Yugoslavian Albanians, French Albanians and members of the Albanian band-for the biggest Albanian wedding of the year in Dallas. All day long Albanians had been pouring into D/FW Airport from Los Angeles, Chicago, Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut and Boston. Entire families came, first cousins galore, to see the partly Moslem, partly Catholic and partly legal union of Nikky Kaba, the boyishly charming baby son of the Kaba clan, and Ajfere Kadriu, a dark-eyed beauty who celebrated her 18th birthday a few months earlier in the Macedonian village of Skopje, Yugoslavia.

“This nice city,” said Pete, one of Nikky’s brothers from Chicago. “In Chicago we have 17,000 Albanians. In Dallas we have 200 Albanians.” He looked at us meaningfully. “But rising in Dallas.”

Pete lowered his voice and spoke confidentially. “This wedding cost me a fortune,” he said. “I paid for the band.”

It was an arranged marriage, as almost all Albanian marriages are. Nikky’s older brother, Mouny, who owns an Italian restaurant in Dallas, had flown to New Jersey during the summer to meet with Ajfere’s father. The two men had signed a contract and concluded the deal, contingent only on the bride and groom having one overseas telephone conversation. Nikky, who had spent the first 25 years of his life wrinkling his dimples at pretty girls, wrecking various automobiles and memorizing the complete screenplays of Cheech and Chong movies, delayed the call for weeks. When it finally happened, he was so nervous that he kept threatening to hang up on his future wife. “I have to go now,” he would say, but she would insist on more information. After the call was over, Nikky grinned broadly and gave his brother the high sign. The wedding was on. Nikky immediately went out and bought a wedding ring-for himself-and for the rest of the summer went around saying, “The important thing is the family honor. I must marry to uphold family honor. God has sent me a goddess.” Mouny would tell him to go back in the kitchen and fix the salads.

A few weeks after the phone call, and after Mouny put up the $4,000 it would take to get Ajfere to Dallas, Nikky met his bride for the first time.

And now, on this balmy October night, in a tiny Italian restaurant in a strip shopping center, Ajfere would not only become a wife but a U.S. citizen. The marriage would make her legal-instant naturalization. She had been here a total of three weeks, so perhaps the blank look on her face was to be expected. Twenty-four hours before, she had been at a similar wedding party in Bergen County, New Jersey, where the extensive Kadriu family celebrated her send-off to the Kaba family. Tonight none of the Kadrius were invited. That wouldn’t be polite. Tonight the bride must show respect to the relatives of her husband.

Ensuring that she showed the proper respect, as usual, was the 95-year-old Kaba matriarch, a tiny peasant woman whose face was swathed in a babushka and who sat at the head table, beaming and nodding, telling everyone when to stand, when to sit, when to eat, when to dance and when to open the presents. The bride dined first-alone. Then, throughout the wedding dinner, the bride stood at attention, a sign of respect to Grandmother Kaba. You didn’t have to be around the Albanians more than a few minutes to see that women ran the show.

“This wedding,” said Mouny, emerging from the kitchen where he had just prepared a traditional Albanian dinner of rare roast beef for 90 people, “this wedding cost me a fortune.” He spoke in a low whisper. “Don’t tell Nikky. He don’t know. But I had to bring the band from Chicago.”

The groom-resplendent in white tails, his kinky black hair coiffed like Mac Davis-rose from the head table and made his way across the floor. As he passed behind the bride, he smirked and winked at us, touching his thumb to his forefinger and pressing the “okay” sign against his chest, a private little signal that meant none of his worst nightmares had materialized. Translation: “Thank God she wasn’t ugly.”

I flipped through the mimeographed Programi on the table, a list of the 165 songs the band knew by heart. Apparently you could request them by number. I was beginning to think they intended to play all of them.

“Hi. My name is Shawn.” I looked into the huge, sad eyes of a man in his 20s with shaggy brown hair. “I’m Albanian. Will you have beer?”

I had a beer with Shawn, one of the few unmarried Albanians in the restaurant. “I must be married soon also.”

To an American girl or an Albanian girl?

“Oh, Albanian. Only Albanian girl.”

You don’t like American girls?

“I love American girls, French girls, Dutch girls. I grew up in Paris because my father was kicked out of Albania. But for marriage I must have Albanian girl. One is waiting for me in Germany, and she will be coming soon, but I think I might go there to see first. All I have is picture.”

Is she beautiful?

“In picture, but I don’t know. I don’t trust picture.”

Why wouldn’t you marry an American girl?

“Too smart. You can’t tell them what to do. Albanian girl, you just say go and raise family. Very traditional. American girl, they talk back.”

I told Shawn I got the impression that Albanian girls talked back, too, once they got married.

“But they never cheat. American girl, she might cheat. It’s too risky.”

At the next table, the Florida family was noisily sending back the roast beef because it was “raw.” Everybody seemed to be complaining about the food, perhaps because everybody was in the restaurant business.

“Do you know about Albanian history?” asked Ysen. He was back from rounding up his two young boys, who were running around outside on the sidewalk.

I tried to think of the name of one city in Albania. I shook my head.

Ysen launched into an explanation of how Albanians were originally Illyrians and controlled most of modern Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. But then they were conquered and controlled by the Romans for nine centuries, and by the Turks for six more centuries. The Romans introduced Western ideas, including Catholicism, into the peasant society. Then the Turks tried to wipe out Western ideas, introducing Moslem worship, music and traditions. Then, in World War I, Albania was further carved up by the Slavs, and so the Albanians never have figured out exactly what they are. During the last war, they were occupied by three different armies, but the only one that mattered was the Russian. The Communists installed a president who has reigned ever since.

“Here,” said Mike. “This song. About the Albanian land that’s in Yugoslavia but it’s still Albania. Very good song about Albanian land.”

Most Albanians in the United States are descendants of families who resisted the Communists during World War II. Nikky’s grandfather, for example, was a general who commanded the king’s army-and was forced to live out his life in exile. Most of the endangered families simply crossed over into Yugoslavia and set up housekeeping in Albanian villages in Macedonia or Serbia. But the Yugoslavians treated them like second-class citizens, and so the dream, for most of them, was either to return to Albania if it became free again or to emigrate to America. Many of them came by way of Italy and Greece, where they saved money in the time-honored manner of refugees everywhere-working in kitchens. The ones who did finally make it to the United States avoided the crowded New York ghettos of other eastern European immigrants. They headed straight for the suburbs-primarily northern New Jersey, southern Connecticut and the bedroom communities south of Chicago-and reopened restaurants and other small businesses.

“Six years I work for Four Seasons Restaurant,” said Pete, “to learn things. My brother Richie-E.F. Hutton. Twenty-three years, E.F. Hutton.”

When Mouny and Sal, the Albanian pioneers in Dallas, arrived here 10 years ago, they made a beeline for the Belt Line Road area, called their relatives and said, “It’s just like Jersey,” and watched the family start spreading out through Richardson.

“We love Richardson schools,” said Mouny. “Such a wonderful education my children get. They don’t even talk Albanian to me anymore. You ask a question in Albanian, they answer in English. The youngest one, he very smart.”

Only two of the celebrants had actually come directly from Communist Albania- the one in baby-blue polyester and the lank one who danced like he was from southern Albania. They had risked their lives to defect to Greece, then laboriously made their way to America. They were both in sales.

“Albanians very generous people,” said Mike, explaining why there were big piles of $20 bills scattered around the dance floor. “Tips for band.” Mike lowered his voice and leaned across the table. “I had to pay to bring band from Chicago.”

The accordionist hit the opening chord for “Naske Te Therret Joteme Tarnanina,” the vocalist began to wail and pretty soon the bride and groom were on their way out the front door, where a brand new Toyota was waiting.

Mouny had paid for the Toyota.

Nikky waved, jumped in, floored the accelerator and sped away to his South Texas honeymoon.

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