I was walking up Hobrechtstrasse in Neukölln the other day when who did I run into but Petrit, my old friend and owner of Mama Bar, that legendary Neukölln watering hole where I had spent many a night back in the day. It had been ages since we had seen each other. Petrit’s beard was touched with grey now, but it was still unmistakably the old shock-headed Albanian hipster there in front of me.

We only stopped long enough to exchange a few fleeting pleasantries – long enough, at any rate for Petrit to tell me he had closed Mama. The news was momentous.  Somehow, for me, the closure symbolized the unequivocal end of an era. For four intense years – from 2007 till 2011 it had been my stammkneipe, right when the scene in Neukölln was picking up steam, when it seemed we could change  the world (at least Berlin) – this before covid and war looming on the horizon. Ten years separated me from that period, but it might as well have been another epoch entirely.

I first got to known Petrit in 2007 during a two-week Balkan road trip from Prague to Belgrade, Kosovo and Albania in the company with Ivan Melčl, the Czech publisher of the Prague art magazine, Umělec (Artist). Ivan had organized the trip with the idea in mind of buying a ruined monastery turned abandoned military post overlooking the Adriatic, which he wanted to make into an art center. Petrit –  who was an Albanian hailing from Kosovo – was supposed to be his fixer, there to translate and help mediate with whoever owned the land Ivan wanted to acquire. It was, as they say in German, a schnapsidee, a wet idea, a hair-brained scheme, and it came to nothing.

Petrit was then a thirty year old, tall, dark-haired fanatic  from Gjakova in Kosovo, where it is said all the Kosovo queers, communists and intellectuals come from. Petrit had been confronted at thirteen by  Serbs with Kalashnikovs who  stuck their guns to his chest as he attempted to smuggle school books to the Albanian school the soldiers had been ordered to close. Forced to emigrate, Petrit went to the Czech Republic shortly before the war, settling in Brno, where he worked in his uncle’s shoe shop. In the Czech Republic he started writing about contemporary art. When the war broke out he was saved from fighting at the last moment by a female journalist from a Czech NGO, who gave him a translating job in Albania in the service of the Kosovar cause. 

Petrit was a journalist by trade, though he had no university education – finding Priština University Serb oppressed – getting his career start at sixteen writing about the NBA for a Kosovo paper. Later he started writing about art after meeting an Albanian art Mafioso named Sislej Xhafa. Petrit wrote about Sislej and was present at his exhibitions in the various capitals of Europe. Following Sislej, Petrit moved to Barcelona where he opened up a bar, and in 2007 he came to Berlin seeking my help with regards to his plans of opening up an art cinema in Prenzlauerberg. 

He quickly revised his plans, deciding to open up a bar instead. Petrit spoke five languages, Albanian, Serbian, English, Czech and Spanish. Although he was intellectual and alternativ, as they say in German, he was  very nationalistic, as all Albanians are, and having lived six years abroad didn’t seem to have tempered his nationalism any, in fact may have fired it up a bit. 

When Kreuzkölln was risky.

I had been hanging around Neukölln already in 2003, patronizing mainly a Serbian mini-market and music shop on Flughafenstraße, owned by a diminutive Serbian homosexual named Zoran Marković, who would invite me into the back room, where we would drink shots of slivovitz, and talk about Serbia and Balkan politics. Periodically, old, grizzled ex-Yugo Gastarbeiter from the hood would show up, and among them was Roko a jet-black haired, hatched-faced chain smoking Croat, minus a couple of teeth, who looked like the guitarist of a sixties garage band. Roko waited tables at Louis, an Austrian restaurant on Richardplatz in Rixdorf, whose claim to fame was that they had the biggest schnitzel in Berlin 

Roko had been living in Neukölln for fifteen years and prided himself that he had ”the nose”. Although Neukölln appeared to me to be a wasteland of old-style Berlin Eck-Kneipen, Balkan, Turkish and Arabic minimarkets, betting shops and shisha bars, Roko maintained that the area was ripe for change. One night I brought Petrit out to meet Roko at Roma Café, Neukölln’s sole scene bar back then in 2008. I mentioned to Roko that Petrit was interested in opening up a bar, and Roko said that Neukölln was the place. Without a doubt. 

“I have the nose,” said Roko. “If you open up a  bar in Reuterkiezyou can’t go wrong. Trust me, I know.”

I personally liked the district – the Turkish cafes and the German Eck-kneipen – but a scene bar seemed to me at the time to be a risky venture. Petrit, however, had his heart set on Reuterkiez, which at the time was full of shuttered-up shops, end-of-the-line bars with Schultheis on tap for one euro fifty, Turkish cafes where men sat playing cards under framed portraits of Ataturk, Wettbüro , sex kinos. Petrit, however,  smelled something. A couple days after wandering around the neighborhood,Petrit, however, became convinced the kiez was the right address. And I knew he was right. I had absolute trust in Petrit‘s instinct. It was the Albanian instinct for money.

Petrit had a childhood friend from Gjaikova in Neukölln. His name was Dren, and he was an aspiring filmmaker, who had lived in New York for a stint before coming to Berlin. Together, the three of us, set off on reconnaissance missions through Neukölln.

At the time there were just a couple of scene-bars in Reuterkiez, where German students and artists sat drinking beer in dimly lit interiors. This in contrast to the Turkish Kulturvereine where Turkish men sat playing cards under bright lights. It was interesting, I remarked, how the Turks liked brightly lit cafes and the Germans liked dark bars. Dren said it was because the Turks couldn’t see their cards in the dark. Petrit said it was because the Germans did dark things at night, whereas the Turks did dark things during the day and so preferred to sit in brightly lit locales at night.

I told Petrit that it would be interesting if his new bar catered not merely to Germans, but to Turks, Albanians and Serbs. It would be a step towards world peace. 

“You could have the only place in Berlin where Albanians and Serbs, Turks and Germans coexisted in harmony,” I said,  

“It will never work,” said Petrit, who was shooting for the young German and West European clientele.

In the end  Petrit took over an old trophy shop on Hobrechtstrasse  next door to an old-style German bar where patrons danced conga lines to schlager music, and across the street from a Turkish Kulturverein and a bordello called Pension Diamant.

With second-hand DDR chairs from the seventies salvaged from Boxhagener Platz, tacky lamps, and  untreated, rough-hewn walls, Mama Bar was one of the first alternative Szene-kneipen in the Reuterkiez. Also appealing was the alcohol – Czech beer from a small brewery in north Bohemia and a fine selection of Belarusian vodka.

After opening up his bar in Berlin in 2008, Petrit commissioned Kosovo artists to create artworks for the bar.  One of the artists, named Jakup Ferri, had an interest for outsider art, which he shared with Petrit.

It was as if everyone in Neukölln had been waiting for such a bar as this. Up until around 2008 when Mama and several other scene bars opened up in Kreuzkölln, Neuköllners with an alternative bent had to head to Bergmannstraße and Kotti to get a bit of action. Neukölln was uncool and uncouth. But it wasn’t long until BZ was advertising Reuterkiez as “Neucooooln” and curious Berliners and ultimately the whole panoply of international expats, who were making Berlin their home, came by for a drink.

I took it upon myself to give Mama a Balkan touch. I gave Petrit all of my Balkan music and fixed up a Romanian brass orchestra to play for the opening. That first half year before the neighbors started complaining about noise, I tracked  down Gypsy street musicians on the U-bahns and on street corners dragging  them in to play for baksheesh and 50 euro a pop.  There was Turkish belly dancing, Balkan flamenco, an Israeli bouzouki band, a seventy year-old  Romanian cembalo player, dancing in the bar and on the bar, vodka on the house and before you knew it the bar was full every night, and not just with German students from the neighborhood, but with Americans, Israelis, Spanish, Italians, all these guys who were fleeing the West for something illusive they felt only Berlin could provide. When Petrit was in a festive mood he would climb the bar and pour Belorussian vodka into avid mouths. “Brno, Barcelona, Berlin!” Petrit would shout. “We’re taking over all cities beginning with ‘B’! Belgrade’s next!”

Gradually, however, the neighbors started to complain. In particular the Montenegrin guy named Elvis, who lived above the bar with his family and would occasionally call the cops when the noise didn’t die down. The upshot was that we had to revise our concept. Live music dropped by the wayside, and while Petrit still played Balkan music, it became so muted it was hardly audible.

Mama Bar became my Stammkneipe, and for my services, dealing with the Ordnungsamt etc. I got free beer. This could well have been my downfall. Thankfully, Petrit decided to make me pay half price for the beers otherwise I would have turned into a flat-out alcoholic. But the decision to have me pay half price may also have something to do with the fact that I was gradually making myself into a persona non grata at the bar as a result of my out-and-out Serb sympathies.

Quite often Petrit’s Albanian friends would come round for a drink. Some of them even had fought the Serbs as fighters for the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Front – in Kosovo.

“I was bored,” said one of Petrit’s Albanian friends when I asked him why he joined the KLA. “Me and my friends were just sitting around in cafes with nothing to do. Someone said, ‘Lets go join the KLA.‘ They gave us weapons. They gave us the most antique weapons. They must have been from the First World War. We trained. The commanders they said we were free to fight if we wanted to. It was up to us. We didn’t have to fight if we didn’t want to. I remember shooting at tanks. I can’t tell you if I killed anyone.”

Petrit was different. He was this alternative Albanian. He didn‘tlike that typical Albanian music the rest of the Albanian peasant urbanites liked. He was not a fighter. He never considered joining the KLA. Sometimes he said he might have. But I didn‘t believe him. However, even the alternative Albanian guys were nationalist to man. Even the punks. I had never seen an Albanian punk, but if there wereany I’d imagine they still hated the Serbs and kissed the Albanian flag.

So when I started showing up wearing a Serbian jersey on top of a T-shirt that said in Cyrillic, “Fuck the country that doesn’t have Guča”, I ended up rubbing the Albanian contingent the wrong way. Decidedly.

“What the fuck is that for a T-shirt?“ said Bardhi, one of Petrit’s Albanian friends, pointing at me.

“Serbia soon to be Greater Albania,” said Petrit.

“Why do we allow him to wear it?”

“Because we are the winners,” said Petrit. “We let the Serbs do what they want. They say they are the wolves, but we are the bears that eat the wolves.”

But Bardhi was still not placated. He just stood there, scowling.

“Look,” I said, “if you gave me a cool looking T-shirt that had an Albanian eagle on it, I would wear it.”

“I have a T-shirt with an Albanian eagle,” said Bardhi. “I’ll give it to you.”

“I’ll wear it,” I said.

“Would you?” said Bardhi sceptically.

“Of course. I’ll wear it under my Serbia jersey. I’ll say, ‘You have a problem with that? Look at this !” I pulled up my jersey. 

“This is not correct,” said Bardhi. “If you have it under Serbia that means that Serbia owns Kosovo. This is of course bullshit.”

***

Suddenly Mama Bar became wildly successful. So much so that my Serbian friend Sasha – when I told him about the bar – wanted a piece of the action. 

Sasha was – as they said in the Balkans – a mangup, a two-bit chav and small-time mafiosi who they called “der schöner Sasha” – “handsome Sasha”, “pretty boy Sasha”. Sasha was a Serbian small-time hustler, con-artist and with a dubious history of fist fights and knife fights behind him, who was or wasn’t in Arkan’s volunteer guard, a paratrooper, a casino owner and jewelery thief, Porsche driver, jail bird, Casanova, Serb patriot etc. etc. etc.

Sasha’s business was “import-export” and he dealt with just about everything under the sun that could turn a quick and easy buck. He was also a some-time hired gorilla of a local red-light prince, the owner of a Charlottenburg strip club where Sasha manned the door, keeping the Albanian mafia at bay, and preventing them from muscling in on the women. Sasha wanted to be introduced to Petrit, convinced he could offer him his services either as doorman of connection to a wide array of Serbian turbo-folk stars.

I knew from the start the chemistry wouldn’t work. But Sasha kept pushing for an interview. One day I relented and persuaded Petrit to lend Sasha his ear.

When Sasha showed up he looked like a fish out of water. Decidedly. He was wearing a suit and tie and  had his copy of Vesti with, Serbia’s mostly nationalist diaspora newspaper turned to the Crni Hroniky, the Black Chronicles, which were all about crimes committed by Serbs at home and abroad. Sasha seemed to know quite a few of the people involved. Some appeared to be personal friends. He spoke about them with an air of reverence. 

This time there was some story about a guy who was given lifelong for the murder to someone in Sweden or something. Sasha pointed to the picture, and as if wanting to impress Petrit, said “I know this guy. Personal friend of mine. He stayed at my place in Šabac.” 

Petrit didn’t say anything. 

Then Sasha launched in on his resume: casinos, nightclubs, nagelneue Porsch etc. 

Petrit looked at his watch and said, “Make it quick.”

So Sasha spoke about his exploits as a doorman in Belgrade. Going to work with two guns, scrapping with gangsters at the door, He grabbed me suddenly by the lapels and showed me how he head-butted one of Arkan’s men.

“I’m an animal,” said Sasha. “An animal.”

Petrit kept his mouth shut, although you could tell he was simmering with dislike and disdain for the Serb.

The meeting, you could say, was not a success. 

As soon as Sasha left the bar, Petrit turned to me and said:

“Robert, do me a favor and never bring that fucking mangup to my bar again.”

Sasha himself referred to Petrit the next day as “An Albanian choban (shepherd) not fit to shine my shoes.”

***

Well, time went on and business went so well at Mama that Petrit took over an old Sportwettladen on the same street and opened up a short-lived restaurant which he called Pika-Pika, serving Mediterranean dishes at not exactly Neukölln prices – which must have annoyed the local Autonomen who one evening smeared graffiti on his walls and broke his windows.

Petrit should have known what was coming. The whole anti-gentrification resentment in Reuterkiez at the new international mob which was crowding in and pushing up rents. But Petrit couldn’t give a damn.

“The neighborhood was dangerous before we came,” said Petrit. “Girls were harassed on the street. People were afraid. And what are you going to do? We aren’t in Communism. You can’t stop change.”

Petrit increasingly spent less and less time at the bar and more time abroad, looking for Outsider Art to buy in Africa, Haiti, South America. The bar gradually lost its Balkan flavor as it became more and more overwhelmed by the international hipster set. So much so that I became increasingly annoyed at the kind of place Mama was turning into. At one point I wrote a negative article on Mama for Exberliner, which ended up with Petrit banning me from ever setting foot in his bar again. 

He needn’t have bothered. On January 3, 2011 I left for Istanbul, leaving behind Berlin and my fond memories of Mama forever.