by Rafaela Prifti/
The lasting impact of the Albanian-American journalist with a-three-decade-career at VOA, author of books on history and Albania’s national figures and a special contributor to Dielli, Ilir Ikonomi
After nearly a thirty-years-professional-career at the Albanian Language Service of Voice of America, Ilir Ikonomi announced his retirement from the anchor’s chair of Ditari broadcast on Friday. He joined the Washington DC-based media organization funded by the U.S. Congress in 1992 and has reported or covered important events in the United States, Albania, Kosova, Northern Macedonia and other locations for the Albanian speaking community. Last Friday, at the end of the show, Ikonomi announced that he is retiring from VOA and will go on to pursue other projects.
The Albanian-American journalist said he felt privileged to have been part of a respectable media establishment known for standing up for the truth. He expressed gratitude to the audience for being part of the journey with him, and, as any seasoned journalist would, Ilir took them back to a once-in-a-lifetime-event he covered in 1999. It was the NATO troops deployed in Kosova following the airstrikes and bombing campaign against Serbian forces. “On June 12, 1999 I entered Kosova with the NATO troops and reported via a satellite telephone for Voice of America,” he proudly recalled on his last show. He paid homage to “truth-telling”, which he says sits at the very foundation of the Voice of America, ever since its founding 80 years ago. Ilir Ikonomi remarked: “Reporting the truth is no easy task. It requires courage and hard work. I believe that the VOA journalists, who do their work free from government interference, are deserving of that attribute.” The Albanian-American journalist said he considers it an honor to have been part of this effort.
History and Literary Contribution
At 66, Ilir Ikonomi is a well-respected author of several books focusing on Albania’s history and national figures. Ikonomi’s work, “Pavarësia – Udhëtimi i paharruar i Ismail Qemalit” (Independence – The Unforgettable Journey of Ismail Qemali) was published in 2012. A year earlier, he debuted with “Faik Konica: Jeta në Uashington” (Faik Konitza: Life in Washington), a biography in the Albanian language, critically acclaimed for its depth with regard to the life of Albania’s prominent writer and diplomat. In May 2014, Ikonomi published “Pushtimi,” (The Invasion) that centers on the 1939 occupation of Albania by fascist Italy, as narrated by the U.S. Envoy in Tirana at the time, Hugh G. Grant. Two years later, the author released “Essad Pasha Toptani: The Man, the War, the Power”, which won praise as an impartial biography of the one of the most controversial figures of Albania’s history.
I have worked with Ilir at Voice of America and on several State Department Interpreting assignments. For me, the impact of our teamwork along with my respect for his professionalism and humility endures far beyond the years we worked together. In April 2018, as the English Editor of Dielli I was preparing a tribute dedicated to the passing of Agim Karagjozi, Vatra’s President for nearly two decades. I reached out to Ilir, asking him to share his memories and he willingly provided a segment of his 2002 video interview with Karagjozi. It showed at one point the Chairman smoking and Ilir interrupting him to remark that appearing with a cigarette in hand would send the wrong message to the young people. “Without any hesitation, Mr. Karagjozi puts out the cigarette with a guilty smile. “Why didn’t you say that earlier?” he asked. “Mr. Karagjozi’s humanity was admirable, it was perhaps one of his most precious qualities,” Ilir noted in an email.
Faik Konica’s 1930 Original Article titled Albania unearthed by Ilir Ikonomi appears in Dielli in 2018
In March 2018, Dielli was marking the birth anniversary of Faik Konica. Naturally, I reached out to the author of a historic monograph on Konica. Again, Ilir responded promptly by sending a story he had uncovered in an old collection preserved by the The Mayflower, the famous Washington D.C. hotel where Konica spent most of his years in the capital as King Zog’s envoy. The Mayflower was then “the second-best address in Washington D.C. after the White House” and records show that Konica had rented a suite there. Here is an excerpt from Ikonomi’s story written with such elegance and style that in my opinion, would have pleased Konica. “Konica’s suite which also served as the Legation of Albania, was located on the second floor of the building, facing Desales Street and had the plaque Albanian Republic on the door. Sadly, over the years, this part of the hotel has been completely transformed and the original suite does not exist anymore. Just like Konica, a number of Senators, administration officials and other celebrities had made The Mayflower their primary residence, for it was the meeting place of the rich and famous. The hotel was aptly nicknamed the Grande Dame of Washington.” Ikonomi writes about his excitement when he found out the existence of a monthly magazine with notes on celebrity guests and other hotel visitors. He said: “The historian of The Mayflower guided me through the many issues of The Washingtonian and there I was able to find quite a few things: In the February 1929 issue of the magazine, a writer named Margaret B. Downing had a few notes about the Albanian minister. At that time, Konica had just returned from a trip to Albania, during which King Zog had promised to promote him to prime minister, as I later learned with great surprise. For reasons hard to explain, Konica never went back to fill the post.” Ikonomi went on to say: “In the September 1930 issue, I discovered a long article written in English by Faik Konica, which was subsequently translated into Albanian by Gjon Mili, an Albanian-American photographer best known for his work published in Life magazine. The Albanian translation was printed in Dielli of October 14, 1930. As it happened the Albanian translation is widely known, whereas the English original was considered lost. I believe the English text in The Washingtonian is precisely the original I had been looking for.” So, one of the best-known pieces written by Konica in 1930 in English, was finally discovered thanks to Ilir Ikonomi. Dielli was able to reprint it exactly eighty-eight years later after Mili’s translation.
Ilir Ikonomi’s Presentation at Dielli 110th Anniversary – the Only Known Recording of Konica’s Voice
On April 6th 2019 at the morning panel of Dielli’s 110th anniversary event in New York, Ilir Ikonomi was scheduled to be the fourth presenter. He was unable to attend the conference, yet he made available for the event -and later donated to Vatra- an NBC Radio interview with Faik Konica dated April 8, 1939, almost 90 years ago to the day of the commemoration. The interview was conducted by Hilmar Baukhage, a veteran State Department reporter and NBC’s Washington commentator. This is believed to be the only known recording in existence of Konica’s voice. Reporter Baukhage asks about Italy’s seizure of Albania and introduces Faik Konica as the Minister of Albania in Washington. In the interview, Konica condemns the Italian aggression stating that after 20 years of friendly relations Italy attacked Albania “for no apparent reason at all”. Only a small portion of the interview had been previously made available by the Library of Congress. The voice of one of Vatra forefathers is a precious gift for which Ilir Ikonomi deserves credit and has our gratitude.
Congratulations to Ilir on a splendid career! Much success in his future endeavors.
In ending, my thoughts go back to his comments about Agim Karagjozi. Ilir Ikonomi recognizes and appreciates humility in others because he too is known for his modesty. Although the veteran journalist and author has helped Dielli shine a little brighter by enriching its records and archives, I doubt he will feel at ease about my putting the spotlight on him.