Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Among the Bosnians I

The talk is titled, "The Musical Heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina" and is organised by the Bosnian Institute in the Boardroom at the University of Westminster. It is a dry, academic presentation with five brief bits of music recorded between 1907 and 1939. The originals have been badly preserved, and it is hard to make out. But it isn't the music that draws the audience so much as the name of the country that has come to mean so many things to people.

Afterwards almost half of the audience retires to the pub, and over cigarettes my interrogation begins. I am neither Bosnian, nor British, and my contention that I'm an Indian writer interested in Bosnia does little to curb the disbelief. Since I admit, beforehand, that I have never visited the country, suspicion settles over me like a cloud.

He Makes Me Happy About My Country

"Why Bosnia?" Aida asks. Born in Bosnia, having grown up in Sweden, she works as a clinical pharmacologist in London.

"Because Bosnia is a success," I reply.

"What makes you say that?"

It is then that I begin to tell her what the siege of Sarajevo, the longest and most brutal siege in modern history has meant to those outside of Bosnia. I tell her of what it meant that the city survived, and that its people, variegated as they were, suffered and survived together. I tell her what it means that, when the siege finally came to an end, the survivors were able to point to all the cathedrals still standing in the city while mosques were being torn down across the land.

"The world failed Bosnia," I say, "but Bosnia didn't fail itself. It has been more than a decade and there have been no pogroms, no widespread revenge killings. In all the world there has never been a case of so many refugees returning so quickly to the places where they had been driven from; to live among their former enemies. There are many problems, many failures, but look at Israel and Palestine, look at Sri Lanka, look at Kashmir. None of them compare with Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Aida's face has grown steadily more serious as I have continued, and I raise my hand to stop the flow of my enthusiasm, and to apologise. This is the Bosnia of my imaginings, I say, not necessarily the country she knows. I apologise if I have offended in my ignorance.

She shakes her head at me, at herself. "I am only serious, not angry. It is just that we have spent so much time thinking of it as a tragedy."

"The tragedy was there, but so are the successes. I don't think we should ignore the second."

She laughs ruefully, and turns to one of the others at the table, "He makes me happy about my country."

Nothing Really Explains It

But I am not done with explaining myself, and Shaila, who questions me next, is blunt.

"So, we are asking ourselves about you and what interest you may have. And I ask if maybe you are with the mujahedin?"

It is halfway to a joke, but only halfway. I say that I am interested in politics, that Bosnia, this country that I have never seen, fascinates me, how, despite its wounds, it has recovered, tried to move on.

Shaila's eyes are sharp. A person would have to be a fool to look only at the blond hair, the scarlet lipstick, the high heels, and the long cigarette dangling from her fingers. She is finishing a PhD on multiculturalism, teaches Islamic finance, and works with deaf people.

I ask about the Islamic finance.

"I read this article by an American political scientist about whether Muslims are allowed to pay taxes if they live in a non-Muslim country," she tells me.

I make a face, and she laughs. "Yes. These Americans. Anyway I wrote to them, pointing out the mistakes, and they asked me to write on the subject. So I'm teaching the subject a bit, and getting these articles published in a political science journal based in California."

These Americans, indeed. With the honourable exception of people like Charles Lindholm and Barbara Metcalf, the overwhelming number of American academics who are ignorant about Islamic issues, and willing to broadcast their ignorance, is staggering. The American Empire is probably the only one in history, in which the majority of its vassals and allies, spend their time laughing at the hegemon.

It is harder to laugh at the PhD topic. "I just can't understand it. Here, in London, they make multi-culturalism work. In Bosnia we spend fifty years living as brothers and sisters, and then spend another ten killing each other. Now we live like brothers and sisters again. I've heard a lot of explanations. Some of them make sense, but nothing really explains it. I am just going to finish up my thesis the best as I can, but I don't think any one explanation can do justice to the topic."

I Walk In All The Neighbourhoods

Goran is the only one who declares his allegiance rather than asking for mine.

"My mother is Muslim, my father is a Croat, and my sister is married to an [Serbian] Orthodox man. I belong to no one community, or I belong to all of them. These days the nationalists are in power in my country. They come to the neighbourhoods with their politics of fear. They say that if you don't stick together the other groups will, and then you'll be isolated and alone when they gang up against you. But what am I supposed to do? I walk in all the neighbourhoods. And I don't want to become 'Goran, who was born in Bosnia, but ran away to another country'. I want to do things, but we need help. People need jobs, we have landmines all across the place. So many people are only semi-literate. They only know enough to put a tick mark, or thumbprint, next to the people they are voting for. They don't know anything about the people, or what they stand for."

He is passionate and bitter, but finally winds down. "And the Arabs come and give us money for mosques. We already have mosques. We have had Islam for five centuries. It may not be a strong Islam and does not stop the beer and miniskirts. We never have a strong anything, not even strong Communism. But we have hundreds of mosques, just not enough factories, not enough jobs."

He looks up at me, and asks, "What do you think?"

I shake my head. What can I do? "I think good stories are important."

"What do you mean?"

"In India, we also tend to live in communities, even in big cities people of one religion tend to live in separate colonies. One of my closes friends has his house in one such colony in New Delhi. There was a lot of political tension in the 1990s, with people using religion for politics. One day the rumour came up that a Hindu mob was going to attack the colony. It was one of those vague rumours that everybody hears and believes. People were scared, and tried to find ways to blockade the doors of their houses, to protect their families. At this time a Hindu classmate of my friend, maybe fifteen-sixteen years old, made his way through the city to stand with my friend and his family in that colony."

I pause, and then continue. "The mob never came. The rumours were false. The politicians of fear could still have won if it wasn't for the courage, the example, of that one boy and people like him. Today, it seems everywhere we look there are the same politics of rumour and fear. The example, the courage, of Bosnia is ignored. In dark days you need stories of hope. We should build on them."

"I'll help you!" Goran declares emphatically. "You want to go to the country, talk to the people? I will come with you, translate, help."

I grin cynically to myself, and think how easy it is to inspire good people. But governments, thinktanks, people with money and power, is a different case. I regret speaking now. To declare a love that you have no means of achieving is to mock it.

I spread my hands, palms upwards. It is a gesture of defeat. "Goran. I wish I could do this, but right now I am only a writer and broke."

But I have inspired Goran, and he doesn't see my dream as what it is, a dream, not a plan. Only a cigarette allows me to hide my shame.

So Long Ago In Sarajevo

It is Goran's partner, girlfriend, or whatever term we use these days, who breaches my cynicism. She is Scottish, a chef, and currently a little worse for wear with drink. But she has been following the conversation, and she tells me about her first trip to Bosnia.

"It was just after the war," she says, "And I was travelling in a taxi from the airport to the place I was supposed to be working in Sarajevo. I saw the bombed houses, everything destroyed. I had only lived in Soho and places like that in London. I was completely unprepared for something like that. All I could do was to say, 'No'".

She acts it out, both hands pushing away at some post-apocalyptic landscape, while a mouth becomes round with horror, eyes caught in the image in her memory.

"No!" The word becomes a long, drawn-out sound. In that moment, despite the alcohol, despite distorting time, and vast distance, she is there again, in that taxi, so long ago in Sarajevo.

The piece is written by Omair Ahmad. Please leave your comments.
Omair is a dear friend and also a soon to be published author. His book titled Encounters is expected to hit book stores within a few days. I will provide the details of the book very soon.

Coming Next: Among the Bosnians II


Abhigyan said...

For a second, you made my jaw-drop..Breathtaking piece, by any standards. And what writing maan, had just heard references about his famous blog which still exist on Xanjukta's!! I guess you have started following my trick of putting source right at the end.
Anyways, my knowledge of Bosnia is rather limited, except for the knowledge that the First World War started in that region, and in the new century, they have contributed to the biggest threat to nationalism, 'balknisation'.
I celebrate India for still being a successful nation-state experiment, however flawed it is. All similar examples, primarily the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed, and it again stengthens by liberal capitalist beliefs that they were mainly governed by centralist Communist regimes. We have problems mainly in our Himalayan areas, and the only we can survive politically is by giving them more space. Till then, as Lata ji had put it, Jai Hind Ki Sena!!!

satya said...

I agree here totally. When Omair emailed me the piece this was my immediate reaction, "Dude,That was the best thing I have read in months. Fuck fiction, you know where you should bull shit...
Are you going to let this lovely write up waste in an email inbox?
If you dont think of anything, I want this up on my blog.I should have listened to more of your stories or maybe you should write them down for me".

Now, even with the advantage that hind sight offers nothing I wrote above has changed.

Getting down to the points, I really thought that point about the success in the Bosnian tragedy was breathtaking in the way its narrated, "I raise my hand to stop the flow of my enthusiasm, and to apologise. This is the Bosnia of my imaginings, I say, not necessarily the country she knows. I apologise if I have offended in my ignorance." or in Aida's final reaction, 'She laughs ruefully, and turns to one of the others at the table, "He makes me happy about my country."'

I also enjoyed the gentle layers of reaction begining with sceptical hostility (mujahedin) and moving to genuine relief at the incredulity of the thought to a warm discussion.

But in my view this takes the cake,"In dark days you need stories of hope. We should build on them."

That is, Omair, terrific and read in the context it feels superbly crafted and such a genuine expression of stories and story telling and their intangible value. Priceless.

Anonymous said...


Hope you see this. This was one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long, long time. I think you;re absolutely right that stories are important, that language holds possibilities that academics and politicians don't relaize or maybe realize only in sinister ways.

And the writing is excellent- simple, clear and powerful. Pretty f'ing awesome..I agree with Satya- I whould have listened to more of your stories back then.

anyway, please send me what you write next..and I hope all's well. I've managed to survive in Syracuse so far! You were right about Euclid ave...

Anyway, the piece was great- I'm going to forward it to some people that will appreciate it.


Omair said...

Hey, this much praise and I'll die, as it is everybody I know can already vouch for the fact that I've got a overblown ego! (=

If you guys are interested in the Bosnia issue I'd recommend two books, "Love Thy Neighbour" by Peter Maass and "A Short History of Bosnia" by Noel Malcolm. Emir Suljagic's "Postcards from the Grave" about surviving Srebrenica is fantastic. You should also note that the Serbs have, in the end, been among the worst long-term sufferers, so do make the distinction that it was Milosevic and his regime rather than Serbs themselves, who are to blame.

About good stories, I think they are vitally important. Many of you will not know but in talking about Kashmir and its many tragedies, we tend to overlook that some Kashmiri Hindus still live there among their neighbours. In fact during the municipal elections in 2005 they, and the Sikhs, were conspicous in their overrepresentation in the people elected. One of the things that I was able to do when I was working on J&K was to get partial funding for a Granta-like publication on Kashmir written by Kashmiris. It should be published by Picador India in a few months (hopefully). I hope it contains some good stories. We need them.

My hope in writing, the primary reason for all the books I am working on, and the manuscripts I have finished, is to hopefully provide the hundreds of millions of young, underrepresented Asians just coming into parity with the rest of the world some way to look at ourselves. Partially for my friends, partially for my nephews. A grand ambition, but I am extremely proud of India (despite our many mistakes) and I think we have a lot to offer the world. This is just one way.

Cheers, guys.

Muriel said...

Hi Omair,

I have to say that i did not expect this. It is a lazy saturday night, i am watching rubbish american movie, my mind almost shut down for the evening and then i am browsing on Satya's blog and here it is: your article on Bosnia. I totally agree with you, we always point out the tragedy, the blame, the horrible, but rarely we stop for the courage and the desire of people to continue and live together.I wrote a thesis on Integrated schools in Northern Ireland, few years ago, for exactly the same reason, people still talk about the fight but how often did you hear about these fantastic schools teaching all children with the desire of building a new Northern Ireland, how often?

I also share what you felt when you encourage people to believe in another future for themselves. Sometimes it is difficult to achieve more than that, but i also believe sometimes it is enough, it is a beginning, positive views, any, are good to have, collect and build up.

Anyway, i'll be happy to read some other thoughts if you want to share more with us...


svety said...

It is so good to read u again, Omair. Was an extremely loyal reader of ur blog. Can't seem to get to it now.

Anyways, thnx to Satya, u have again transported me into a different world, way beyond my league and so akin to where I want to be.Faced by corporate rut, I rarely get time and more importantly, the opportunity to read something original. Am waiting for ur book. Till then keep giving us stories of hope...

Omair said...

Hey, now I feel like a bit of a fraud because my novel that's about to be released is quite depressing, and is more of a story of lost hopes! Damn. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Muriel, would love to hear about your work in N Ireland, and read your thesis. My email ID is Satya and I had spoken about whether to put it up earlier but we had thought that maybe it would be best to have an idea exchange on his blog rather than just an exchange of emails.

Cheers everybody and by the way just passed the first stage of a selection procedure to be part a specialist with the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK Parliament. Quite a longshot to get the job, but wouldn't that be wonderful (and somewhat insane)?