This morning’s New York Times prints (digitally produces?) an essay by Aleksandar Hemon and Jasmin Mujanovic about the current demonstrations in Sarajevo and Tuzla. Here’s how the essay begins:
ON National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s Best of the World list this year, Sarajevo joined such select destinations as Liechtenstein, Puglia and Rocky Mountain National Park. But had the innocent tourist recently visited “the Balkan urban phoenix,” as the list labeled the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he would most certainly have run into packs of stray dogs roaming the city.
In 2009, animal rights activists succeeded in passing a law that outlawed killing stray dogs, and mandated that every municipality build a shelter, which, of course, no municipality could afford. As a result, Sarajevo became home to more than 13,000 dogs; packs attacked children; cats and squirrels disappeared. No government functionary took responsibility for the situation; nobody resigned; nobody was fired. A friend described holding her lap dog over her head to save it, while strays bit into her legs. The average tourist probably lacks this particular survival skill.
Last summer, the tourist might have witnessed the singularly dysfunctional national Parliament in session, surrounded by an angry mass of the citizens it was supposed to represent. They blocked the Parliament building, protesting the Legislature’s failure to pass a law allowing new personal identification numbers to be issued.
For weeks, and for nefarious reasons too tedious to explain, the proposed law had been stuck, which prevented the issuing of ID numbers for newborn children, so that they were born but did not bureaucratically exist — the state depriving them of citizenship with their very first breath. Some had health problems so serious they couldn’t be addressed in the crumbling Bosnian health care system (which the good tourist would be wise to avoid), but they couldn’t seek help abroad, since their passports couldn’t be issued without the ID numbers.
The blockade, led by angry parents, lasted for days, until police officers finally disbanded the protesters. The national soccer team was playing an important match that day, and they wanted to watch the game in peace.
The law was eventually passed, but the new numbers reflect the part of the country where each child is from, serving only to further cement ethnic divisions. Nobody resigned; nobody was fired; nothing seemed to have changed.
This protest, however, was the first time in the almost two decades since the war that Bosnian citizens stood up to their representatives, who are elected on party lists, and therefore far more responsive to their party leadership than to their constituency.
The “good tourist” is led to Tuzla, whose “industry has been destroyed by negligence, corruption and what is politely called privatization” and to “unprovoked brutality” by the police. The tourist is asked to think about the country’s unworkable constitution set up by “apartheid logic” that “effectively awarded to the [ethnic] cleansers their ethnically cleansed territories.”
I remember my own experiences with the aftermath (which means, originally, second cutting of hay) of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the neologism after Richard Holbrooke’s intervention: “we’ve been Holbrooked.”
The essay is informative. And hopeful.
What is truly amazing in the whole story is that it doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to the Bosnian elites that the situation is not sustainable. They have become so used to ruling over divided ethnic subjects that they were shocked by an uprising of united citizens.
Every Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian writer I have read over the last year (Albahari, Radakovic, Velikic, Prcic, Basara, Obreht, Pavic, Brkic, Jergovic, Kis, Andric, Hemon, and others) already knew this before the wars in the 1990′s and know it now, at home or in exile.
Peter Handke once said that “the first casualty of war is language.” Politicians know and exploit that. Writers know that as well and, like Hemon and Jujanovic, work to resuscitate the patient.
The news from Tuzla and Sarajevo, Bosnia is not good. People want work. They want an efficient government. They are angry that state-owned businesses that were privatized have declared bankruptcy after having enriched a few exploitative speculators. They are demonstrating against a system (conceived as a stop-gap during the Dayton Peace Accord talks) that has failed them.
Demonstration is one response to a breakdown like this. Demonstrations against oppressive and nationalistic regimes were a common response during the civil wars 20 years earlier. I witnessed one of these in Belgrade in 1998, visiting my friend Zarko.
Emigration is another response to war and economic disaster. Zarko’s brother Miloje left his job (unpaid for months) in the national film archive to emigrate to Canada. Zarko wrote a book with the title Emigracija.
Ismet Prcic (ISS-met PER-sick) emigrated from Tuzla in 1996 at the age of 19. Aleksandar Hemon emigrated from Sarajevo in 1992 at the age of 28. Both men now write and publish in English.
In their novels Nowhere Man and Shards, Hemon and Prcic feature emigrants whose new lives as immigrants in the United States split them. They have been, to quote a character in Prcic’s novel, “fucked into shards.”
Nowhere. Shards. Both narratives tremble in their instability, shift from one narrator to another—although the other narrator may in fact be the one narrator. Both stories leap from continent to continent (Chicago, the Ukraine, Sarajevo, London, Tuzla, Los Angeles). The stories leap from Greenpeace to war to peace that is war—BOOM! Characters in both books speak “Bosnian,” which is, of course, also “Serbian” and “Croatian,” with only culinary differences. Bosnian characters, cultural Muslims of Tito’s Yugoslav united brotherhood, encounter Serbs in their new country who have become, through the war, Serbian nationalists, but who, because of the common language, are unable to detect the Bosnian interlopers and who, in the end, are as deeply needy of a comforting arm around the shoulders as are the Bosnian immigrants.
Serbs are not the enemy in these novels. War is the enemy. Separation and loss are enemies.
Viciously split personalities result from terror and flight and accommodation. The complex and brilliant narrative strategies of the two novels place a reader squarely in the mix of those shards.
And in the end, a reader knows that all personality is made up of shards. All stories are constructed of shards. Only liars and frauds pretend otherwise. Only the ignorant suppose they are whole.
All readers are emigrants.
The first paragraph of a generous review from Larry Menlove at The Provo Canyon Review:
Imagine Plato’s Phaedrus and a field guide to Utah fauna and flora left in an inside pocket of a sweaty, oft-used CamelBak to get acquainted and copulate. The wise progeny, scratched and scented, philosophizing its way out, would be the new book coming in March 2014 from Torrey House Press titled, Wild Rides and Wildflowers, coauthored by Scott Abbott and Sam Rushforth.
And the rest of the review here: