Friday, January 11, 2008

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [15]


This short chapter eloquently makes a case not only for the legitimacy of Bosnian culture, but of its worth. Bosnia was a bridge, Sells argues; the Croat nationalists of "Herceg-Bosna" knew what they were doing when they destroyed the elegant Stari Most bridge in Moster. Ian Paisley, the thuggish Ulter Unionist leader, once contemptuously said (I am paraphrasing here) that "Bridges make traitors." If one is devoted to a diminished and sterile notion of culture and cultural identity--one in which the individual is defined primarily by membership to a group, and furthermore in which the group is defined by hard and fast distinctions versus the "other"--then this is true. Bridges lead to communication and exchanges, which then lead to intermingling and a loss of "purity." The desirability of "purity", then, must never be questioned.

The Wounding Sky

Bosnia has been defined for centuries by the mixture of different peoples and faiths; Orthodox, Catholic, and Bosnian before the Ottoman period, and then Orthodox, Catholic, Islam and then Judaism (both Sephardic and Ashkenazi) after. Sells describes the Bosnian tradition of the sevdalinka love lyrics, which were written in Cyrillac, Latin, and Adzamijski script. The complex mix of gender roles in the sevdalinka, in which a woman poses as a man singing to her male lover (and which were often actually performed by male singers) parallels the complex, multilayered development of this lyric tradition.

Sevdalinkas were composed in all the languages of the Empire--Persian, Turkish, Arabic, South Slavic--and were often translated from one to another. The precious manuscripts recording this unique aspect of Bosnia's heritage were destroyed when Serb gunners deliberately targeted the Oriental Institute.

Sells writes:

"Bosnia has a culture rich in transitions and translations. Those looking for the essence of culture and language in ethnic, racial, or religious purity will find Bosnia incomprehensible. On the other hand, those who see culture as a creative process that by its very nature involves intermingling and creative tension among different elements will treasure Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Unfortunately, many in the West failed to grasp this.

The Execution of Culture

"In the fall of 1995, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proclaimed that "there is no Bosnian culture." The context for Kissinger's claim was his proposal that Bosnia should be partitioned between Serbia and Croatia and the Muslims (and presumably anyone else who did not want to be part of ethnically pure Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia) should be placed in a "Muslim state." Partitioning Bosnia and putting the Muslims in a religious ghetto was the original goal of the Serb and Croat nationalists."

Other than again supporting the axiom that one can never go wrong disagreeing with America's most distinguished indicted war criminal, what can one say in response to such dismissive rubbish?

Sells dryly notes that the strongest refutation of Kissinger's statement came from Karadzic, Mladic, and the Serbian nationalists themselves, who put a great deal of energy and resources into destroying all traces of this allegedly non-existent culture. Also, there is this story:

"A Serb army officer entered the home of a Sarajevan artist, who happened to be Serb. Among the works of art, he saw a piece that depicted a page from the Qur'an. Infuriated, he had all the artwork taken out into the street, lined up, and shot to pieces with automatic weapons fire."

In order to justify the destruction of a people, you must first destroy their legitimacy. Sells recounts other episodes of genocide throughout modern history to illustrate the general truth of this observation. And then he concludes this section with a paragraph which manages to articulate something I have been grappling with for almost two years in this blog--the reason why Bosnia's fight should have been America's fight. One very big reason I believe American values were under attack in a small republic in southeast Europe in the first half of the last decade of the 20th Century. Allow me to quote the paragraph in its entirety:

"Like culture in the United States, Bosnian culture cannot be defined by the linguistic and religious criteria of nineteenth-century nationalism. Just as Americans share a language with the British and Australians, so Bosnians share a language with Serbs and Croats. Just as the United States has no single, official church, so Bosnia is made up of people of different religious confessions, and within those confessions, vastly different perspectives. If Bosnia has no culture, then the United States has no culture. If Bosnia should be partitioned into religiously pure apartheid states, then the same logic lead to the idea, proposed by the Christian Identity movement, that the United States should be divided into apartheid states of different races and religions."

Creation in the Fire

Sells recounts the art exhibition "Expo/Sarajevo 92" which was organized during the siege. He explains the great risks the artists had to take just to travel back and forth to the studio, and that the artists chose to make engravings because they are reproducible; a 'lucky' shell from Sarajevo's tormentors could destroy the display but not the works themselves. Those artists continued to create, to draw from Bosnia's rich, textured history and culture, and to celebrate life even while the world expected to nothing more than meekly survive and cower before those who wanted to carve the living body of Bosnia into neatly segmented, sterile, dead entities. The enemies of Bosnia, and the indifferent enablers of the West, wanted to believe that Bosnia would be defined by walls; those artists demonstrated yet again that it is rather defined by bridges.

A Dance

The book ends with this brief, almost poetic section. A Bosnian family--they are Serbs--living in North America throw a party for another Bosnian family who are moving to another city. The invite all the Bosnians they know--Serb, Croat, Bosniak. Everybody eats, drinks, talks, laughs. And then a sevdalinka is played. Dancing begins.

They are able to forget that they are Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim. In this bittersweet reunion mixed with farewells far from home, they reconnect with their culture. Away from the burden of being of one ethnoreligious group, they are free to be Bosnians.


That is how the book ends. I highly recommend it; at only slightly over 150 pages it is a quick and easy read. It raises important questions about the role faith will, can, or should play in a secular, cosmopolitan democracy in the 21st Century. I suspect we will be revisiting these and related questions in my blog and in many other forums in the near future.


Anonymous said...

"No Bosnian culture"? Who can honestly believe this rubbish? I mean, come on. Henry Kissinger... what an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, apart from the sad reference to Henry Kissinger, that is probably the most inspiring of all the summaries of your reading you've posted for us here.

Kissinger was just one more of those intellectual giants who dismissed the devastation of Bosnia as an issue of little interest to the rest of us.

The quick-fix genius of David Owen and Douglas Hurd eventually reaped its most spectacular reward for us Londoners on 7 July 2005.

However looking back at the imperative for intervention in simply instrumental terms is to miss the point that Sells makes so about the real value of what was lost.

All the same, as you've reminded us, that awful time also left us with the inspiration of people like Vedran Smailovic who reminded us that life is lived in the light, not under stones.