By Maniza Naqvi
I focus hard on being polite to him. I don’t want to give myself away.
I ingratiate myself with every sentence and every gesture. I reach out and touch his arm, replenish the wine in his glass. He is visiting from Belgrade.
I gush about how wonderful this town is. How friendly and warm everyone is in Sarajevo, how kind and welcoming they are to strangers.
He smiles and asks me, 'Could you please tell me where is that place in the world where you have been and people are not friendly? Is there such a place where people are not nice to foreigners?
I keep my voice friendly. I could tell him of a few places he knows well. But I don’t say that. I keep smiling and talking.
I make sure that I'm smiling and so I send a mental message to my eyes to make sure they are complying and smiling too. I must appear easy, someone he can trust.
I look for points of commonality
I want to show him how a Pakistani and a Muslim is completely sympathetic, friendly, likable.
And I notice that as I listen to him—I believe him—I see his narrative as worthy of sympathy and plausibility.
He is showing me how a Serb, a Christian, is completely friendly, likable.
He is trying so hard—I can see through his smoothness.
I seize on the opportunity when he speaks nostalgically about the wonderfulness of Yugoslavia and how the Serbians miss the good times.
I tell him that the Bosnians feel the same way about Tito and Yugoslavia.
His eyes flash, 'I don't need to be told that,' he says. 'We know that—us—we Yugoslavians know how each other feels.'
It's as though he is saying to me, the foreigner, that he is so done with this, our outsiders interpretations, our interlocutions on his peoples’ behalf—and our narratives of them and on their behalf. He is done with the foreigners’ narratives of the people of Yugoslavia as though these were the truth itself.
His anger touches me. I feel the same way when 'foreigners' speak and write about Pakistan, India and Islam.
I am determined to ignore his constant need to counter each praise or nice word said about Sarajevo or Bosnians. And the constant undermining of what happened in the war. What happened in the war? I suddenly realize that my understanding is based on what has been told to me by Bosnians in the Federation and in the RS who are Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholic. I don't have any understanding of how things are understood in Serbia. How they view the world. It seems as though he sees Serbia as a place that is pristine and its people innocent of any crime at all. If there are any crimes, in his view, then they have been committed as crimes that any oppressed group is likely to commit. And have been committed by a lesser quality of Serb—the ones that reside in Bosnia.
His narrative distances Serbians from Bosnian Serbs. Gavrilo Princip, he reminds me, was a Bosnian Serb—and he was not the only one—it was an organization based in Bosnia called Young Bosnians, Mlad Bosnia, and was made up of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. I want to say 'Ah! So it was Bosnians who started World War I' but I don't say anything afraid of the sarcasm that will come through my voice. I want to win him back from the comment about Yugoslavians. So I sympathize with the cruelty and pathos of the Janissaries.
I don't point out or ask whether the Serbs blame the Janisarries for anything.
I wonder, I ask him if the Janisarries who came to India were Serbs orignially! Consider that I say. Perhaps many of us claiming decent from Turks on the subcontinent are actually Serbs. How do you like them apples! We should DNA test that too.
I don't ask whether the poor downtrodden serfs ever had a cruel Serbian overlord or a cruel Serbian king.
I notice the lilt in his tone much like mine particularly when I'm making a point which is on thin ice—and totally untrue.
When I lie I'm down right poetic. So is he.
I notice the catch in his voice, the almost imperceptible catch in his voice as though overcome with emotion during the moment of narrating how first born sons were taken from their families to become Janissaries.
I notice the catch because I do that myself when narrating some grief which has been narrated to me of a thousand years ago. As though, it belonged to me. As though it were intimately mine and had happened only recently.
I notice that I feel unwell from all this posturing and later that evening as I decline his offer to walk me home because he thinks it may be unsafe for me to walk at this time of the night, in this city, and as I defensively say that the streets of Sarajevo are safe for me at anytime, I notice that I feel sick. As though with all my lying and his this evening a virus has been activated in me. Or as though I have caught whatever it is that he has. Yes, I think that is it. I have been under such strain all evening to seem agreeable and sympathetic in the face of blatant denial, a sickness. Or is it that I can feel a certain persuasiveness in his argument that asserts it’s okay when the severely abused use abuse as an alibi to get away when, in their turn, they violate others. I don’t know what it is but I feel that something dormant in me has been activated. I start to feel as though I must take his side. I know as I walk back on my own that there is that virus in me and that it always needs to be checked—this identification with the narrative of wrong done, of no responsibility, of pure victimhood. The grief and the rage that comes of it and the easy justifications which come of it.
And I wonder what it would look like if I were to have recorded him, filmed him as he told me the history of the Balkans and that of his people over the last 800 years. And if I had recorded the narrative of some others accused today of so much—recorded the narrative of history by those who are the ones embroiled on either side of a violence how at one point their sentences would merge, become the same, how their tones would rise and fall in the same places and how at the end of it– their narratives, they would all resemble each other, weave in and out of each other’s facial expressions and tones, combine and become as though symphonic in harmony, and in crescendos segueing from one into the other.
He does concede, though I have neither pointed to the hills nor to the bullet marked walls around us, he does concede the fact that he did not realize, did not realize how close the hills are here in Sarajevo. He can see clearly where the frontline was—it is a stones throw away. This shocks him. Four years? How can that have been. This gives him pause but then he repeats his offer whether he should walk me to my hotel for the streets of Sarajevo are, he is sure, unsafe at this time of the night.
'Look at these streets,' I say 'Every building tells you a story.'
'Yes'. He agrees.
'Like, we are inside a beautiful painted bowl. I mean being in a valley and all,' I say.
He looks around, 'Yes.' Then he asks why are these places which have triggered off bloodletting in the entire world so tiny? Like shards of glass from a broken bowl that we keep stumbling across in our bare feet: Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Tibet, Israel and Palestine. Lebanon. No more then three to five million people are holding the whole world hostage.' He says.
I reply, 'We all hold ourselves individually hostage to the sorrows we don't give up. We are forever fossilized in it trapped and imprisoned in it.'
'Yeah', he says. 'So that one event, so overly photographed and magnified in exposure, so documented, becomes that one point from which humankind is not able to move forward because it dwarfs everything past, present and possible. No one really documents the happy days.'
'What is that stone called? The one that has fossilized trapped insects inside of it? The one we wear as a jewel hanging from our necks? I forget its name. What is it called?' I ask him. He shrugs his shoulders. He can't remember the name either.
Later after I have walked away from him and am on my way home through the old town, I remember and say out loud. 'Amber!'
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