‘This is the new Bosnia,’ Rahima says bitterly, looking around her with apprehension at the people crowded in the restaurant. Her fingers push back hair the color of a passing storm, all silver and mercury, just before the sun breaks through over the Adriatic. Rahima has emerged from the labyrinth of casualties at the hospital. She has come out of the constant dull green-blue light of the casualties ward for head injuries to which she is devoted and from where she seldom surfaces. The hospital preserves for her the atmosphere of war that she has lived through. The world that she confronts in its emergency room approximates the one that she frantically returned to during the war when most were desperate to leave it. That world wracked by war, she had returned to it. Hitchhiked with supply convoys; crawled back to it on her belly through mud and snow through the Igman tunnel; dodging bullets in the city’s alleyways. It was a world played out in the ER which she returned to every day during the war to keep it going, keep it alive and surviving every day. It is the world which she still years later keeps returning to and keeps alive as though the war had never ended. She has never stopped for it and it has never stopped for her.
Now Rahima, on my insistence, against her better judgment, emerges into this new world of wine glasses chinking and dinnerware clattering. In its deafening din, of loud boasting voices and short bursts of abrasive laughter that roar of power and money, we find ourselves seated self-consciously amongst the town’s self-appointed beautiful people, glancing over menus and wine lists that scream ‘let the good times roll.’ This outcome of war bewilders and buries her. How the rich have emerged with their banners of religiosity and how people like her have been ruined. Here, she is a lost being, a walking missing, lost completely after the war. In these merry-prospering surroundings, they don’t know her, these new people in her town, they were not here, then. And amongst them she thinks she is invisible. The aftermath is always an opportunity and belongs to someone else.
And with her intensely bright gleaming eyes beginning to tear she argues with someone at the table who dares to dismiss genocide: ‘So what happened here is not genocide? OK. Genocide they tell us needs to be defined. OK. Then what was it? Some of us just went somewhere else for a prolonged vacation in hell? The world wants to be precise.’
The fact collectors on genocide want her to be precise, more logical, more rational and factual. She accuses us, her listeners, like all of them we crave details. She doesn’t want us to mirror her rage and carry out retribution on her behalf on all those who were guilty, but she wants us to listen and to recognize it for what it is. All that she can hear of what we have said, is not empathy but instead an admonition to calm down and a relentless request for detail. It was not enough to recount the destroyed lives she had seen coming in to the emergency room. All those forced pregnancies and the abortions performed. It was not enough that she had seen them, these women gang raped for months. How could she know this for a fact, we the dinner companions, her hosts in her own country want to know, we need facts. Be reasonable! Be logical! Serious issues, these, she must try to understand. Serious people, in serious parliaments around serious roundtables needed facts: Details. Precision. In cruelty, truth is always a science.
Could these women, for example, whom Rahima had treated, describe the colors, for example, of the trousers, the men had worn?
Details. We must have details. Later, she said, half sobbing. I must listen. I deserved to listen. This was her gift to me: the details she had to let go of and which she had to speak about now. I should know. I should know that she was feeling something, in this moment, that she had taught herself to forget. Anger. And as I write this I wonder, half panicked, have I become that kind of person that is focused on the bigger picture? Pragmatic, some one that understands that one must shake the hands of those who are guilty of war crimes but now hold positions of authority? Because authority matters, it cannot be ignored. Because we cannot bear to lose ours. It’s a fine balance this, of ignoring and forgetting. Or is it a fine balance between caring and less so?
She lives on dignity and that is a currency least respected. Living on a salary barely enough for the cigarettes, groceries, and cab fare. She is what makes for losers—she is principled and proud. That’s not what doctors in this city are known for—most people consider them a class unto themselves, flourishing and well-to-do. She refuses to bow to definitions. She is a doctor living in one room without a kitchen, cooking unforgettable feasts for me in a pressure-cooker on a Bunsen burner on the balcony. Which, starting October, can mean a balcony covered in snow, she says laughing gleefully. Steamed trout she makes on this makeshift kitchen in the open: a pot roast, a leg of lamb, breaded chicken, and creamed spinach, and leek soup and roasted potatoes and zucchini dolma and onion dolma. All cooked on this outside temporary kitchen consisting of a Bunsen burner on her balcony. ‘Isn’t my home perfect?’ She says, ‘More open sky than roof over my head!’ Today is a good day. There were no nightmares last night.
‘Can you find such beauties anywhere except for here in our market places? Such natural delicious meat, milk and yoghurt so creamy and sweet, vegetables like this? No you cannot! In our market only. Only in Sarajevo only in Bosnia. Rahima looks with pride at her counter top covered in produce. She picks up a basket full of fresh eggs. She cracks one and spills the yolk into a white ceramic bowl. ‘See? So orange you would think someone had mixed color in them. Eggs, milk, yoghurt like this, Sarajevsko pivo and my Drinas—what more can anyone want?’
She is happy today. She tells me a joke. And I know that this is a prelude to depression—raucous mirth—in a few hours it will go in a murky direction.
“Have you heard the one about Mujo and Haso running down the alley trying to escape a sniper shooting at them from the hills during the war? Suddenly Mujo is hit in the ear. Haso stops running and runs back to Mujo who is searching on the ground for something:What are you doing? You’re looking for your ear? Keep running you asshole you’re going to get killed!’ Haso screams. I’m not looking for my ear,’ Mujo says. ‘I’m looking for the cigarette that I had tucked behind it!’
She laughs, we laugh together, tears streaming down our faces.
The balcony is larger than her unfinished studio apartment. She can sit out there in the open, listen to the birds fight and chatter and she has a view of the hills. She can sit on her balcony and hear the sounds of her city. And ah, it’s so quiet, so quiet, here. Up here in her aviary open to the skies. What more can anyone possibly want?
Rahima laughs. ‘From here I waved my gigantic green flag at the Chetniks in the mountains who were shooting at us day and night! I knew they watched me. I would come out here, dancing naked with a big green flag—waving my fucking muslim flag—knowing they were watching—drooling! Unable to shoot because they wanted to keep watching!’
She doesn’t have time to take care of the kitchen plumbing, connect up the water pipes to the sink or the gas to the stove; she has no time for this, not a moment to spare, she’s on call and on duty most of the time or trying to catch up on her sleep. ‘I survived on less during the war, this is good. It is enough. What more do I need to survive?’ she asks with a brushing aside of her shock of silver hair, the pushing forward of her lips in that Balkan pout and the shrugging of her shoulders.
‘Come to my hospital see me where I am the happiest.’
Later, I ask her over dinner, ‘When you save lives, what do you see? The person, or the wound?’
She looks at me with that bewildered look that says but of course! Then she shrugs her shoulders and pouts her lips and exclaims, ‘Mya! Always the person! When you write,’ Rahima asks me, ‘What do you see? The person or the wound?’
Then she laughs and says, ‘Show me a person who has only known happiness and I will show you a dumb and boring person.’
I am silent then I reply, ‘Or a liar.’
I have an image of Rahima in my mind that she has put there. She is on her balcony, naked, her lips bright with red lipstick—a Christian Dior China Red, she specifies—waving a green silk sheet as though it were a flag. She knows that she is in the crosshair of a telescope on a sniper’s long range shot gun. Mocking him to shoot her.
Last Nite She Spoke of Genocide
When explaining why love had failed.
He had wanted her to be precise,
More rational and factual.
She told us, like all of them he had wanted details,
When she had told him—like all the others, the visiting diplomats, expecting their rage and retribution
On her behalf and of the women
For the abortions she had performed.
It was not enough that she had seen them
These women gang raped for months.
He had shut his eyes—kneading the space in between, delicately pinched with two pampered fingers
That place called a bridge.
How could she know this for a fact? Rape? Gang rape—so dramatic, no?
He had asked, with worry and fairness, so plain on his face.
Like them: They who decide such things: facts; the need for facts. Details.
Could she describe for the sake of argument, say
The colors, for example, of the trousers the men had worn?
Surely the women must have mentioned something.
She wanted to tell us
She said, half sobbing.
We must listen
We deserved to listen.
This was her gift to us. Telling us, saying that we deserved to listen
We should know,
That she was feeling something
That she had taught herself to forget
That just behind her eyes, she was feeling
And as we listened,
In the din of the restaurant, just behind her
Plates clanging, glasses clinking
Diplomats descended from the dining-room above, with their details.
Details: buffed wired, and speaking into wrists. Dark glasses worn in the night.
Responsible for details.
But we are told not to dwell on details.
Afghanistan, Iraq and so forth.
We should focus on the bigger picture.
And yet we wonder to each other
Half panicked and shaken
How do we shake the hands of those that murdered
And hold lofty positions
Because we cannot bear to lose ours.
And you brought me the photograph
One bowl of blue
One of red,
We had wanted to make her happy,
Conspired to restore her laugh
The smiles on the waves would do that. Your description of Mkarska.
We had bought wild wood berries from the children along the way, near Jablanica,
On that lovely holiday on the coast.
A detail, one blue, one red. Clean.
That I had forgotten,
A detail, a fact
That we can remember,
That we can bear to share.
Also by Maniza Naqvi (here)