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Muharem Bazdulj, Writer

Loved Belgrade At First Sight

He graduated in English literature studies, but defined his career as a journalist, columnist and writer. Leaving his native Travnik, he travelled via Sarajevo to Belgrade, which he’d come to love through his father’s recollections of his days in the military. He recalls his childhood as an idyllic picture of a socialist upbringing in which one’s religious affiliations didn’t matter. The war in Bosnia caused everything to change drastically. Of the four Nobel laureates that he’s met and socialised with, Polish writer Olga Tokarchuk is special. And if he were in a position to write the biography of a literary great, he would deliberate between Meša Selimović and Aleksandar Tišma.

It isn’t easy to be born in Travnik after Ivo Andrić, and for books to be your love and calling. And that was precisely what happened to Muharem Bazdulj (44), who was born in Travnik exactly two years after the death of the great Nobel laureate. And to this very day he’s the second most famous native of the former Yugoslav town of Travnik, after Andrić, to have gained repute through writing… columns, stories and novels. He is the author of four collections of short stories and eight novels, and has won numerous awards – his favorites being the Open Society Award for the best book of stories in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Staša Marinković Award for journalistic courage and the Bogdan Tirnanić Award for the best column and commentary.

However, Andrić was not the main character in Bazdulj’s childhood in that small Bosnian town at the foot of Vlašić mountain, in the valley of the river Lašva.

“When I was little, Andrić wasn’t as popular as some others who then bore the glory of Travnik. For example, at one point, after a break of 20-30 years, Zagreb-based football club Dinamo won the Yugoslav championship, and the coach, Ćiro Blažević, was a native of Travnik. Ćiro regularly came to Travnik, where he had relatives, and he would also bring his footballers to train at altitude on Vlašić. Back in those years, as kids, when we all played football, it seemed to us that Ćiro was the most important man from Travnik. And in 1981, when Seid Memić Vajta represented Yugoslavia in the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin with the song Lejla, we were again caught up in mass cheering, because Vajta was a native of Travnik. So, as children we had a greater sense of local patriotic pride because of the two of them than because of Andrić. Later, when I matured, and when literature increasingly began to mean more to me, and when I began to see myself as someone who would deal with literature, I found myself in an ambivalent situation. Travnik and Andrić were like a master’s letter, and yet, I know that I will never be the one from that small town who had the greatest reach.”

Muharem’s father, Salih, left Travnik to study medicine in Sarajevo, graduated from university and returned to his hometown. He was a specialist, as an otorhinolaryngologist physician. His mother, Nura Hubijar Bazdulj, is a native of Sarajevo who completed medical studies in her hometown, but the lack of an opportunity to complete her obligatory internship compelled her to move to Travnik. She intended to complete her internship there and then return to Sarajevo, but it was there that Salih and Nura met, fell in love, got married, had a son, Muharem, and two years later a daughter, Šejla. Salih died four years ago, while Nura still lives and works in Travnik as a microbiologist, and his sister Šejla is a lawyer who lives in the town with her husband and two daughters. Muharem often travels to visit them from Belgrade, where he lives with his wife Darja, a psychotherapist, and his threeyear- old daughter Hana.

When I was little, Andrić wasn’t as popular as some others who then bore the glory of Travnik… We had a greater sense of local patriotic pride because of Ćiro Blažević and Seid Memić Vajta than because of Andrić

Muharem is the name of the first month of the Muslim calendar, but CorD’s interlocutor mentions something else linked to the etymology of his name:

“Muharem also means a fenced off, forbidden world. That root of the word muharem is visible in the word harem, which is the part of a royal court reserved for the sultan’s women. And that means that it’s fenced off and others are forbidden from entering. However, Muslims also call the cemetery a harem. So, in both cases, a harem is something that’s set apart and shouldn’t be entered.”

Although Muharem’s parents were raised in conservative communities and hail from families with numerous children, they gave their own children a liberal upbringing, for which Muharem is very grateful to them:

“It wasn’t until my own child was born that I realised how much freedom I’d actually had in my parents’ house. They never made decisions on our behalf as children, and we were left to decide whether or not we would attend music school, and whether or not we would start training some sport. It was a case of if you want to you can, and it you don’t want to then you don’t have to. Of course, we had the upbringing that we received from them, with the two of them as examples. Books were our natural environment and it is certain that it was at home that I gained a penchant for reading, and then also for writing.”

As this writer recalls, life in Travnik is easiest to describe through an almost idealistic picture of all the positive aspects of Yugoslavia and life in Bosnia, which was specific in that respect:

“Our value system implied honest work, without any displays of material wealth. We spent years building a weekend holiday cottage, we bought a VG Golf car on credit in Vogošća, and every year we spent our summer holidays as a family on the Adriatic coast. We belonged, in all aspects, to the Yugoslav middle class, with the specificities that existed in Bosnia. The people I socialised with the most were called Vanja, Vedran, Dario…

When that became important later, during the war, it was clear that they belonged to all the peoples who lived in Bosnia, but I hadn’t experienced it that way while I was growing up. In my childhood, there was no discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation. And then the war began, and that incisive cut was even more unpleasant when compared to the idyll in which we’d lived.”

While the war raged in Bosnia, Muharem attended secondary school, from 1992-1995, under conditions that weren’t particularly normal. And then he moved to Sarajevo to study, which had been devastated to such an extent that it looked to him, as a freshman, like the backdrop for a post-apocalyptic film. Of course, he had boyhood memories of a beautiful Sarajevo that he’d visited with his mother to see her aunts and other relatives. But the scene he saw after the war was terrifying:

“And yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, there was never more optimism among the people. That’s because, when things were already so bad, there was nothing left to do but hope that everything would start to improving as early as tomorrow. In one of my short novels, Koncert, which details the 1997 Sarajevo concert of Irish band U2, I tried to capture that feeling in some way.”

It wasn’t until my own child was born that I realised how much freedom I’d actually had in my parents’ house. They never made decisions on our behalf as children, and we were left to decide whether or not we would attend music school, and whether or not we would start training some sport

Sarajevo’s department of English literature studies had enjoyed a good pedigree in Yugoslav circles prior to the war. Some of the country’s then most respected experts of English literature had studied in that department, including brothers Nikola and Svetozar Koljević. However, of the 18 tenured professors who’d been in that department in 1992, only three remained by the time Muharem enrolled in his studies:

“Of that once mighty department, only a few professors remained, and students eager for knowledge. We had that fortune in misfortune that Sarajevo was full of foreigners at that juncture, so we had visiting guest professors from all around the world. So, from the first year we listened to Shakespeare, Chaucer and American literature, exclusively in English. That was very valuable to me in an educational sense, while that change of life was very important to me in the social sense, marking the beginning of my independent life, with three roommates on the ground floor of the house that we rented.”

His father, Salih, completed his military national service partly in Belgrade, just a few years before Muharem was born. And as a youngster Muharem would listen to him recalling beautiful memories that connected him to the then capital of Yugoslavia. This ensured that Muharem developed a genuine positive prejudice towards Belgrade, as he says today. He has been writing regularly for Belgrade-based weekly Vreme [Time] since 2003:

“I really liked Belgrade and started taking every opportunity to visit. I previously had the idea of moving there, but I was afraid about how I would regulate my legal status. It seemed to me at one point that I’d closed my own circle on achieving some ambitions in Sarajevo. During the 2012 Belgrade Book Fair, it turned out that there was an empty flat that I could pay the rent on for at least the next two months, so I rented it out. I had no idea what I would do next, nor did I know whether that was just a temporary residence or I would stay. Thanks to my constant engagement with Vreme, the Administration for Foreign Residents in Savska Street granted me a residence permit, and it was then that I started becoming aware that I would stay.”

SA SLAVOJEM ŽIŽEKOM

He has never, ever had a problem in Belgrade that he was unable to solve. There was only one occasion that he came close to an incident, a real kafana tavern kind, but everything passed peacefully:

“I found myself in a larger group socialising in the tavern Užice on Autokomada, because all the other taverns were closed and that was the only one that worked all night. We entered, accompanied by several women, and sitting at the table next to ours was a group of tattooed football supporters, all single men.

One of my friends called me by name, and when they heard that they interpreted it as an invitation to fight. However, everything quickly calmed down and we were soon raising toasts to one another.”

He also has a slightly more serious story that recently attracted the attention of the public in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Muharem spent an evening in the company of German novelist and Nobel laureate Peter Handke and film director Emir Kusturica, during which they sang the song Romanija [about the eponymous Bosnian montain], which led to him experiencing a kind of lynching among a section of the Bosnian- Herzegovinian public. This resulted in the cancellation of his column in Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, for which he’d written and served as an editor. He was condemned for singing together with a writer who’s guilty of denying the Srebrenica genocide, according to the reports of part of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian public. And then the Mothers of Srebrenica also commented:

“It’s still not clear to me how this whole story was provoked by an ordinary gettogether in some tavern on Zlatibor, where, in a larger group of people, Handke, Kusturica and I were relaxing to music. From the perspective of the owners of Oslobodjenje, terminating our cooperation was a form of damage control. I was connected to that media company for a full 13 years, while I was also the deputy editor-in-chief and the longest-serving commentator, and I know that wasn’t the decision of the editor-in-chief. The pressure of the political structures that hold power in Bosnia today was so great that they had to react in the way they did. I try to avoid what my friend refers to as the complex of frustrated ex-husbands. When their marriage ends, their wife is the worst person in the world. So, why did you marry that worst woman? As such, I can’t feel anger towards the people from Oslobodjenje, with whom I had wonderful cooperation for 13 years.”

Our value system implied honest work, without any displays of material wealth. We spent years building a weekend holiday cottage, we bought a VG Golf car on credit in Vogošća, and every year we spent our summer holidays as a family on the Adriatic coast

And when the Mothers of Srebrenica weighed in, Muharem’s own mother, Nura, responded to them by writing on Facebook:

“Respected and dear Mothers of Srebrenica, The letter that you sent to my son Muharem, when I was already well shaken, shook me even more. You said everything that needed to be said, and you did so in a humane, personable way, truthfully and objectively, in a way that’s reminiscent of someone who has suffered, is suffering, and will continue to suffer unimaginable pain for the rest of their life. And I also, unfortunately, know what war wounds are.

My mother and around twenty members of my family were brutally killed. But I’m aware that no pain compares to the loss of a child.

U WROCLAW-u

I spent the entire war in Travnik, working as a doctor in the hospital, and in the Medical Battalion as a member of the V Corps of the ABiH, until the very end of the war.

And I forgave. And I don’t hate anyone. I haven’t forgetten. One who forgets is not a human.

Every 11th July, on that black day when the genocide took place, I feel sick together with you, and I literally barely survived one guest appearance in a live broadcast of FTV commemorating that day.

Someone smarter than me wrote “Responding to evil with evil is the same as extinguishing a fire with gasoline”. That’s why I’ve invested my whole life in the sentence, “Love yourselves, people. Believe in good and goodness”.

I’ve spent my life not knowing if that reached anyone and whom. You are the first I’ve responded to, spoken to. It is devastating and terrifying how much evil and hatred exists in people.

Of that once mighty English literature department, only a few professors remained, and students eager for knowledge. We had that fortune in misfortune that Sarajevo was full of foreigners at that juncture, so we had visiting guest professors from all around the world and from the first year we listened to Shakespeare and Chaucer exclusively in English

How lecherously my son was spat on by those who are incomparable to him in every aspect of life and work. I don’t wish to communicate with them in any way. Let them remember – Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

It should be noted that Muharem isn’t on social networks, while his mother is one of the most influential women on Facebook:

“It wouldn’t cross my mind to apologise to anyone, or to explain why I’m sitting in a tavern with someone. I could only have been impacted because of my mother and my family, who live where they could be exposed to more unpleasantness than would be the case if they lived elsewhere. I had no idea that she would speak out, so I read her reaction when it was available to the public. And when it comes to Peter Handke, he simply drew attention to the fact that, in the case of the last war in Bosnia, things aren’t black and white, and Serbs aren’t the only ones who are to blame for everything. But he ended up like the rooster that crows too early – in the pot!”

U SARAJEVU

And while we’re on the subject of a Nobel Prize winner, it is interesting to note that Muharem has met four Nobel laureates to date: Orhan Pamuk, Svetlana Aleksijevič, Olga Tokarchuk and Peter Handke. He particularly values his friendship with famous Polish writer and psychologist Olga Tokarchuk (59):

“A university publisher from Chicago published the first English translations of her books and mine. More specifically, her book and mine were published one year apart in the same edition of Northwestern University Press, called Writings From An Unbound Europe. I would say that, when we first met, we had a good, above-average, mutual understanding. She invited me to a festival in Wroclaw, Poland, which she founded, and we socialised intensively during those days. It was then that I got to know her better, and I can say that she is an unusual, authentic and slightly silly woman. She doesn’t want to waste time on small talk. And she won me over particularly when we were promoting her books at the Student City Cultural Centre. It just so happened that she received the Booker Prize two days before that event, and we were convinced that she wouldn’t show up as planned, via Skype. However, in accordance with the agreement, she called from the hotel where she happened to be staying and spoke with the students. She thereby additionally demonstrated how much she cares about her readers and translators, and what a wonderful person she is.”

I really liked Belgrade… it seemed to me at one point that I’d closed my own circle on achieving some ambitions in Sarajevo

People who start their careers as journalists and then gain repute as writers have a habit of hiding their journalistic careers, fearing that it will reduce the level of their newly acquired literary reputation. However, Muharem is among those other writers who work with equal satisfaction as a columnist, journalist and writer of literature:

“I was once strolling in Paris when I found myself in Albert Camus Street. The sign read ‘Albert Camus, journalist and writer’. That is the measure of things to me. First you are a journalist, then a writer. Those are different pleasures, different purposes, but I’m equally devoted to writing for newspapers as I am to writing books. I just do that at different times. And the only thing I must do every night before going to bed is to read something. That has long been my forced action, or my addiction. Maybe I could imagine myself no longer writing one day, but I could never imagine not reading. For me, reading is an evolutionary way of getting to know the world.”

U KOPENHAGENU

Biographical books are very popular around the world today, and Muharem is among those writers who are characterised by a diversity of genres. French writer Emmanuel Carrère is the most interesting living writer whose work and character attract Muharem more than all other writers. And if he were in a position to dedicate himself to writing a biography of some famous writer, as German journalist and writer Michael Martens had when writing his biography of Ivo Andrić, it would be very difficult for Muharem to decide:

“I’m deliberating between Meša Selimović and Aleksandar Tišma. Meša is closer to me in terms of the overall context, and that book could be well received at the level of the former Yugoslavia, while on the other hand, Tišma is, for example, a great literary star in Germany that we’re not aware of here. Of course, Meša is more attractive to me because of the whole story about Islam, communists, the family milieu, that Sarajevo-Belgrade relationship… And, finally, his daughters are alive, as are some of his friends, and for such a biographical story it is very important to be able talk to people who were close to him, who were directly acquainted with him. Unfortunately, it is impossible to write such a biography without some kind of institutional support.”

Over recent days, in the national celebration of the tennis success brought to Serbia by Novak Đoković, Muharem wrote that Novak “restored the pride of a slandered culture and a vulgarised language”. It would be no exaggeration to say that this English literature graduate, journalist and writer preserves the beauty of this language and enriches it with his writings.

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