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Namik Kabil, writer and film director

Relapses Towards the Tragic War Still Plague Us

His five novels have resulted in him being among the region’s most popular writers. His first screenplay for the feature film Kod amidže Idriza [English title Days and Hours] introduced him to the world of cinematography in a big way. He fled the war and headed to America, where he spent nine years working as a taxi driver, completed directing studies and returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is today the editor of Documentary Programming for B&H Federal Television in Sarajevo

His first name, Namik, comes from the Arabic language and means ’one who writes beautifully’. But this means beautiful in the calligraphic sense and not necessarily in terms of content. As our interlocutor explains himself, “I actually write terribly, if you’re refer to my handwriting. With me, it’s not pretty cursive, but rather ugly cursive. I nevertheless write some books that are read, so that’s a bit of a saving grace.” The surname Kabil is said to have originated in the Kabylia region, located between Tunisia and Algeria. At some point in history, part of the population of Kabyle and the Berber tribes moved to Spain, then relocated to the Montenegrin town of Risan with the Sephardic Jews, and later moved from Risan to the city of Trebinje in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Namik’s father, Faruk Kabil, was a renowned doctor in Trebinje and across Eastern Herzegovina, while his mother, Suada, was a teacher who gave up her job to take care of the house and their daughter Lamia and son Namik, because her husband spent most of his time with his patients. Namik’s wife, Sanja, is originally from Zenica and works for UNICEF in Sarajevo. Together they have an 11-year-old daughter, Esma. Namik says that he was spoiled as a child, both at home and in the city.

“But I luckily wasn’t a delinquent; I didn’t crash the car or get into fights, but I was sufficiently indulged at every turn, as male children used to be indulged in a patriarchal upbringing. It was only later, when I went to America, that I realised that spoiling had done me a disservice, because I subsequently saw how unprepared for more serious life challenges I really was. I grew up in a house where people sang, ate well, drank and laughed a lot. And that very warmth that I carried with me from home is one of the most important things in life generally for me. It seems to me that it created the emotional stability that enabled me to endure and survive life’s challenges, which I sometimes found scary and very demanding.”

His father, Faruk, moved from Trebinje to Sarajevo to study, completed medical studies and landed a job in Tuzla, only to return to Trebinje with his family in 1975, when Namik enrolled in the first year of primary school.

“My early memories from Tuzla are foggy, but I refreshed some of them when I returned to that city in 1990. I had gone there to study medicine, but unsuccessfully, as it would later turn out. Some element of unconscious identification certainly prevailed in me making such a decision. Specifically, my father was the only specialist ear, nose and throat doctor in Eastern Herzegovina. He was a very powerful man in that microcosm, and I probably wanted to be like that too. But medicine is difficult and demanding to study, and I struggled with my inner artistic demons throughout the entire time that I was studying. Then came the war. Everything stopped and I left for America.”

He attended Santa Monica College, Los Angeles City College, UCLA Extension, all of which were based in Los Angeles. And to that he adds:

“That’s why, from today’s perspective, I also consider myself a ‘war profiteer’ because without the war I’d probably have ended up in some more dubious situation and my life would be a tapestry of indecision. I had already wasted years and money attempting to study medicine, without anyone really forcing me to do so. On the contrary, my father would say that I wouldn’t succeed because medicine “demands that you sit and cram for fifteen hours, while you prefer to talk like some lawyer”. He was ultimately satisfied when I dropped out of medical studies, because he was also an artistic soul who played music, sang and loved books. In the end, he said that he was happy that I dealt with such refined things as literature and film, as opposed to examining people and having to look at blood. He forgave me for both the money and time I spent stumbling around Tuzla.”

I’m a provincial child, a troubadour and a fisherman, who just happened to find himself in Los Angeles

Namik says that he inherited his father’s obsession for his work. If he dedicates himself to something, then he does so with all his power, until he reaches that which will satisfy him as a result. And just as his mother was once a top cook, so he enjoys himself in the kitchen today, making various specialities. His parents weren’t formally religious people, but they observed the holidays. They would sometimes spend the days of Ramadan fasting, but Eid al-Fitr was celebrated regularly.

“That was more of a celebration that provided an occasion for a family gathering. What I have left of that identity today, which is more atavistic, is that I don’t eat pork. But that’s more of a legacy than something I really understand, because I’m ultimately quite a sinful man in that formal sense.”

Namik wrote his first poem – about Tito – in the third year of primary school in Trebinje! And he continued to write, or rather to scribble, as he says, which was childish frivolity and abstraction. He felt that he had creative energy early on, but it was neither channelled nor articulated.

“I later had a band, wrote songs, while I only started writing my first serious prose in America, publishing them in some non-commercial magazines. I then wrote the screenplay for the feature film Days and Hours [original title Kod amidže Idriza], which furthered my career, while it was simultaneously a reason for me to return… This time to Sarajevo.”

The film Days and Hours, directed by Pjer Žalica, quickly gained a large audience, and for Namik it marked the start of the work that he wanted to do. He entered the world of art in a big way and was happy that his film was so well received by the public and is still being screened today. Namik’s books represent a kind of inventory of a life that was determined by war as a turning point. The war destroyed, changed and determined the lives of the people about whom he writes, and primarily presents to readers his life from Tuzla, via Trebinje, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and Los Angeles, then back to Sarajevo. With remnants in Trebinje in the form of the family home that marks the start of his latest novel, Beskućnik [Vagabond].

He fled to America with the outbreak of war in 1993, only to return nine years later.

“I am a deserter in my soul, I mean that I’m primarily a selfish coward. I couldn’t see myself fighting in any army, on any side. I simply ran from the war with my head, regardless of everything. I found America difficult and demanding, particularly since I hadn’t previously prepared for that kind of challenge. That’s because I’m a provincial child, a troubadour and a fisherman, who just happened to find himself in Los Angeles. To be clear, I didn’t go there to work on films; I didn’t have any kinds of visions or concepts, I just fled.

“I first fled from Trebinje in 1991, due to the military mobilisation. When the Yugoslav People’s Army started buying people, grouping them to head towards Dubrovnik, for something that was called an ‘exercise’, it was immediately clear that they wouldn’t stop there. They had yet to send me an invitation to join, but my father told me that the situation certainly wouldn’t end quickly and that I should flee. And that’s how it was. As soon as I left Trebinje, they came looking for me twice. I went to Tuzla, where they weren’t able to mobilise me because I wasn’t registered. I fled from there to Zagreb, where I had no source of income to live from, and it was there that I realised I had to start all over again. And that’s how I ended up going to America.”

The political elite very consciously retain the trauma of war “at a working temperature”, because that forms the basis of their rule

The cover photo for Beskućnik, published by Novi Sad publishing company Akademska knjiga, is signed with the name of his father – Faruk Kabil.

“I selected it instinctively. That photo was taken by my father in the early 1980s. The picture was taken in the village of Pridvorci near Trebinje. I’m the boy pictured from behind and I’m looking at the man holding the horse, whose name is Isak Bračković, and he was the one who saved the photo. I remember only that we were at his parents’ farm and he was holding a horse that was being groomed, and I watched it all as my father took the picture. He also dealt with amateur photography and developed the film and made the picture himself, and I only discovered it a year ago and decided to put it on the cover page. My friend and professional photographer Amer Kapetanović, who lives in Sweden, said when he saw the photo in the book: ‘You are watching this man tell the horse where it belongs, and the horse doesn’t agree. It’s as if he wants to tell the man where he belongs.’ That sounded like a precise explanation to me, because the book is about where we belong, among other things; about where we should and shouldn’t be, where we’ve been, where we no longer are, what we’re nostalgic about and what we aren’t, while we’re either happy or bitter about everything. However, as usually happens in life, everything is mixed together in some proportions that aren’t so clear.

Two of Namik’s books are named after famous films: Amarcord and The Shining, while one is named after the famous Beatles song Yesterday… He explains why.

“Amarcord is one of my favourite films, and Fellini is one of the dearest directors. In the book I dealt with memory and the film Amarcord was the first association for the title of the book. It might have initially sounded a bit pretentious, but I decided it was the right choice. I’m generally very interested in cover versions of songs, or when one covers a well-known topic, such that it both is and isn’t what it once was. When U2 singer Bono was asked about Johnny Cash’s cover version of the song One, he replied: “If Johnny Cash covers one of your songs, it’s no longer yours; it’s a new song”. There’s also that urge to take something that’s well known, that has a general place in the collective memory, and to make it into something that’s your own. That was the case with me in Amarcord and The Shining, while Yesterday is based on that song title thematically. As Miljenko Jergović said about this novel, these are yesterday’s people, people from yesterday who simply can’t accept that time has passed. I have long been addressing a traumatised time, through various books, and the way people always look back and think it was better before, which is naturally always very personal and subjective. But that isn’t linked only to these lands of ours, as people have always had an urge to look back, because – when it’s fully stripped bare – we certainly won’t die in the past, while in the future we will.”

He recalls Yugoslavia and living an intense life growing up in that country, while he also served in the Yugoslav People’s Army.

“In my recollections, completely privately and subjectively, that Yugoslavia was a better place to live than these countries are today. Of course, there’s some truth to the statement that people don’t remember Yugoslavia, but rather they remember their youth. We were young and everything seemed rosy. However, I think that there was more order, more systems that functioned, we were at a higher civilisational level than we are now. And when I say that I’m referring to the whole region.

“There’s a very good and useful book written by Snježana Kordić, called Language and Nationalism. Through the story of language, she provided a broader picture of things. Say, for example, the fact that nationalists, as a rule, underline the differences in our language varieties doesn’t mean that there aren’t many more similarities. But they deliberately ignore them.”

In the book Amarcord, Namik mentions Slobodan Milošević from the period of his rule in Serbia, and that seems to have been the author’s first encounter with politics from the late 1980s and the very start of the ‘90s.

“I felt that as a young man in Trebinje. I wasn’t able to articulate it, but you know that sense that something’s rumbling over the hill, that some tensions are building. That was my first personal encounter with nationalism. Milošević called those years the ‘Years of Unravelling’ in his own book, and I would say that those were years of both unravelling and entanglement. Now, after everything has passed, we see that it was much easier to enter into misdeeds and crimes, and much more difficult to overcome them politically and especially spiritually. In order to overcome them, you have to have an academic and social format, while the engagement of the entire social community and confrontation must be implied, and we know how far we are from that. In order to become a criminal, it is enough just to be inhumane. To go to your neighbour’s house and set it on fire. I personally – and I would say as a layman – don’t think that the Hague Tribunal is a real court, but God forbid it didn’t exist. What alternative could we offer after the crimes committed in these lands? And would we ever even offer such an alternative? Unlikely.”

Namik has the habit of saying that a man doesn’t know rock bottom until he hits it, after his life in LA collapsed completely. But the good thing is that nothing else is difficult after such an experience. Working on the streets was a dangerous job that he certainly would never have chosen if he hadn’t been forced into it. He adapted his taxi driving to his studies. He endured difficult days and years, feeling intimidated and insecure. After his American experience, he says: “Today, as a sailor, I try to use every wind that blows to head in the direction I desire”.

I have long been addressing a traumatised time, through various books

The war, which he experienced for ten months before leaving for America, is still an indescribable experience for him. “Those are the kinds of situations when you go to a kiosk, buy cigarettes and walk on, then a grenade falls and kills the man who sold you cigarettes. When that fear builds up within you, then you know the difference between the benign fears you had as a child, and the much harsher fear I discovered when the war began. You can live with a benign fear, while the other fear messes with your head.”

Since 2009, Namik has been employed as the editor of Documentary Programming at Federal Television in Sarajevo:

“If I hadn’t had that period of squirming at the bottom in America, I perhaps wouldn’t value the job I do today as much. After America, nothing is difficult for me anymore, and I’m very happy that I do this job. Setting aside the crazy fact that I live in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has three public services. That’s like imagining England with three BBCs! One can often hear the metaphor that the Dayton Agreement is a straitjacket that stopped the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and should never have been brought to life as a peacetime constitution.

But since 1995, when the war formally ended, this country hasn’t come to life as a normal society. We are still plagued by relapses towards the tragic war. And it’s certainly no coincidence that war themes are still current in literature, cinematography and art in general. In Mostar, for example, within a radius of 300 metres, you have no consensus on what happened in that city, and that’s just one obvious example. The political elite, or the political cabal that rules, knows very well that people are traumatised and very consciously retain the trauma of war “at a working temperature”, because it is on that basis that they rule. The people watch and listen to the news, we also apathetically allow politicians to intimidate us all these years, as if we really believe that everything is the way they say it is.”

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