Last month was the first time I missed posting in this blog since I started it almost 2.5 years ago. Life caught on. Amidst all the chaos, I could still clearly feel how much I missed posting here. Now I am back and it feels great.
This month I write about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country in the Balkan peninsula, bordered by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The region was a part of the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Republic of Yugoslavia at various points in modern history. Currently it is a liberal democratic nation. The country is remembered the most for being the site of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand which proved to be a spark for the First World War. It hosts the immensely popular Sarajevo Film Festival as well.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich literary tradition going back to the middle ages. There is a wealth of fiction and non-fiction originating here aiming to shed light on the various conflicts . The most obvious choice to read is Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric with his The Bridge on the Drina, a historical novel where the bridge stands testament to the history of the place from Ottoman occupation till World War I.
For my reading, I have chosen Death and the Dervish by Messa Selimovic. Its a poignant tale of a dervish, who regularly misquotes the Quoran, loses his brother and tries to deal with the tragedy in a state of half delirium. Its a Bosnian classic and I hope to enjoy reading it.
I have read quite a few depressing tales in my life – Khalid Husseini comes to mind – and the Death and the Dervish comes close to the top of the list. The entire book – all 473 pages of it – is monotonous monologue, except for sparse conversation, leading to more monologue. That, by no means, implies the book is unentertaining. The sadness of the dervish living in a tekke(a kind of monastery) separated from the rest of the kasaba(city or village) and pining for everything from family, friendship, female companionship, respect, spiritual salvation and at the moment, his brother’s safety just sucks the reader in. He sees a beautiful woman and enjoys her beauty:
‘Without a desire to possess her, without the possibility of experiencing her completely, without the strength to leave.’
The dervish left his family a long while ago to take the order. The decision was mostly triggered by the separation from the woman he loved. He still cares about his brother immensely and is quite confident that he could not do anything unlawful or hurtful. In spite of this belief, he cannot bring himself to do enough to save his brother from a certain death in the hands of the authoritarian rulers. He loses a lot of time contemplating how to come out of the whole incident looking good and his brother safe. By the time he realizes only one among the two is possible, its too late. His momentary spur of efforts gets him imprisoned for a while. When he does come out, he takes up a higher position as a kadi(judge) and is eventually forced to rule against his best friend.
‘I don’t like violence, it’s a sign of weakness and bad judgement, a means by which people are driven to do evil. And yet, when it was exercised against others I kept silent and refused to condemn it.’
Throughout my reading I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. At some point I realized that it is the unquestioning acceptance of the cruelty of the absolute totalitarian rulers. There is no surprise, no indignant rebellion; just meek acceptance. The society is also almost homogeneous, probably set after the ethnic cleansing envisioned by the Ottoman empire ruling the county. Life in this society is nothing more than a slow march towards death:
‘There are no exemptions, no surprises: all paths lead to it. Everything we do is a preparation for it, a preparation that we begin at our birth, whimpering with our foreheads against the ground. We never move away from death, only closer.’
A more significant underlying theme throughout the story is the cowardice of the dervish. At the bottom of cowardice lies extreme selfishness, a desire to protect only oneself, at any cost. Cowardice leads to pain, loneliness, desperate search for a friend and definite depression. The story is supposed to mimic an incident in the author’s life who lost his brother to the Communist regime and blamed himself for not doing enough to save him. The entire story runs like a reprimand for failing to protect a brother or a friend who fills the soul, even at the cost of one’s own life – a self righteousness used to justify sending a brother to the gallows. Death and the Dervish is by no means an easy read. But if you persevere, the reward is an absolute classic with deep political and philosophical undercurrents.
Other Options from Bosnia:
Sarajevo Marlboro – Miljenko Jergovic
Story collection set in Sarajevo
Sarajevo, Exodus of a City – Dzevad Karahasan
Non-fiction essays about Sarajevo