A Lesson of Democracy from Sarajevo

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Vedran Smajlovic performs in 1992 in Sarajevo in the destroyed National Library

A couple of weeks ago, 450 American writers signed an open letter opposing Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for president:

Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power;

Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate;

Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another;

Because the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies;

Because the search for justice is predicated on a respect for the truth;

Because we believe that knowledge, experience, flexibility, and historical awareness are indispensable in a leader;

Because neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people;

Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response…

The letter is a tattoo that marks the difference between the writers’ political skin and the crowds of Trump followers, a congregation of dubious origin with an air of obsolescence. We have not been touched by this primitive call of the jungle, the writers seem to be saying. We repudiate whoever makes a call to such a low instinct of humanity.

Reading the appeal, one almost instinctively joins the protest. You cannot help but disagree with the methods that Donald Trump, a brand manager, is using to collect votes and recruit his army of supporters. Still, a “petition” to take away the political rights of a any person is just as violent as the language of savage men like Trump.

This second thought came with the help of Aleksandar Hemon, a 51-year-old Bosnian transplant to the U.S., where he grown into an important American fiction writer. On June 1, Hemon published an essay, taking an opposing stand to his many Writer’s Guild colleagues. “Why I did not sign the open letter against Trump” is a thought-provoking piece, but these thoughts have probably been put to paper before now.

This is how I feel, at least. They are familiar to me. I am older than Hemon, and I remember that in my student years, when Ljubljana was still part of the socialist Yugoslavia, petitions for liberating this or that person often circulated in my town. Among the people our signatures were supposed to free were Vojislav Šešelj and Vladimir Karadjić — who, a decade later, became extreme nationalists and, in Karadjić’s case, an incredibly gory war criminal. I do not remember exactly why the two were prosecuted in mid-’80s, but I do remember that many people who signed the petition had no clue, either. Such petitions were not about political ideas, but rather about exercising democracy. Signing a petition was one of those fresh and fragile tools of democracy that we were just learning to use.

Hemon seems to be echoing this idealist idea of democracy:

Fucking A, says I! For I too deplore Trump and everything he and his squirrel-pelt hair stand for.

Yet, I didn’t sign the Letter.

For one thing, if the writers take the American electoral system to be legitimate and legal, the way to oppose Trump’s candidacy is to vote against him—that’s what voting is for. It’s true, as the writers assert, that “the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies,” but Trump is presently abiding by the rules of democratic election, as are his followers, rabid as they may be. It’s also true that “neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people.” But what would qualify Trump to speak for the United States is his being elected in the fall. Horrifying as that may seem, that’s how the system works—the election is the job interview. The Open Letter demands that Trump be excluded from the democratic process because he and his words are repellent, because his pelt and short fingers tarnish the comforting picture of American history that “despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together.”

I love Hemon’s writing — his subtle soul and his low voice that travels from a cultural landscape that disappeared a long time ago. Like his “Mapping Home,” a piece in which he describes his first return to Sarajevo from Chicago, the city where he was forced to apply for political asylum in 1992, after the long and deadly siege of his hometown began:

In the Sarajevo I knew, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the landmarks of your life (the spot where you fell and broke your arm playing soccer, the corner where you waited to meet the first of the many loves of your life, the bench where you first kissed her); the streets where people would forever know and recognize you, the space that identified you. Because anonymity was well nigh impossible and privacy literally incomprehensible (there is no word for “privacy” in Bosnian), your fellow-Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them. If you somehow vanished, your fellow-citizens could have reconstructed you from their collective memory and the gossip that had accrued over years. Your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical corollary was the architecture of the city.

Chicago, on the other hand, was built not for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant elements of its architecture. Vast as it was, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness. In this city, I had no human network within which to place myself. My displacement was metaphysical to precisely the same extent to which it was physical. But I couldn’t live nowhere. I wanted from Chicago what I had got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.

In February, 1997, a couple of months before my first return to Sarajevo, my best friend, Veba, came to Chicago for a visit. For the first few days, I listened to the stories of his life in Sarajevo during the siege, the stories of horrible transformation that the war had brought upon the besieged. I was still living at the AiR. Despite the February cold, Veba wanted to see where my life was taking place, so we wandered around Edgewater: to the Shoney’s, the chess café, the kafana on the shore of the now iced-over lake. Veba got a haircut at my barber’s; we bought meat at my butcher’s. I told him my Edgewater stories: about the young woman on the ledge, about the Bosnian family in walking formation, about Peter the Assyrian.

Then we ventured out of Edgewater, to Ukrainian Village. I showed him where I’d lived in that neighborhood. I took him to the Burger King where I had fattened myself into American shape while listening to old Ukes discussing Ukrainian politics over sixty-nine-cent coffee—I used to call them the Knights of the Burger King. We wandered around the Gold Coast, spotting a Matisse in some rich person’s apartment, nicely positioned so that it could be seen from the street; we saw a movie at the Esquire. We visited the Water Tower, and I told Veba about the great Chicago fire. We had a drink at the Green Mill, where Al Capone used to imbibe Martinis, and where many giants of jazz history had performed. I showed him where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had taken place: the garage was long gone, but urban myth had it that dogs still growled at the site, because they could smell the blood.

Showing Veba around, telling him the stories of Chicago and of my life in Edgewater, I realized that large parts of the city had entered me and settled there; I owned those parts now. They had been selected based on the criteria I had acquired at home. I saw my new city through the eyes of Sarajevo; Chicago’s map had been superimposed on the map of my home town in my head. The two places had now combined to form a complicated internal landscape, a space where I could wander and feel at home, and in which stories could be generated. When I came back from my first visit to Sarajevo, in the spring of 1997, the Chicago I came back to belonged to me. Returning from home, I returned home.

There were two reasons why Hemon needed to reconstruct his home in his mind. After the long Serbian siege and bombing, there was nothing much left of Hemon’s native city — that he knew so well before he departed in 1992. Thousands of Sarajevans — his friends and relatives — were killed. As Hemon puts it, he needed to mentally rebuild the infrastructure that was obliterated. He needed to plant a new landscape into his mind — to feed it with stories, images and faces that would talk to him, that would become his home.

This is how Hemon and many Sarajevans walk through this world, as Hemon explains it. He is not alone in this. There are many hurt and searching souls that are wandering around Sarajevo. And there is something very cozy and tribal about the way Hemon wants and needs to appropriate places in order to be able to live in them. His world is nothing compared to life in New York, for instance, where “urban” stands for sharp, smart and rich.

But in my mind, Hemon’s non-signing of the letter has another very important message. I have previously called Hemon an idealist, but the more I think, the more convinced I become that his message is universal. Only a person who suffered that much, who saw his hometown reduced to ruins by bombs and shells, disinfected of all its smells and memories — only this kind of person can cherish democracy to the extreme of supporting Trump’s right to run for office. Hemon knows that exclusion leads to segregation, revenge, violence and destruction. Hemon is not an American patriot, and he is not a Trump fan, but he defends voting as the strongest tool of democracy, and as the ultimate test for the proper functioning of democratic institutions.

Hemon does not force his act of non-signing into political discourse. He is a man of letters, and he lives as a writer in an old-fashioned way.

He will vote, but he will not say that America should stop Trump from running for president. And he will not say that Clinton should not run simply because she might be indicted by the FBI. Once your homeland — your courtyard, your imaginarium — has been wiped out by savages, you will defend these institutions of democracy with your own claws. It happens after every war.  

Also published on Medium.

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