Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nostalgia for a Secular Age

As the choir members empty out into the street, their faces are illumined by the last gentle splash of blue before dusk settles over Sarajevo. I follow the flow of people and sidestep through the door as I try to maintain conversation with a woman named Nada. “Come,” she invites, “I want you to see our home. We’ve lived in the same flat since World War II.”
I’m grateful for the invitation. Nada is a member of Pontanima (Latin: soul bridge), the choir that brought me back to Bosnia. This incredible project was born in the years immediately after the Bosnian War. Its predecessor, a solely Catholic choir, was running low on members when Fra Ivo Marković suggested the members begin invite others to join, regardless of their religious persuasion. Organically, friends invited friends who were desperate to raise their voices in song after living through the hell of war for four terrible years. Along with the new Orthodox and Muslim members came Orthodox and Muslim songs, and soon the Interfaith Choir Pontanima was born.

Now they travel all over the Balkans and all over the world. Their mission: to illumine the capacity of religion to sow the seeds of peace in a land that has seen more than its fair share of religion’s sinister side.

Nada, my host for the evening, is a retired professor of Arabic and a big part of this choir. Not only has she been a member for thirteen years, but her two children and soon-to-be daughter-in-law are also members. She invites me up to meet her husband, Neno, who promptly offers me a glass of šlivojvica, Bosnian plum brandy. Before hoisting our glasses in the air, he procures some appetizers, called mezah, on the kitchen table: “This is so you don’t get too drunk,” he warns with a playful wink.
Nada’s family is an example of Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan and multi-religious history. With ancestors from all four different religious traditions, this multi-ethnic, highly educated and artistically engaged family fits quite well with the Yugoslav ideal.

As up and coming intellectuals in the 1960s, both Nada and Neno were given state sponsorship to take their studies around the world, as far as Tunisia and Scotland. “Everyone had what they needed, everyone had jobs,” they reminisced. “And then there was the war…”

This last phrase, together with a blank stare and a long, deep exhale, punctuates so many of my conversations here.
Between bites of fluffy pita bread called samon, I fill my hosts in on my interest in their interfaith choir and how impressed I am with the idea that religious music can bring people of diverse backgrounds together.
But Nada’s face turned serious.

“This choir is not a new idea,” she contends. I look across the table to see if this sentiment is shared by the others. Her daughter, Maja, speaks up, “No, it’s not at all. We had many incredible university choirs all over Yugoslavia under Tito, and they had people from all ethnicities too.”

This “Tito” is Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader who ruled Yugoslavia from 1953-1980. Tito’s ideology emphasized his citizens’ common identity as Yugoslavs (Southern Slavs) to the exclusion of the various religious or nationalistic identities of the Balkans.

During the communist period, religion was a private matter; it stayed out of politics. But that did not prevent individual citizens from peacefully engaging the religious other. Though they personally claim no religious tradition, Nada and Neno recalled the joy of breaking the fast of Ramadan with their Muslim neighbors and the countless times they lifted a glass of šlivojvica at baptisms with their Christian friends. Tito’s secularism, his strict divide between public politics and private faith, seemed to be the very thing that made space for the peaceful interaction amongst people of faith.
One thing is for sure – the religious nationalism that spawned the war in 1992 effectively destroyed those spaces for interreligious cooperation. The high-caliber, multi-ethnic university choirs of the Tito era have crumbled and given way to segregated, ethnically monolithic choirs. And in today’s political environment, Pontanima stands as a solitary beacon of pluralism and inter-ethnic cooperation.

Nada’s claim that, “This choir is not a new idea” made me pause and wonder if what appeared to be so original and avant-garde is, in reality, a mimetic expression of Yugo-nostalgia. Did Tito already achieve by secular means what Pontanima is seeking to create by religious means? What difference does it make if the spaces for inter-religious engagement in a society are created by people of faith or state actors?

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