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?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Living Off Wounds

“I used to drive these streets at night – without any headlights,” the portly middle aged friar said as he whipped his egg-shaped car along the craggy, narrow mountain road. He said this, I think, to make me feel safer as he saw my fingers grip into the seat and my feet press against the floorboards to hold me securely in place.

“Once during the war, I was transporting a group of CNN journalists into Sarajevo. I hadn’t slept in two days, and my windshield was shattered. I could only see through a tiny section of glass, and with no headlights!” He often made these trips at night because the darkness provided cover from the snipers in the hills. “My ministry then was to get the truth about Sarajevo to the rest of the world, so I made many of these trips.”
There was no sniper fire when I made the trip on Thursday, but the same erratic driving that kept Fra Ivo Marković safe during the Bosnian War in the 1990s delivered me safely to our meeting place on the River Miljacka. Warmed by the late afternoon Balkan sun and refreshed by our tall glasses of lager, my three-month study of religious reconciliation in Bosnia began through a cafe conversation with this Franciscan whose life’s work has been to heal the wounds of religious nationalism in his native Bosnia.

Ivo is a practitioner and a scholar of reconciliation. In conversation, he will jump from telling stories of making peace in the midst of war to commenting on how much easier Hegel is to read in German than in English.

In the days after the war, Fra Ivo understood his mission to be breaking down the walls of division that the religious nationalists erected on all sides (Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks). For example, he would gather a group of young people from a village of Serbs and take them on a day trip to predominately Muslim areas. By exposing young people to the “others” in the village next door, inter-ethnic relationships were formed and lines of communication began to irrupt into these young worlds. These risky trips injected a salvific dose of différance into these youth’s minds formed by the totalizing stereotypes of the media and the ferocious rhetoric of politicians.

These modest practices of reconciliation had great effect. On a journey to Pale (pronounced PAH-lay), Ivo’s contacts alerted him that Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb political leader currently standing trial in the Hague for war crimes, issued an order to “do something about this Marković” character. Recognizing his imminent danger, Ivo bolted back to Sarajevo, screaming through the checkpoints to avoid capture. This inter-ethnic interaction struck deeply into the nationalists’ heart by challenging the premise that identity is based on the maintenance of purity through segregation.
“Nationalists live off of wounds. Karadžić saw that I was attempting to heal those wounds, and he felt his power base threatened.” According to Fra Ivo, religious nationalists constantly remind their constituents of the wounds their group has suffered historically; they cast the inter-religious story of Bosnia in terms of perpetrators and victims, with nationalists on each side declaring to be the victims. “Even amongst my own Franciscans, I often hear them say that we Catholics should be afraid, that we are in danger in Sarajevo. But who is in danger? I am not in danger; I am a Catholic, this is my city too, and I am safe.”

This pierces into a core question about reconciliation and forgiveness. Our sensibilities, religious and otherwise, compel us to remember wrongs suffered. Ellie Wiesel’s ethical imperative to “remember” the atrocities of the Holocaust resounds in our souls; remember so that this will never happen again. But Ivo’s account suggests that the perpetual recollection of wrongs suffered is the very fodder of religious nationalism, and it is precisely this that rips open old wounds and instills fear in human hearts - the kind of fear that can lead to genocide.

What is the tipping point between remembering well and remembering poorly? When does the memory of a wrong suffered stop serving as protection against further atrocities and begin to be the life destroying compulsion to tear the wound open again and again?