by Mile Stojic
Semezdin Mehmedinovic (42), author of the most quoted and doubtless most artistically accomplished work from the Bosnian war Sarajevo Blues, lives today by the River Potomac in Alexandria, USA. During the war I used to meet Mehmedinovic in European towns where he would be on some flying visit from occupied Sarajevo, and he would tell me, in a friendly manner and without malice or reproach, that I should return from exile as soon as possible. The final verses in his book say more or less that anyone who thinks there is no death outside Sarajevo is very much mistaken. When I first read those verses, they stung my own guilty conscience, with their wise implication that no one can escape his own fate.
When I decided in the winter of 1995 to return to Sarajevo, I met Mehmedinovic in Zagreb. He was waiting for a visa. After all those horrible years spent in an occupied city, he had suddenly decided to pack his bags and move with his family to the USA. We saw in the New Year of 1996 with our families in a student flat in a dismal, gloomy Zagreb. Our roles had suddenly been reversed, as I now advocated return, he departure. One going back to Sarajevo, one leaving, we were like the characters in the joke who shout from opposite sides of the airport runway: ‘What in hell’s name do you hope to find here?’ But seeing in the New Year with Mehmedinovic was inspiring. I’ll remember it in the endless catalogue of other such celebrations because of his remark that in this part of the world ‘patriotism’ is a word used only by crooks and war profiteers. A few months later I did return to Sarajevo, while he flew away on the wings of hope into the mists of the new world.
Today we talk in that American Alexandria, in Mehmedinovic’s modest but elegantly arranged apartment on the bank of the Potomac. The poet shares with me his initial bitter experiences as an emigré, but without resentment or melancholy. Since then the respected publisher City Lights has brought out an English translation of his book, which was met with high praise from the most reputable journals and critics. The same publisher will soon release his new book of verse, The Ninth Alexandria, in which the poet has entered a new phase in his writing. In his new verses he describes the voyage of his body through the endless tracts of the USA. In the country of blues, he sings once again his Sarajevo blues: ‘I stepped into the World to give respite to my body, dazed by fear of obliteration. But my courage left me in the first darkness.’
Later we discussed the title of his new book. I could see the reason for Alexandria, but wondered why ninth. The answer is made clear in these verses: ‘By my reckoning (which may be wrong)/There are nine towns in America named Alexandria./The maps of the New World trace those of the Old/In ocean indigo…’ So then we spoke about the Mediterranean Alexandria, where the greatest library of the Ancient World used to be until it disappeared in flames, where the first lighthouse went into operation, and where the fair Cleopatra lasciviously gave her body to heroes from history books … The American Alexandrias possess merely the dumb symbolism of their collective number. cultural clones, while the flourishing symbolism of the mythical Mediterranean town is so great that it leads to general entropy. We then recalled our old friend Slobodan Blagojevic, who in the mid eighties reminded us of the greatest sage of the new Egyptian Alexandria, a poet who has described the coming of the barbarians and continually reminded us how important in our lives the Alexandrias and the Ithacas are. Then we drank dark ale in Murphy’s Irish Pub and remembered our recently deceased colleague Izet Sarajlic, drawing from the caves of memory the following anecdote.
At the beginning of the eighties, at one of the Struga Poetry Evenings [in Macedonia], the eternally ethereal Izet had asked the young Macedonian poet Sande Stojcevski what his name meant. ‘Sande is an abbreviation for Alexander,’ Stojcevski answered. ‘If your name’s Alexander, why aren’t you called Aca?’, Sarajlic asked. ‘Then why not Leka?’, asked Stojcevski pretending to be insulted, but then went on: ‘And do you know, Izet, how to say Alexander in your language?’ Sarajlic was puzzled, and asked which language he meant. ‘Well, you see,’ explained Stojcevski eruditely, ‘in your language it’s Skender.’ ‘Which is why our Alexandria is called Skenderija [a district in Sarajevo]’, I concluded - just as a minstrel at the bar with greying red hair struck up a song from Dublin, city of Ulysses. I spontaneously ‘translated’ its imcomprehensible, drawled American vowels them into Cavafy’s fateful Alexandrines: ‘Only when you leave Ithaca behind will you realise how much Ithacas mean to us…’
The Sarajevo Blues Poet then told me in his soft, velvety (‘wheaten’, as he says in one of his poems) voice about the beauties of this earthly copy arisen over the indigo of the ocean. Does anyone in this pseudo-Alexandria still care about true dramas, about our dramas, I wondered, continuing to draw parallels between the fragments of our devastated and this world which for now hides in the cellar its slain, its hatreds and its atavisms. ‘I doubt there’s any hope of that’, said Semezdin, ‘But, sometimes I miss Sarajevo physically so much that I wish I could stand for a moment with my eyes half-closed in some remote corner of the city, not seeing anything, just breathing the air in deeply, and feel my world revolving round me’
Then I mentioned his celebrated poem about his father, a Tuzla miner - who died of sorrow during this war, according to Semezdin’s wife Sanja – and my wife came up with a kind of ‘quotation’ from that poem by starting [like his father] to sing: ‘Oooh, I bit into a bright aaapple, oooh, I kissed an esmer[dark-haired]-ðuzel[beautiful] maaaideeen…’ In the evening clamour of the Irish pub in that American Alexandria, the rhythms of the sevdalinka filled the air like a balm for invisible, deeply embedded wounds.
We entered the poet’s spacious Cadillac and headed for Washington. Semezdin talked about the America that the tourist will never see, and about Seattle, where he intended soon to move, while I thought about our Sarajevo years, about the days when I was editing important literary publications and he was working as a waiter in the cult jazz café Zvono. Days when we believed that the world we lived in was not doomed. I told him I had visited that dive in Sarajevo not long before, led there by an Ariadne’s thread of memory, but that in the meantime the world had turned upside down. I said too that, despite everything, I still did not believe that our doom had been inevitable. Through the wide windows of the sturdy American car we surveyed haughty edifices: Congress, the Obelisk, the FBI, the White House. An America, Boris Maruna would say, whose excessive radiance the eyes cannot bear to look upon. Long ago I promised myself to write an essay on Mehmedinovic’s poetry, but I would always come to a halt at the verses about the dzamdzija [glazier] before whose eyes his homeland shatters, or at the interview-poem about the imam of the Begova Mosque in Sarajevo, whose whole family – his wife, his children and his grandchildren - was wiped out in the summer of 1992 by a Chetnik shell.. And now, riding with the poet in a huge river of cars among the monumental facades of the Powerful World, I am deeply convinced that it is precisely poetry which most memorably speaks the truth of our age. My thoughts move from the figure of that glazier to the figure of the unknown imam in the shadow of the Sarajevo minaret, ‘alone in the endless cosmos of pain’.
This article has been translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 22 June 2002