Writer and academic Adnan Mahmutović became a refugee of the Yugoslavian War in 1993 and ended up in Sweden. In this highly personal serialised essay, Adnan reflects on the extraordinary nature of Ramadan as a cohesive structure for the diaspora of which he was a part, and how it continues to form a spine to his European experiences, from Bosnia to Sweden. Wales Arts Review is extremely pleased to publish “A Movable Fast”. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.
Ramadan is the month of forgiveness, my wife reminded me. Excessive, relentless, irrational, heartfelt forgiveness. But could I forgive them? Halal myself? Could I forgive my people the Bosniaks? Or is it too bold, too cheeky, too blasphemous to think that your own people needed your forgiveness, that there was a grudge between you and your people, an injustice that your people may not even know of, may not even be aware they trespass onto you. Trespassing that is not unlike an occupation. Every piece of land and every piece of person has at some point been occupied. There is no such thing as an unoccupied territory. Just take a look at the old and new buildings in Banja Luka. The ancient Ferhat Paša’s mosque that was blown up in the 90s (the sound of which I remember like it was last night), and which the Serbs said was the reminder of the Ottoman occupation, was now rebuilt in its own image, out of simulacrum-stones that look both old and new, like I was in the damned Matrix, next to the streets that had new names, old buildings with new settlers. This Ramadan I was resettling as well, if only for a month, and the rest of the year I’d be occupying Sweden. And Sweden would be occupying me.
In the evening it was time for another terawih prayer, and after an hour of genuflection under a broken AC, the prayer was finished with the customary flicking through the 33 beads of tespih. I hadn’t seen this anywhere, this familiar dikr: Subhanallah 33 times, then Alhamdullilah 33 times, then Allahu Akbar 33 times. I usually counted on the knuckles of my fingers but my sons were very keen on those, even claimed a few colourful ones when they came to the mosque and put them in front of their feet like national flags. And then there was the typical throwing of the tespihs into the basket, which made me feel like the ending of a shift and not a spiritual event.
Besides Sarajevo, we also went to Travnik, the town from the uncle’s story. Travnik was perhaps the greatest disappointment. It was great hanging out with my cousin after more than twenty years, meeting his wife and kids (the daughter I knew from her visit to Stockholm the previous year), but I expected this old Bosnian town with so much dark and ancient architecture and history charged to the point of bursting like those mosquitos that had been drinking our foreign blood since we’d arrived. It really was the town from Meša Selimović’s novels, dark and heavy and at the same time light. But not exotic. I expected something to be present there, something that would make me see Ramadan in the peculiar way it existed in this weird town, but I saw nothing of it. There was little Ramadan atmosphere. My cousin’s kids took us on a sightseeing tour through the old čaršija and by the time we reached downtown they kept complaining how there was nothing fun in Travnik, how it was a dead place, how the discotheques were in some place where they did not dare go because there may be shootings. In the centre, there was an old fortress and several stone mosques including Šarena Đamija, the colourful one, quite untypical for Bosnia with all the washed out flowery decorations on the outer walls and lots of colour on the ceilings. Our cousin-guides stared at us when we said we wanted to check it out. They knew nothing about its history. I think they said they’d never been inside. Anyone would go in. It was an amazing house. The light inside seemed weak but weirdly strong enough for us to take pictures without a flash. Single entrance, of course. Thin Persian carpets covering all wooden floors. Completely empty. The kids said we should check out the newly renovated mosque in their neighbourhood, where the men of the family go twice a year for Eid. Apparently, Šarena Đamija was not attractive enough. The kids couldn’t tell us a single thing about any of the amazing things, not even the Blue Water spring that wells straight out of the mountainside and around which they’d built several cafes. The water was extremely clean and cold, with orange fish swimming in the small pools. Although it was a hot day, the air around the spring was cold and heavy with the blue water and the place looked misty.
The only trace of Islam was the Wahabi-looking guy with a woman in a burqa and a few kids taking a walk, like they stepped out of Fox News video. They looked as alien as we Swedes did. We thought that with all the talk about the increase in religious fervour would feel a bit oppressive to us because we’re used to more liberal Scandinavian places, but it felt weird telling people we were fasting because they’d look at us like we just dropped in from Mars and our skin turned green (Muslim colour, mind you), like characters from one of those John Gray books, Muslims are from Mars and … whatever. It’s not that I’m lamenting the absence of Islamic feel to the place. I’m actually lamenting the absence of a cultural feel to it that goes beyond what any regular tourist can see. The possibility of a multicultural feel, like in Stockholm, like we used to have in Bosnia. Right there and then, I thought Ramadan was cozier on Facebook where all my friends from all five continents share each other’s quirks and support each other, fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia alike. It seems I’m practically thrashing this amazing place, and this is indeed my experience that happened to be like that in those two days I spent in Travnik, but what made it all worse was seeing the high school from the uncle’s story. It was split into the Catholic and Muslim sections. Half of the building was for Catholics, the renovated part, the light blue façade and the new windows. On the left side of the fence that led from the street up to the entrance, the building was old, and worse than in the uncle’s story. Apparently the building was a private property and the town was renting it so they did not want to throw away any money because it’d go to the owner and they were waiting for a new one to be finished, but then they knew it wouldn’t because the man in charge had killed himself and the skeleton of the building was inhabited by junkies and drunkards. The Catholic part of the other school was pretty because obviously they felt it was theirs and worth the investment.
This division was killing me. Even if the town were breathing with a cosy Ramadan spirit, this would have ruined it for me. My cousin said the kids would still hang out in the schoolyard, talk through the fence. I wanted to vomit right there into that tiny river Lašva. This made me think of the upcoming elections in Sweden and the general fear of the neo-Nazi party lead by the innocuous looking man Jimmie Åkesson (don’t be fooled by the looks, it’s racism with a friendly face). That moment I wanted to take Åkesson and all his mates, all his voters (13% of Sweden) to see this school, to see Banja Luka and all the other ethnically cleansed places, their bad economies, thieving politicians and desperate people.
This visit to Travnik was actually toward the end of Ramadan, after my return from Vienna. I interrupt my fasting to go to the conference where I was going to talk about Hemon’s book and my book. The people on the bus from Banja Luka behaved like when I was a boy. I was tricked by the woman at the tickets’ office to take her company’s bus and not the one coming from Sarajevo, because apparently it was not as good and always late, but their own bus was not fit for modern international travel. It was nothing like the amazing Blaguss vehicle they had put on the poster. Before we even departed the driver said, Good day good people. Please behave. Half an hour later the second driver went to the back of the bus and told some young guys to get the f— up and find other seats because he needed to take a nap. They did. There was quarrelling and eating and drinking and spitting and the familiar words repeated like mantra: This can happen only in the Balkans.
A woman who sat next to me asked everyone around her where they were from. She was commuting between Austria and Bosnia, as were most people on these buses. Everyone I met wanted to go abroad. Especially the young people. I couldn’t help but enjoy the irony of it, the fact that there the people I was meeting now participated in the ethnic cleansing in the 90s, and now that the place was all theirs, they hated it so much they’d leave any second. The chatty woman said to me, It’s OK that you left. You were right to leave.
I said nothing because I was now going to fast again and wouldn’t lose myself in bad thoughts, but I wanted to say, Seriously? We were right to leave? Like we all just took off and went for a picnic. Give me a fucking break.
To calm down, I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on my iPad, the issue called Ramadan, and entrusted my soul to Morpheus himself.
The bus stopped in weirdest places, just turning off the highway to drop people off. Because of the frequent stops we were late and one young guy was worried he’d miss his connection to Budapest at 22:45. We arrived at exactly quarter to eleven and our driver saw the Budapest bus turning the corner and he honked until the man stopped in the middle of an intersection and the young student ran over to it. Everyone cheered. At least something nice was happening in the world. Some people were lucky. The bus station looked like messy marketplaces in Banja Luka. I expected someone to sell me a goat. But the city? Dear God. Talk about Empire. Sterilized streets and real plates and cutlery at the film festival.
Like two years earlier in Little Rock, Arkansas, the conference was amazing. The crowd of writers from Australia to the US and China seemed carefully curated. Everyone was so nice and generous, and each of those writers, the likes of my love Bharati Mukherjee (sorry Clark), and the bunch of the merry Irish, and the Italian-Canadians, a place where writers move among academics and yet no blood is spilt on those historical pavements on which even Royal sweat and blood must have dropped many times. The only thing that bothered me a little was that it felt like a bubble. We were enjoying ourselves so much, eating cakes with silly names like Sisipunschkrapfen (way too pink to be legal, but hey, it’s Austria), contemplating taking a tour in a horse carriage (way too expensive for writers), walking by the Danube where graffiti cover the concrete under the bridges, reading to each other in outdoor cafés. At the same time, Ramadan was going on somewhere else. And, at the same time, Gaza was mowed down. At that time the number of dead children was still low. I kept checking the news and posting links, mostly by all those amazing Jews and Israelis who could not stand what was going on in their name. I guess I’d always had a weak spot for dissidents, who feel compassion through walls and across mountains and oceans. I was feeling bad about the Palestinians’ plight, and the people on the other side of the wall, who after all didn’t gain anything from that offensive and the rocketing, like the parents of my friends in Stockholm.
I didn’t bring up any of this in our writerly conversations, and no one else was talking about it anyway. It seemed no one was following the news. I started feeling like shit, like there was no purpose in being a writer if you could cut yourself off from the world for a week. It was only after our return to the realities of our respective countries that all my old and new friends started posting and commenting on Facebook and Twitter, many quite aghast at the fact that we did spend a good week in a bubble. I thought of another friend, who’d gone to the Bubble, i.e. Tel Aviv, after the beginning of the Operation Whatsitsname, to party with her friends. I didn’t imagine Tel Aviv could have been that much of a bubble to be both rocketed and have parties at the same time. But then wars are bizarre. I was missing Ramadan, which made the famous cakes at Café Central not as good as they probably were.
Back in Bosnia. Ten more days of fasting and I was trying to be at my best behaviour. The last ten days. The intense search for Leiletu-l-Khadr, the most blessed night, which falls on one odd-numbered: 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, or 29th. Traditionally, it’s taken to be the twenty-seventh night, so that’s when the prayers get really intense, when God started the revelations, when the evil was suspended, when mercy was closer to us than our jugulars, when wishes were granted. My wife had a wish, you know, three years earlier, during our trip to Istanbul. She wanted a daughter. We spent half the night in the Süleymaniye mosque listening to the amazing recitation of the Surah Ar-Rahman, the Merciful, which lists a number of divine gifts to mankind, the wonderfully repetitive surah. And then we had sex at the hotel. No coitus interruptus this time. She’d asked for a daughter and a daughter she got. She should have asked for a daughter that didn’t have my temper.
A confession is due in this month, now that my hungers had developed, and I felt, so close to my fortieth birthday when my personality was going to stop moving the way Ramadan does and get fixed for good, I was failing at my struggle, the big jihad against my Self. Against my anger. I kept getting angry no matter what. I got angry for different reasons and most often for unreason, with sense and insensibility. The f—ing logos of anger. The logos of my damned selfhood. This is what I haven’t beaten all these years, all these Ramadans. I fast and beat the purpose of fasting over and over. It’s like I’m set to get angry at certain times of the month, at least twice, usually in the middle, and then toward the end, ruining everything I’d done until then, all the kindness, all the patience, all the big smiles I’d given people. This month in Bosnia was no different. I yelled at the boys on the second day to make sure they don’t come up with any shit. Then I decided to try to be nice for the rest of it. I was. Until two weeks later when my wife broke down in tears because of something the boys had done. It was minutes before the afternoon prayer and I bit the bullet and went with them, but the namaz passed like there was nothing there but my anger. Later we fought. She begged me to stop exposing ourselves (that is, me) to the kind neighbours and I said a lot of shit like I didn’t enjoy being with them, that I hadn’t experienced any cosy Ramadan nights. No. My Ramadan was bullshit. There I said it. My Ramadan was bullshit. The truth, the whole truth. And I blamed others for it but I wasn’t fooling anyone. I did not fulfil a single virtue required for this month to be as holy as it was supposed to be. I closed in on my boys like the Great Wall of China, like the Berlin Wall, like the Israeli wall, and I controlled them with all my might, all the patre power I got, and they obeyed. For a while. And when the time of anger was up, the regret and the sense of sin seeped through the remnants of rage, and although they forgave me an hour later, it’d take weeks to again achieve two full days in which I felt I had forgiven myself. Two days. Sometime longer if I was away from home. The time when they’re blessed with my absence.
Then there was a crack in the wall, and they did something stupid, often small, but very, very stupid, and that small crack annoyed me, and I rose more walls, and planted mines of the mind, and erected another watchtower, and struck with all the useless artillery, and they backed up. For a while. And so on. And again. And I kept counting the incidents like the tespih beads, but never changing anything, falling into the same damn patterns like something just possessed me, a jinn the old would say, but deep inside I knew, that was me, no jinns or devils to blame, no conspiracies. Just me.
And they asked, Why?
And those moments no education and no ideology and no faith kicked in, and I said, Hier ist kein warum.
Then I took off. Left them all sitting in semi-circle. It was hot outside. I wanted to walk to the cemetery with all the white graves but there was a chain around the black gate, and I walked on, past the dangerous curve where no one slowed down (not even me), past the hardware store and the municipality building following the hot road towards Debeljaci, where the Catholics used to live (I never checked if any of them returned). A few houses were new or renovated and a few still decaying in between like rotten teeth. I remembered that gypsy man with half his teeth in gold and half really bad. I wondered why I didn’t know any gypsies that weren’t beggars. That was still my only image of their community, even in Stockholm, where the Finnish-Roma women were always observed in stores so they didn’t stuff things under their big black skirts. In Banja Luka I’d only seen Roma women with limbless children and sad sweaty faces, wagging around in layers of clothes.
By the time I reached the train station, I’d forgotten all about the Roma, and the smell of wood kicked me back to reality. On the left side of the white station there were huge tree logs Jesus himself would love to carve. The smell was so good I wouldn’t mind being crucified on a piece like that. I turned around the green water tank and cut between rust-coloured trains and started walking back along the tracks. The sun was soft now and the air was soft too and the buzz of distant cars was just as soft. The two tracks on my left were shiny and the stones between them white, but I walked on the one that looked unused, with tall grass and moss and dirty stones in between. I’d never gone by train in those eighteen years I’d lived in Bosnia and that was why I loved the Swedish trains. Loved them more than flying or big comfy Volvos or cheap busses. I remembered the melody of that old pop song by the band called No Smoking, the song in which a man was run over by a train. I imagined I was deaf and walking along the tracks hidden in the stingy grass and the train was coming from behind and I was happy and deaf. This, more than the soft sun and the soft air and the soft buzz of cars, more than the thought of the family or Ramadan or anything else, made me happy. Quietly happy. That’s the peak of my selfishness.
I don’t know how much later I stepped off those tracks to walk the margins, the sidewalk-pavements, fully aware that I was just a winy old bastard, always on about myself. I thought, if I ever fulfilled the promise of Ramadan it’d be when I waged that jihad against myself, when I killed myself in that symbolic way the Sufis talk about. Until then, my Ramadans would be, if you will pardon my French … no, enough swearing in that air that was still soft, though the soft smell of the wood was gone by the time I reached the cemetery and passed the bakery and walked up the street with a new name, toward my house. The sun was almost gone and it was time to break fast.
Adnan Mahmutović (1974) became a refugee of war in 1993 and ended up in Sweden. He worked for a decade with people with brain damage while studying English and philosophy. He has PhD in English literature and MFA in creative writing, and he is currently a lecturer and writer-in-residence at the Department of English, Stockholm University. He has started and is managing the first MA in Transnational Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.