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.
In Bosnia, my children were generally bored, missing their TV channels and constant access to the Internet. We did find a hotspot under a chestnut tree in the middle of a field close to the house that had unprotected WiFi. Since he insisted on fasting with us and he needed to kill some time, Emin sneaked out a few times a day to the stool under the chestnut and watch YouTube videos of youngsters opening booster packs of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. He’d even filmed himself doing the same and started a channel. In his pilot, he said a bit about himself, how much he liked the game, etc. etc., and finished by saying, I know you guys do this at least once a week, but unfortunately my dad doesn’t often buy me booster packs so there won’t be any weekly episodes, but I promise to post things as soon as I get new, exciting stuff. (For the record, I buy him a lot. Way too much.) Little Aida too would follow him to the hotspot, often wearing her mother’s shoes through the tall grass, to watch little girls unwrap Kinder Eggs and all the other small-kids stuff. She could use my iPhone better than a spoon. Thank God she hasn’t opened a YouTube channel.
In the evenings, after iftar, the kids were moving around like that beast character from WB cartoons, the Tasmanian Devil (they’d slept until noon). The rest of us could barely talk. And if we did talk, we talked about the war. The children couldn’t get enough of those stories, which perhaps explained why, almost twenty years after the war, local youngsters thought it was fun to drive by the mosque waving flags of Republika Srpska, honking and yelling when people were returning from the midnight prayer. Some men felt like stopping them and teaching them a lesson. My lesson to my boys was let’s not teach anyone a lesson. Let’s teach ourselves a lesson. It is, after all, a month for thinking and not conflicting. The boys didn’t get it. For them, the drive-by was not a provocation. Just silly drunk guys like they’d see every Friday night back in Stockholm. They didn’t even notice them when we followed the other worshipers to the bakery that had ice cream and was open 24/7.
The boys loved the way we told stories, together, in multiple voices, perfectly timed interruptions, asides, then swinging back into the main narrative, going out on the tangents again and again but always following the current. I’d always known this to be true: no story can be told by only one person. Over the years, I’d been a lucky radio receiver for all those weird voices bouncing off each other, overlapping, words attracted or repulsed by each other. Yes, repulsed. It was mostly when my wife’s uncle told his stories that we tended to let him speak in one go because his mind could only deal with the simplest narratives, in which one thing led to another to another to another and so on until he was all done. Any demands for further details or explanations confused him. He sat there, his back straight, his shaven face the spitting image of Bruce Willis, but gentler, and always a bit scared. His country accent and the involuntary repetitions of words were so funny. He told us the story of the time he’d left his village Petrovac and ended up all the way South-East, in Travnik.
They put us on trucks, he said. The soldiers did. And then someone shouted, Drive, and the trucks moved. Those first fifteen minutes the soldiers standing by the road shot at the trucks as we passed by and it was hard to duck because we were packed like hens in those factories where Ramiza lives. We couldn’t get the corpses off our truck until we reached Travnik. And in Travnik we got to stay in this Catholic school, hundreds of us. Most men went to the front up on the mountain. Yes. The front. But many refused. To go to the front. Many were scared, and there was chaos in the school. And because of the chaos, the punishment for every transgression was that you were sent to the front. No one wanted to be on the front. Then we got packages of food from you (pointing at his sister, my mother-in-law), and our mother used to give everything away. That time you sent coffee, real coffee, not all that other stuff we used to brew, she made huge pots of it and the entire school had at least a findžan or two, real Turkish coffee, not like your big Swedish cups with filter coffee. Locals came in from the town to see if the rumor was true we were getting stuff. But then the borders closed and you couldn’t send us anything. I was lucky. I found a pair of scissors and this man with the longest beard and the longest hair saw me and asked me to groom him a bit. I said I didn’t know how to, but he said, Can’t be that hard. And I said, But what if I botch it? And he looked at me and said, Can’t be worse than this. I look like a četnik. So I did. A woman saw me mow his head back into human shape and ask me to cut their son’s hair. The boy’s father whispered into my ear, Cut it all off. He’s got lice. But the woman insisted I only cut a little off the tops. Then the man whispered again and so on until I asked him who was in charge. He took me aside and whispered, I am.
The uncle didn’t wait for us to stop laughing. He said, I cut hair of hundreds of refuges, men and women and children, and that kept me off the front. The front, yes. No one wanted to go to the front. Some people offered me things, but the rules were I wasn’t supposed to take payment or I’d end up in the trenches up there on Vlašić. I did cut a man’s hair up there on the mountain, in some village, but his wife said, Please, not here in the house. We went out and she came after us, saying, Not here. I can’t stand all that hair. So we went to the barn and I started cutting the man’s hair among the cows, and the woman came after us and said, Please, not in front of the cows. They’ll swallow a hair and choke to death. By the time I finished we were somewhere far outside the village.
The kids laughed, and so did everyone else, except the man’s nephew, who said, But it was awful, all that was really awful. How could this be funny to you all? I started talking about the ways the war was full of such bizarre situations and events, but my lecture was boring and everyone was happy when the adan sounded from the minaret and we all rushed to the midnight prayer. I’d finished my expose on war narratives in my head by the time the terawih prayed started. What is this terawih prayer, you ask. It is a long prayer with loads of recitation and genuflection. It follows, only in Ramadan, after the last, that is, the fifth daily prayer. It is so long that there is an expression in the Bosnian that someone “takes his sweet terawih time.” In Stockholm, we were used to praying eight rakat. Each rakat consists of standing in prayer or recitation, then genuflection, back to standing again, prostration, and then back to standing and recitation. Each rakat can be anything from a minute long to, well, some are very long. In Bosnia it’s always been a tradition to pray twenty, but extremely short, rakat. This made the whole thing more like aerobic now that we were used to the Stockholm model, which was common in most places in the world. I liked longer recitations better than frequent genuflections, even though I loved pressing my forehead against the ground, but these Bosnian sajdas were shorter than my fuse. The fast movements made my bowels work extra fast after iftar so those first few days I had trouble finishing the whole terawih without having to rush to the toilet. I guess this is not something typically mentioned in this context, but I had my stomach demons to deal with as well. Helenejse, as we say in Bosnian—or hursomhelst in Swedish—I was trying to be a good boy and go to Vrbanja mosque for each daily prayer, but already after a few days it was clear I was doing a bad job while my two boys didn’t miss a single one. At 3a.m., at noon, at 5 p.m., then doing the dusk prayer at home, at 10 p.m. The locals started making fun of me, asking the boys where their lazy father was, and what it was that was so important I had to do to miss out on prayers. One day I fell asleep in the afternoon and the boys told the old timers. That was it. One mistake and I was the guy who takes naps at prayer time. Mostly, I was running errands, dealing with the bureaucracy of this Serbian Republic, as this Northern part of the country was now called, trying to make sure our house would remain ours now that it was returned, and not be appropriated by the new government, making sure I’d registered for voting absentee and exercise my democratic right, however miserable my vote may now be.
One night, an old woman who sat behind me nudged me and said, It’s so good to see you. You and your family have made this month beautiful for us. My heart grew big. She was not the first to say so. Most people were happy to see my sons come to almost all prayers, even the one before dawn, when only elderly women and ghostly housewives come. This old woman, who had small dark teeth which looked real only until the plastic dentures shone in the mosque light, quickly told me a story about the war when she spent a lot of time in the ruins of the original mosque with my wife, who taught her a prayer against the war, which obviously didn’t work. Or maybe it was a prayer for survival, which obviously did. What struck me that moment was the way men and women were together in the mosque. Sure the women prayed behind the men, but there were not curtains, and though there was a balcony the women were not quartered up there. A woman who used to be in my class in the elementary school, now living in Germany, found me at the mosque entrance and said, I guess it’s OK to kiss an old friend, and she did it while the men and women were trying to squeeze out behind us. And that was all right. No one minded. No raised eyebrows, or passive-aggressive dismissals. She was pregnant and I congratulated her and said it was great to see her face other than on Facebook after more than twenty years. And many other women, mostly my mother’s friends, hugged me there at the exit. I thought of my Sudanese-American friend who did reportage on side-entrances for women in mosques all over the world, and how happy she’d be to see there was only one entrance. Even the main Stockholm mosque has a side entrance. I guess it’s because we, despite being split and dispersed all over the world, still had some sense of being a community, and in such a community it was all right to hug a female friend at the mosque entrance even though you stood in the way of all the people trying to get out and get home to see the end of a World Cup game.
You see, the World Cup had started before we left Sweden, and now that Bosnian Dragons didn’t qualify in the group (because of the damn judge who robbed us blind on top of our own poor play) one of the worries we had was that we’d miss several important games that were broadcast during the terawih. I did not miss any terawih because of soccer. No sir. We’d usually manage to see the first half and return just in time to see how the game ended, unless there were extensions, which did happen a few times. The fourth terawih was on the night of the battle between Algeria and Germany and we watched the first half of an extremely exciting game in which the green team coached by the legendary Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić was attacking the Germans like they were decolonizing Africa. The more I cheered for them the more my younger son kept rooting for the Germans, especially the player called Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose name he thought meant pigsty because it sounded like Swedish svinstia, so he kept crying, Come on pigsty, come on. (I’m glad he didn’t know what the name really meant). We wanted to stay for the second half but we loved the terawih prayer more so we ran like those World Cup players and made it just in time. My son said he was going to pray for the Germans and I’d counter that with prayers for the Algerians hoping to see at least one African team a step closer to the gold. A few times during the game, I mean the terawih, I glanced at the clock to see if we’d make it to the end, but for the most time I focused real well on the fast Quranic recitations. Toward the end, I had forgotten about the game, and was thinking of writing a story about my relation to Ramadan. I’d never done anything like it before. The more rhythmical the prayer was the more this story was writing itself in my mind, and that felt good, though I felt guilty for not focusing on the religious ritual. But still, my prayer was all right after all because I had something important to write about: this old place, this old community trying to keep alive, the story of the single entrance. I was happy when I went out and found my son who told me he had prayed real hard for the Germans, and I jokingly said, How can you cheer for the Nazis? You know that the Algerians are fasting and still they play like champions. He laughed at me, and we ran back home to see the results of the game. It was 0:0. We sat and watched the extensions. He jumped around after every German offensive, and I was already a bit sad seeing how the Algerians were powering down. Then the Germans scored. Then they scored again, and though it was clear they’d won this battle and would probably win the war too, the green team scored too, and it was 2:1. Algerians, you got me to blame. Writers are selfish, I guess, more worried about their stories than either God or soccer. Sorry.
I didn’t sleep that night. I sat on a hard pillow in a big empty room upstairs, typing my thoughts about Ramadan until, at dawn, pigeons and mosquitos sounded under the roof, when the commitment to our daily hunger was made, and then they shut up and didn’t sing another ugly note until, in time for the breaking of the fast, the rain fell on the tomatoes, and on the dusty cucumbers, falling now stubborn and eternal, though it was summertime, and it rushed through the spouts down onto the rose bushes we’d watered just an hour before it poured. I thought how warm it was, this hunger, and calm. A good discipline, as the white-beard said. And the dinner was warm too, like the hunger, but the eating was not calm. There was breaking of bread and roasted bones, and slurping and smacking, and deep breaths and soft prayers. Almost too soft and saturated in this humidity. This fasting I knew well. It was calming and annoying. I could not resist it nor could I ever fully make peace with it.
Two days later, we went to Sarajevo to visit my aunt’s son who’d returned to Bosnia after a few refugee-years in Germany. He’d just had his first child. A son. A hairy and silent little creature that quickly approved of my presence, and let me kiss him, which was good. When we came to them, in the area I think they called New Sarajevo, close to the high rises built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, it turned out my cousin wasn’t fasting, and as per usual when a fasting person meets a non-fasting person there is some unasked-for explanation, which the fasting person listens to but doesn’t really care to hear. It’s a personal choice so no explanations are needed. But still, there was one.
Sarajevo was in the Ramadan mood. There were posters about Ramadan-nights, concerts of classical and new illahijas and kasidas, and lectures, plenty of those. On the old Baščaršija market, by the Gazi Husrev Beg’s mosque, I met a former student from Stockholm who invited us to come to one of the midnight lectures called In Company of Hafiz Bugari. I’d listened to him before. A friend described him best, saying that Bugari was the man so spoke so sweetly he made him feel like a Muslim though he didn’t observe any religious customs. We couldn’t go, of course, because we had no one to babysit our daughter. I told my student we were in Banja Luka. She frowned and said, Ramadan in Banja Luka, what’s that like?
It’s great, I said.
But in truth, it felt heavy. It was not the fasting. It had never been the hunger. Just the fact that memories of war and ethnic cleansing created this weird pressure around my heart like that time I was ten years old and climbed up the new pylon on the hill behind my house, and mother forced me into a bathtub and beat me up.
That evening in Sarajevo I was hungry, wanted to eat everything on offer in those countless small cafés, but back in Banja Luka I didn’t feel like eating at all. It wasn’t the people, really. No one said a bad word to me. Not even the hairdresser who told me I didn’t sound like a local, that my accent was foreign. I actually liked that my accent had changed, but then she couldn’t tell that I spoke Bosnian from the 90s, while she, whatever she called her language now, sounded fake to me. She was trying to speak Serbian but failing miserably. Still, it wasn’t that. In fact, most Serbs I met were extremely nice now, and chatty, like we were old friends that got separated by accident and were now finding our ways back to each other. That felt good, but I kept being cautious, mincing my words and all that, walking around this ethnically cleansed space, wondering if my Ramadan return uncleansed it, soiled it. My cousin in Sarajevo told me I should just stop thinking like that because times they are a-changing. The next day I sat on the lawn outside the fortress Kastel, rereading Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno in preparation for the 13th International Short Story Conference in Vienna where I was going to speak about similarities and difference between his and my book How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, how both our books have plenty of voices which are all just one messed up voice of a messed up refugee. That day I didn’t feel hungry either. I passed by the famous Mujo’s Čevabdžinica, where my late father-in-law made the amazing Banja Luka ćevap for decades. Not even that made me salivate. But this was my Ramadan, damn it. I was not going to feel bad. Not even the memorial stone in Mala Čaršija, raised in honour of the fallen Serb soldiers in the war for liberty and defence, was going to spoil it for me. Defense from what? Liberty? From us?
Read part 3 of “A Movable Fast” next week in Wales Arts Review
Part 1 can be found here.
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.