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”.
Then the hot weather came to Sweden, in 2014, as if the age of Nordic summers was gone and the monotheistic hell had decided to move closer to me, now that I was about to turn forty. And it was Ramadan, falling, this year, in the period of shortest nights, beginning just before the most important national holiday, Midsummer Eve, when we eat crayfish, dance around straw goats with red ribbons, drink and sing snapsvisor, anything from Helan Går and The Little Herring Said to Bamse, the Dirty Little Bear, whose lyrics have cues when everyone is supposed to drink up the shots.
So, I would be forty in November, and as Swedish as I have become since coming here in the 90s from Bosnia, I have never been to one of those parties. Besides, it has always rained on Midsummer Eves and the rain would continue for the most of July. My sons have been making fun of me for a while now, telling me how old I am getting, preparing me for a mid-life crisis. And I was planning on having a crisis, but not the secular mid-life crisis that makes me want to buy a Harley or get a girly dragon tattoo or throw myself into investigative journalism or take up watercolor painting and start dancing tango. A long time ago, in 1994 or 1995, in one of the fancy Swedish refugee camps, I’d read in some book on Islam, but have so far been afraid of checking out the veracity of the saying, that human creatures are sort of incapable of proper sin until they turn forty, and after forty we are stuck with whatever personality we have developed over the four decades. If we died before forty, it seemed to me, if we scored a few times for the good guys, we were pretty much guaranteed paradise, never mind which religion we chose/were-forced-to-observe during our life. Again, like most of my co-religionists, and people claimed by other ideologies with holy books or bookless peoples, I never checked if this was true, but went with it. So, you see, I’m writing this with a sense of urgency, like those old narrators from historical fictions, sitting in Death’s lap, trying to record their history before they keel over. In my case, death would mean that I get fixed once and for all, and have to bear the burden of being me for God knows how long on this Earth that’s getting hotter and hotter.
A part of me has always wished I’d died before turning forty so I’d have a shot at paradise, virgins or no virgins, just a cool place by some creek of honey and/or milk, an occasional company of friends. And foes. Let’s face it, just because someone was my enemy in this life, just because they had at some point stolen my Bonelli comics or all my Schwarzenegger VHS tapes, or made all the girls hate me, this didn’t mean they couldn’t join me for a cup of honey. Or, let’s not be too generous, half a cup, if they show up with the comics and The Terminator. And yet, it struck me like those thousands of bolts of lightning that struck Sweden this summer, what if the notion of the year from that unsubstantiated saying wasn’t the sun-year? What if it was not the year from the Gregorian calendar, but the lunar year from the Hijr calendar, which is ten days shorter? This means I’m almost forty-two. I missed the deadline. I ought to have had this crisis two years ago. Yes, at least two years ago. Calendars. They screw you up. Not your parents, mind you – calendars.
But then there was always the fasting month of Ramadan, the annual second chance at change, the thirty days of possible salvation (sometimes twenty-nine, depending on the mood of the moon). The returning friend, that’s what we Muslims call it, a friend who never fails to leave us but never fails to return, each time ten days earlier than the previous year. So the astronomic facts are the following: the moon year is ten days shorter and though most Muslims use the Gregorian calendar, the religious rituals follow the lunar phases, like women’s periods, sort of. This makes it look like Ramadan is moving back in time, like those quantum particles, its movement always double, into the future and into the past, but when it comes into the mundane life of the worshipers of the Beloved, there is no time like the present. Devout people are keen on using every single blessed minute of it, trying to be at their very best, fasting, praying all night long, giving alms, spending extra time with friends and relatives, cutting down on the popular food porn on Facebook and Instagram. In cases when a war is going on, it has to stop. This year, Gaza was under fire again, and Hamas shot their rockets. It was not going to be a good Ramadan. It felt like it would begin only mechanically, because the new moon was spotted somewhere in the desert, and we’d fast and pray and give alms, but… I don’t know.
There is a word Bosnians use, nijet. Decision. It is supposed to confirm the free will, the choice to do this or that. I grew up believing that every nijet has to be in the name of something. So before doing anything, be it eating or having sex, I’d speak or think the formula: In the name of God, the Merciful, the Benevolent. Not saying this meant that you were either setting out to accomplish something in the name of the devil or in the name of your own ego (which was even worse), or that you didn’t even know in whose name, for whose sake, or for whose benefit, you were wasting your good labor (perhaps even worse than following your ego). My family’s joint nijet was that we—my wife and I and our three children, Emin (14), Faris (11), and Aida (3) and my mother-in-law—would finally spend one Ramadan in Bosnia, see what it’s like to do it there now, so many years after the war. I hadn’t been back for seven years. I mean seven exactly, not the symbolic number seven which means infinity, though it does feel like I’d been light years from my home in Banja Luka. I suspected that the ethnically clean city would not offer cozy Ramadan vibes and that the only Ramadan atmosphere would be in the suburb Vrbanja, where my house was, because it had a largely Muslim population, but which only repopulated in the summers.
We arrived a day before the fasting, on Air Serbia, which was now owned by the Arabs, to the newly opened airport Mahovljani, a few miles from Banja Luka. It used to be a military airport, I think.
We’d left Sweden warm and expected Bosnia to be hot, especially a month after the floods had devastated biggest parts of the Balkans, especially eastern Bosnia and Serbia. But it was still rainy. And it would keep raining almost every two days. On the first evening I stood at the yellow bridge over the river that ran only yards from my house. This kafana, this old bar next to the bridge, which used to belong to a neighbour who helped us a lot during the war, was full of drunken men, and there was a World Cup game on the flat screen, but no one was watching. The place made my stomach turn. I didn’t want to know who was running it now. The paint of the railing was peeling at the touch of my palms. I watched the brown stream digging the black soil under the roots of the lanky willow tree, from which kids used to jump. I could not remember a single summer the river was muddy like that, when I couldn’t swim in it until Mother called me from the hill waving a cane. We’d start the bathing season in early May and finish sometime in October. I once had a swim in April. But now it was like the recent floods had damaged it for good. I’d seen footage of the floods. The river had reached almost up to the bridge and the backyards around the houses on the lower bank were now covered in junk that the flood had washed out. While I was watching big plastic bags hanging from the trees near the stream, torn open, waste slowly dropping out and into the water I got a text from my mother complaining about the heat wave back home in Sweden.
Already the next day I sat on a broken bench in the city, under the crumbling walls of the old fortress Kastel, on the raised terrace of the river Vrbas, which was now being renovated and under protection of UNESCO. Some of those stones were at least five centuries old and the roof of the tower closest to where I sat had caved in and the entrances were cordoned off. This is where my cousin Alija, whom people called Mad Alija because he spent all his money on sweets he gave to city kids, saved a woman from rape. That was before the war, when he also single-handedly created a little island in the stream. There were no traces of it now. The water was flat and green and cold. And still strong. I eventually found Alija the day before returning to Sweden, sitting on the same bench I sat that day, feeding his pigeons, talking to himself. He mistook me for my brother at first but then remembered how he once brought with him a hundred kids from our neighbourhood and how they marched after him through my yard, soiling everything, and he remembered how much I yelled at him because I had to clean it all up, and he asked me for forgiveness. He used the word halal as a verb to mean forgive. Halal me, he’d say. I said there was nothing to forgive and give him some money.
Just as, a month from then, there would be no signs of celebrations on the first day of Eid festivities, on that second day of my vacation there were no signs around me that Ramadan had started. I was already longing back to Stockholm, trying to think like the Bard: Let me compare thee, my Ramadan, to the Swedish summer’s night, but not Midsummer night when there’s much drinking and feasting and dancing around a goat made of straw and when humans make sounds of frogs. There is something cleansing about Swedish summer nights, when the air is still and cool, as if the spring is refusing to die, and you need a jacket even though the sun isn’t keen on setting.
Movability, however tough or easy it had made it for me to fast, has always been what I love best about my Nordic Ramadan, and I wouldn’t want to live in a place where there are no seasons. In the winter we break the fast shortly after regular lunchtime, and in July, it’s way after Swedish dinnertime, when dusk and midnight and dawn are the closest of friends. If it’s true that the night prayers are the best, then we get loads of night in the winter and hardly enough in the summer. You win some, you lose some; less fasting more nightly prayers, more fasting less blessed nights. What about the people further north where there is no night? There are many solutions, some centralized, some individual, all equally good or poor, but again, it is this fact that you never fast the same Ramadan just as you never step into the same river is what I like best about my fast.
Since the days were at least two hours shorter in Bosnia, it felt like I was cheating, so when the locals complained how tough it was to fast in July, I tried not to say how easy it was for me. The previous summer, that hour before iftar, when we usually break fast with dates and milk, felt like the longest hour, so I’d kill that time watching episodes of the Australian Master Chef, the amazing cooking by amazing contenders under the strict but kind eyes of Matt, George, and Gary. My wife thought it was nothing short of madness to watch food porn while fasting, but I wasn’t torturing myself like that priest in Chocolat. As an academic I should really dislike shows like that, but I loved this series because people were kind to each other and because it was all about community as much as a competition, just like my imagined Ramadans should be, and it was nothing like the action-film-like Master Chef in the US and Sweden, which were all about anger and malice and slander and envy. The damn envy.
I’d started fasting in Mullsjö refugee camp shortly after we thousands of Bosnians collectively received stay permits and were allowed to bring our families to Sweden. It was in 1996, I think, that my grandmother and my uncle’s family arrived. They’d been refugees in Eastern Bosnia, Travnik and Zenica, and a lot of their stories ended up in my first novel. For a while, I’d been having these existential crises, though I didn’t know what any of that crap was, things like angst, and identity, and, well, there was always the issue of sex as well because I was one of four teenagers in this place. The rest were families with small children. I couldn’t stand sharing the bunk with my brother (not his fault), so as soon as my grandma got an apartment of her own, I moved in with her. She was the only one in the family who observed religious duties. Though I’m not sure about the exact time, I’ve managed to persuade myself that I started fasting after a walk in the woods, in the air so clean and so saturated in pine smell that I got dizzy and all the things stopped making sense. The trees had lost their treeness, the ground was … I don’t know what it was. Everything was disgusting. All the things’ names in Bosnian, and now in Swedish, stubbornly buzzing around, completely detached from the things they named. Years later, when I read Sartre, I found that I was in no way unique to this experience. Angst. That’s what they called it. It stayed with me like a friend, almost like part and parcel of the God I started to believe in. And as much I’d tried to get rid of it, I always also feared the moment of separation with it, my angst, the fear and trembling before the big leap of faith. I had anxiety about losing angst. And because of my angst I never made any huge leaps, but a whole lot of small ones. Nothing Abrahamic, thank God.
I fasted with Grandma until I moved to Stockholm in 1998 and then started doing it alone. Wasn’t quite the same. Besides my angst, Grandma Rasima had always been a part of what God is to me. Does this sound blasphemous? I don’t know. I don’t know if I care. Faith may be a lonely business, but it is, for me, all about sharing yourself with others. Faith is like marriage. You have to work on it every day. Sharing. Yes. Loving. That too. So, what the hell is love? Perfect thirst, Rumi said, and I love him for it. It is to give what you don’t have, as Nancy said. And what you don’t have is your own Self. I love Nancy too.
Now that I was going on forty on this warm globe, still on friendly terms with angst and its offspring, our khalifat, I was thinking of the words from The Quran that the earth was put under our protection and so far we’d been doing anything but. Late at night I was imagining there was more conversation between God and Adam and Eve and the Devil and all those others, imagining Eve asking, Protect from what? And then God answering, From yourselves. This is how I feel about my children too. And the children of this world that are killed all the time for any fucking reason under the sun. I can imagine waging wars on anyone who’d hurt my children, but in these fourteen years, I ought to have started countless operations Protective Edge (or some such rhetorically nice name) against myself. This is the great jihad that I’d been waging every Ramadan, the only permissible war during the blessed month, the war on my own evil. I have to leave this for now and get back to it later. It’s too early for confessions. I need to be hungrier, thirstier. As I write this, it is impossible for me not to become so damn anxious about using this word, jihad, wondering how many flags would it raise and in what places. Maybe no one would read it. Or react. I am, after all, nobody. But, still, I feel like that, and that says more about our world and my personal demons than anything. I remember 9/11 more than I remember the destruction of the Ottoman mosques in Banja Luka. I remember having to feel like a crook, suddenly having to prove that I am a good person despite being Muslim, though the genocide on Bosnian Muslims was still fresh, so fresh history hadn’t even started to digest it, and now we got to eat more shit.
The old homeland seemed like a good place to fight those old demons. That Bosnia. Both skinny and fat. Naked and covered in a burqa of trees. Both stuffed and hungry, busy and lazy, humble and proud, rich albeit bone-poor, the mother-father we left to be able to live but which keeps giving us a guilty conscience, full of small communities of old and freshly minted ones, haunted by the unhomely tourists that flood the rebuilt mosques like they were trying to make them the envy of Mecca itself. But there was less diaspora this year, they said. Perhaps they’d come after Ramadan, when they could properly enjoy the cheap but amazing food (cheap for us tourists, of course). They arrived, all the indigenous foreigners who now speak in strange dialects with quicksilver accents, for the Eid feast, or Bajram, as we call it in Bosnia, at the end of July. And August, they said, would be nice. The river would be clear and lukewarm. The banks would be dry enough for beach towels. I’d booked my return ticket on the third day of the Eid so I wouldn’t see that circus.
Read part 2 of “A Movable Fast” next week in Wales Arts Review
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.