Closings and Openings: On (Im)Possibility of Translation

Note from LeftEast editors: The recent rise of far-right populisms and the general mood of crisis has triggered reflections among those who’ve experienced the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s on the lessons to be learnt from that conflict. The Disorder of Things blog is featuring a series of ‘Yugosplaining’ interventions, in which activists, artists, and thinkers from the region speak back to the Empire. You can find the articles here. New posts are being made daily throughout the month of July, including a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. We republished this article by Azra Hromadžić, which was originally published on The Disorder of Things blog on July 6h.


This essay is composed of four disconnected yet entangled encounters between myself and my various American interlocutors.1 Two encounters are about closings and two are about openings. “Closings” refer to those moments in social life when translation between social and political worlds fell short of its promise of plentitude. It signals the failure of a shared grammar and a denial of recognition. It connotes a refutation of my existence in language and history, and a rejection of my intellectual labor and expertise. The first encounter took place at the conference “Dayton at 20: An Impact Assessment” at Brown University in 2015. The second encounter explains reactions of my colleagues, students and friends when I attempted to share with them several “moments of joy” from the Bosnian war.

“Openings” denote those transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum. Openings ask for acknowledgment, which may be given or denied. They include teaching about the Bosnian war to high school students in inner-city schools in Philadelphia, and a moment in my “Peace and Conflict in the Balkans” class at Syracuse University in 2016, when my students sensed, for the first time in my twenty-year-long teaching career, how Yugoslavia could collapse. 


A.H. (and A.H.)

In December 2015, a conference took place at Brown University’s Watson Center. It was one of numerous conferences taking place at North American and Western European universities acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. This agreement brought “peace” to Bosnia in December 1995. By constituting the state as a consociational (ethnic power-sharing) democracy, the agreement solidified, legitimized and naturalized a violent partition of Bosnian citizens into ethnic groups rooted in ethnic territories.

The Brown conference was perhaps unique because it ambitiously brought together diplomats, policy makers, NGO workers, and academics, hoping that they could engage in a dialogue and perhaps publish an edited volume together. The conference was open to the public and invited all participants to reflect on the complexities of Bosnian political and social life after the end of war. The meeting opened with a keynote address by the Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher R. Hill, who assisted the late Richard Holbrooke in “bringing peace” to the Balkans, but “failed” to do the same in the Middle East. His opening remarks celebrated “the Balkan success,” saying that we should think how to best apply successful “lessons learned from Bosnia” to Syria and Iraq. He talked about nationalism and ancient hatreds in the Balkans, and when I asked him why he omitted many centuries of challenging yet real coexistence, and decades of socialist life together, he told me that was “constructivist history.” Then he added, “When you kill 230,000 people, you kind of lose your right to complain that you are being patronized….Painful stuff, I know.”2

This exchange was a prologue to my panel, which included Philippe Leroux-Martin, Anna Ohanyan, Aida Hozić and myself. The panel focused on many problems and conundrums of post-Dayton life in Bosnia. We carefully reflected on what everyday life is like under the rigid, bureaucratic, and segregationist consociational model of democracy that was imposed on Bosnia by the “International Community.” We all articulated our personal, professional and academic experiences and points of view. The former ambassador was outraged—red in his face, his voice raised, he said: “do you know who we had to negotiate with there? They were all hard-core nationalists.”

Not surprisingly, most of his anger was directed at Aida and myself, even though all the panelists expressed their critique of the “International Community’s” (di)vision of Bosnia. Under his gaze, Aida and I became subjects of aid, and not experts. I felt the audience shifting in support of the ambassador, and one person, echoing the room’s sentiment, passionately and loudly asked us, Aida Hozić and Azra Hromadžić, with our impossible (unpronounceable, too similar, acronyms identical) names, “why do not you, the Balkan people, take things into your own hands? Did not the International Community do enough for you?” The question painted us as recipients of aid, always ungrateful, too critical, too passive, and as always, too subjective. What we witnessed was an instance of white upper middle class fragility and the wall it erects around itself. A colleague who was in the audience, Kimberly Coles, stood up and said she was embarrassed by the audience’s tone and attack on the two women scholars. She was also embarrassed, she said, because she had to speak for us, since she knew that she would possibly be heard—her name pronounceable, words unaccented, “objective.” In that room at a “progressive and liberal” Ivy League university, I witnessed the failure of recognition and common grammar. Rather, we experienced a passionate and hurtful closing of a dialogue and erasure of history. Aida and I, who under the audience’s gaze yoked into one person (A.H.+ A.H.=A.H.), are still recovering from this event. Needless to say, the joined edited volume never materialized. 

War, Fun and White Liberalism

I was 16 years old when the war started in Bihać, a town in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the war, together with my family and people of Bihać, I spent three and a half years under siege, with no electricity or regular food supplies. In my memories of those times, pictures of violence, destruction, hunger, depravation, long lines for humanitarian aid, and refugees pouring into our town are intertwined with the reminiscences of friendship, family support, neighbors cooking together, dance group rehearsals under heavy bombings, and my first date under a rain of bullets.

During the war, we continued to live together. Our schooling was sporadic. We read books and did homework using the light produced from a shoelace dipped in kerosene. Heavy shelling coming from the surrounding hills frequently interrupted our school days. The hardest moment of the war came towards the end when my 24-year-old brother was terribly injured and unable to walk for 6 months. His legs were pierced with numerous pieces of shrapnel, some of which caused substantial wounds. We nicknamed the biggest wound on his leg šnicla (“the schnitzel”)—laughing despite the pain, injury and hunger.

While living precariously, we also swam in the emerald green Una River, and we followed “worldly” trends in music, politics and fashion. In-between shelling, my friends and I went to a nearby coffee shop and bar called “Mond” where, using electricity from a generator, we watched, listened and danced to Bon Jovi’s new single “Keep the Faith.” Back at our socialist-built, 24-apartment building, we jointly watched—on a small TV connected to a car battery—CNN reports about “our” siege and despondent predicament. After watching the news, we frequently played guitar and sang loudly until the morning hours, our parents and neighbors tolerating our singing. The local radio station hosts went from one apartment building to the next, recording unique ways in which children and youth lived, studied, resisted and performed together in their “sheltered” hallways and basements. In these dark hallways, my friends and I longed for a new pair of Levi’s 501 jeans, while managing to buy, on the black market, a Turkish-made hair color to dye our hair red, black or orange.

Every time I share these seemingly paradoxical and fragmented memories of life under siege with my American friends, family and students, they react with disbelief. I was often gently and lovingly dismissed as too resilient or, even more frequently, as someone whose PTSD has yet to strike. “How could we have the time (and audacity) to think and desire such mundane, modern things?” my interlocutors wondered. As one friend told me: “You make war sound like fun!” These reactions of shock and disbelief are revealing of the dominant visions of humans in wars as somehow less then human, reduced to bare survival, the state of nature, and lives deprived of desire and joy. It also reveals white liberalism’s unspeakability of trauma since the white middle class, I learned, is easily horrified, disgusted, and overwhelmed by the catastrophes they witness [3].


“Being Muslim in Bosnia is like being Black in the U.S.!!!”

The Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania is housed at the Penn Museum. The Museum is also home of the “International Classroom,” a program that exposes students in inner city schools to “International experiences” by inviting speakers to visit the schools. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I frequently worked with this program—my job was to go to inner city schools and tell my personal story of living in Bosnia during the war. The majority of students in these schools were black, poor and marginalized. The schools varied in their sizes and locations but most were overcrowded and underfunded. Teachers frequently had trouble keeping their students in school, focused and interested. I also had trouble retaining their attention at first, but when my story shifted from socialist experiences and geopolitics to my daily struggles with physical violence that tried to obliterate me, and to the world that labeled me as an ethnic Muslim and caged me in this rigid, subordinate, “unwanted” category, my students became interested. I told them how these labels were persistent, demining, frustrating, painful, and felt omnipresent, and how they made me feel angry and powerless. At the same time, I subconsciously embodied some of these ideas about “my” identity (I would learn later, from Pierre Bourdieu, that this was “symbolic violence” at its best—a naturalized, normalized, misrecognized form of violence that is often mistaken for emotion, where even those who are subject to it, see it as “just” and contribute to its perpetuation). For example, I told them how when I was in elementary school I felt embarrassed that my parents’ names, Rasema and Hasan, were not as fashionable as some Serb and Croat parents’ names, Zora and Jovo, for example. And I felt embarrassed for feeling embarrassment, I felt I was betraying my parents. I blushed (another sign of symbolic violence reveling itself and masking itself as a personal trait) when I said their names in front of our 30-student classroom. I also told them how, immediately after the war, when I was able to leave the siege and go to the neighboring country of Croatia, I spoke quietly in public because my way of speaking was indexing who I “was” – a Bosnian Muslim, close to the bottom of the pervasive, nestling, and sometimes deadly Balkan socio-political hierarchy. I wanted to avoid being judged and “put in my place.” The students listened carefully. One young man commented: “I know what you mean. One day, I was walking down the street and I saw 5 or 6 young black men, their hoodies on, walking toward me. Without thinking, I crossed the street. I could not believe what I did. I felt embarrassed and confused.” The room fell silent…Then one young black woman broke the silence by saying: “Being a Muslim in Bosnia is a little bit similar to being a black person in the U.S.!” This statement does not suggest a shared sameness or victimhood. Rather, it recognizes a kernel of a shared experience with a radical potential. An opening.

“Now I understand how Yugoslavia could collapse”

It is November 2016, and I am sitting in my classroom, Maxwell Hall 205A, with 15 Syracuse University undergraduates enrolled in my upper division seminar “Peace and Conflict in the Balkans.” For years, I taught this class to mostly International Relations students, trying to shift their understanding of the Balkans—in most of their Political Science classes, the Balkans is yet another one-week-long case study (next to Northern Ireland and Rwanda) under the banner of Civil War or Postwar Reconstruction. I had a difficult task of undoing this rigid, ethnicized knowledge of “The Balkans and its Peoples” and I did this more or less successfully. While I had considerable success broadening my students view to include Yugoslav socialist past (“We want more Tito!” “Why do not we study Tito in our high school history classes?” were some of the comments on students’ course evaluations), students always struggled to understand how Yugoslavia could collapse. How “ordinary” people, who were relatively close to each other and who shared language and history, could become politically mobilized and ethnicized against each other to such an extent? Were they really, I mean really friends, and sometimes even members of the same family, before the war or were they just pretending?

This November, immediately after the presidential elections in the U.S. my students and I are sitting in our classroom,205A Maxwell Hall, disoriented and unsure. The room feels different, a bit uncanny, familiar, but not ours. One student is visibly upset. She starts sharing without our encouragement: “I cannot believe what happened last night. I am openly gay. I fear what is to come. And the worst thing is that my mother, she voted for him. And now, the two of us cannot talk to each other [starts to cry]. I cannot…. I cannot understand why she did it…” Some students whisper words of support. Others are hesitant because they do not know who among us voted for whom. While several weeks ago they felt unified in their U.S. identity regardless of their many and significant differences, they are not sure any more whom to trust.  They “suddenly” doubt their friends and families, each other and their unity, because they “just do not know…” Doubt and mistrust seeps between our chairs and desks. The room is heavy, the air stale, almost suffocating. Then, suddenly, one student says: “I think I understand now how Yugoslavia could fall apart.” Some other students nod. There is an opening—raw, painful, and uncertain. 

Azra Hromadžić is Associate Professor and O’Hanley Faculty Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at Syracuse University. She has research interests in the anthropology of international policy in the context of state-making in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her book, Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-making in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina (University of Pennsylvania Press), is an ethnographic investigation of the internationally directed postwar intervention policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the response of local people, especially youth, to these policy efforts. The book was translated into Serbian in 2017 (Samo Bosne nema: Mladi i građenje države u posleratnoj Bosni i Hercegovini. Beograd: Biblioteka XX Vek). Several years ago, Azra initiated a new project that ethnographically researches aging, care and social services in the context of postwar and postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. She co- edited (with Monika Palmberger) a volume titled Care Across Distance: Ethnographic Explorations of Aging and Migration which was published with Berghahn Books in 2018. In 2017 she began a new research project on riverine politics, pedagogies and infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

[1] I am grateful to Saida Hodžić for her intellectual and emotional contribution to this piece.

[2]I am grateful to Aida Hozić for this note.

[3] I am grateful to Andrea Ballestero for this comment.