Worlds Packed into a Thousand Characters
Adisa Bašić & Kathrin Schmidt
German author Kathrin Schmidt, a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin and author Adisa Bašić from Sarajevo, a fellow of the JUNGE AKADEMIE, met for a special literary talk. Each author suggested five terms about which both wrote micro-essays, similar to poems.
Some of my most vivid memories from my teenage years are those of rooms in residential blocks with outer walls blown off. The curtain was often left hanging from the ceiling. The spectacle was quite theatrical. Dusty furniture and personal items in disarray exposed. These memories are bound up with unease, a sense of impoliteness, like when you inadvertently see somebody naked. The blast would sometimes eject some of the household items out in front of the block. There was something oddly appealing to seeing someone’s private life brought out into the public space in an instant – a clothes iron, a pan and a pair of pyjamas would suddenly be strewn across the lawn. These objects would remain in the front yard for a long time, and the wallless room would for months or years stay naked, unrepaired, exposed.
The wall is the house, warmth, safety. It also halves, encloses, isolates. Cavafy has a poem in which he wonders how come they’ve built thick walls around him without him noticing. It seems to me life experiences furtively build a wall around us to separate us from others. Under the pretext of safety.
My worst childhood fears have to do with school. School was the first, the most important field of affirmation, it was a matter of life and death to please the oldish teacher with sharp features and peach fuzz on her upper lip (I never noticed it when I was little, I see it only now when I look at old pictures). Bright light pushing through the interstices in the orange blinds on the classroom windows gave rise to permanent dread. The fear that I’d say something wrong and that my confidence would turn into an embarrassing failure.
It happened for the first time in Year 1. The teacher drew a ball, a teddy bear and a cube on the blackboard, in that particular order. The assignment was to copy the drawings in your notepad and write below each one whether it was on the left, in the middle or on the right. I was confident I knew which was which. But the teacher struck my answers through in red biro, and the sharp red line driven into my memory still hurts. I subsequently realised the cause of the tragic misunderstanding. I looked at the picture from the teddy bear’s point of view. I remember my train of thought with perfect clarity: The hand with which Teddy writes must be the right.
The sense of being deeply and drastically misunderstood, to me, is a place of greater pain and fear than any beating I received in my childhood.
How many meanings to a single word, how many layers: a tyranness, a heroine, an ordinary woman. So many mothers are bad. So many are good. Countless are mediocre.
The miracle of birth is at once both mundane and sacred. It happens on every corner and is always unique. In patriarchy, birth is elevated to divine heights on the one hand and devalued on the other. National leaders swear by mothers who birth heroes (known in wartime as cannon fodder). At the same time, gynaecological wards in the Balkans look like sites of perfidious torture where you’re stripped of your dignity on your way in, like you’re stripped of your clothes. Women receive enema or abortions in surgeries with doors wide open. The staff save on painkillers. Women scream, but that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable. Only sometimes the numb executioners wake up just to sneer: What’s the screaming about, luv? Nurses and doctors alike say this. Men say this, women repeat it, with even more malice.
This word always brings back the same image: aunt sitting, chatting with Mum about some trifles, and I hear commotion in the anteroom and read from their faces rather than their words that a tragedy has occurred. My aunt’s son got killed, but no one dares break the news – everyone waits for her youngest brother, almost her son’s age, to show up and tell her.
The weight of the information is crushing the thirteen-year-old me. I’m paralysed by the discrepancy between her present care-free air and what is to ensue. I’m there all the time but I’m not crying as I, too, am shocked at the news of the death of our family colossus, the fearless, always smiling Fikret, Auntie’s only child.
When she hears the news Aunty turns into a silent implosion of sorrow before my eyes. Those first seconds of silence, just before the wail resounds, that brief moment of incredulous quiet, will always be the sound of death to me. Aunty would live twenty-five more years after that day, unwillingly, as if doing penance.
No war has ever made a mother smile, says Marko Vešović in a poem. Every talk about war, its planning and initiation, ought to be seen through the prism of the moment when parents are informed that their child has been killed.
An ill-reputed word, referring to a homewrecker, a woman of unbridled sexuality, demonic femme fatale. In a patriarchy, men talk about them with undisguised desire, women with condemnation, contempt and quiet envy.
The word lover has a broader meaning, it can also mean any woman in an amorous relationship. A wife is a lover, too, although her magic is often bogged down in the quagmire of the day-to-day. It’s easiest for a mother to forget that she could be a lover as well. Her eros is decanted into her love for her child; she gives life, she nurses, kisses, puts to sleep. Her connection with the child is so strong that her partner fades into the background.
Husbands of new mothers are lonely, pointless creatures, but it’s not very nice to say something like that out loud. They try to find their place, think up a role that would transcend their redundancy. Day and night they buy bottles, nappies and wet wipes.
A lover is a woman who acknowledges her desire. And hasn’t forgotten happiness.
An accident is sometimes an overture to a nice acquaintanceship or at least a brief feeling of freedom. Slipping out of the groove of the routine, the trouble and the chaos that mess up all our plans are good, because they show that there is always another path. They set us free from the predictability of linearity.
A broken down car, a broken tooth, a sudden downpour. Emergency forces us to think at lightning speed. For a moment, we become better than we are. “It’s been a while since the last time I felt so happy and alive,” said an acquaintance of mine recounting how his house door slammed shut in front of him with the key in the lock on the inside. “There you go”, I said to him, “some men have to find a lover to feel that”.
A life dislocated like a joint can be painful, but it’s good and real as it briefly confirms that we exist.
To me, a capital city is a neurotic megalopolis which doesn’t notice its own diversity anymore. The capital are people on the Berlin S-Bahn. A petite Asian woman excitedly declaiming something to someone on her mobile phone. I don’t have the faintest clue what language she’s speaking. She’s angry and I can tell there’s a family drama unfolding within my earshot, but I don’t have a way of asking her anything about it, nor would that be polite. She’s on a public conveyance but her language creates a sphere of privacy around her, a little alcove for her to deal with something important and distant before our eyes. Just like her, a Frenchman is on the phone, an African woman and a Slav whose language I don’t speak, but with some effort I realise, based on his uniform and the few words I understand, that he’s negotiating a small construction job.
Even when they’re not on the phone but merely quietly dozing off, typing away on their phones or looking out of the window into the thick darkness outside, the people of the capital live millions of lives which spread around you like beams of light. The capital is the place you want to be. Try as you might, in a city like that you just cannot stumble upon a familiar face.
Provisions for a Journey
“You’re not going to eat right away, you’re not the Čarkovićes”, Mum would say if any of us asked for a snack in the first 100 kilometres of the trip. I know nothing about the gluttonous Čarković family except a tiny anecdote that Mum would relate to us sometimes. Every time the Čarkovićes set out on a journey, they would unwrap their roast chicken at the railway station, before they even boarded the train, and eat it with gusto as if at a picnic. Mum was always a bit embarrassed on account of her rustic background and the Čarkovićes were a reminder of the unrefined, simple folk from her native neck of the woods.
When she decided we’d covered a sufficient part of the route to our destination, Mum would produce cheese, smoked beef sausage and rolls, and finally a cardboard shoebox with bananas.
To this day I always take snacks with me on a trip. It’s a tribute to my rustic ancestors who knew that every excursion into the outside world carries with it uncertainty and potential peril. Whatever happens will be more bearable if you have food. That way you’ll hold out longer.
If I travel with company, I always wait for others to start eating first. If I travel alone, I hold myself back from eating for a long time lest I seem as gluttonous as the Čarkovićes. Nowadays my trips are mostly short and made by plane, and my snack often arrives at my destination unopened.
The road is a rather worn out metaphor of life, so to me a pothole may mean an event that happens out of the blue and can be life-changing.
The roads of Sarajevo are littered with potholes that testify to shoddy public works. Nothing is repaired thoroughly, so that the same job can be charged for over and over again. Durability isn’t valued because the incessant dredging of the streets brings an illusion of progress. The potholes in the main city roads are patched up before the election, when the illusion of progress carries special weight. Some holes in less-used roads and car parks in the suburbs persist for decades. Some have existed for as long as I can remember. Their uneven shapes stoke the imagination, especially in spring and autumn when they’re filled with filthy street water. Instead of cloud gazing, I look at potholes and make out bears, pianos and unicorns.
I know nothing about the epic hunger described in their concentration camp books by Primo Levi or Imre Kertész. I’ve never experienced it. Allegedly it takes only a few days and skipped meals for our glazing of civility to flake off. I sometimes imagine myself and people I know emaciated and I wonder what would be left of our arrogance, pride and dignity.
Our daily hunger moves us, makes us poke our head out of our nooks and corners. It is because of hunger that we venture into the world.
I remember semi-hunger in wartime Sarajevo. It was permanent yet elegant enough to leave some room for embarrassment – you’d decline food offered by someone you didn’t know well enough, but actually you were ready to eat at any moment.
Mum once baked a rather small loaf of bread, the flour being long since rationed. Our friends with their two little daughters happened to be visiting. Mum took the bread out to let it cool. Nobody would have held it against her had she put it away and waited for the guests to leave. But then, this memory wouldn’t exist, it would’ve been just another loaf of bread we ate.
That day Mum served the small hot loaf to her semi-hungry family and guests. Everyone got a slice. Today, almost thirty years later, I am still warmed by Mum’s decision not to leave the bread for later.
My four walls, each of which is called a Wand in German, are synonymous with the fifth: the roof over my head. When I say one, I mean the other, and vice versa. On the other hand, my four walls, each called a Mauer in German, don’t refer to my den, my nest, my safe haven. It’s possible to imagine a Mauer of silence, of fear, of dread, behind which I don’t want to dwell. The word Mauer signifies impenetrability and sequestration, whereas I can simply breeze through a Wand, if I feel like it. I don’t even need doors or windows.
Of course, I find it difficult to carry a Wand over into the Bosnian, because you have to take it from me and build it into a language I don’t know. You simply say zid, and while I have a Mauer to tow in addition to the Wand, you just stick with zid.
Make one out of two.
It can work like that.
For shipping the zid back into German, please stuff it with the sense of Wand or Mauer, as the case may be. You may also attach a photo, before I relieve you of your zid to build it into my own language, and make two out of one.
The difference between a woman who is an owner of something (Inhaberin) and a woman who is a lover to someone (Liebhaberin) lies first and foremost in the possessiveness conveyed by the verb innehaben, from which Inhaberin is derived. Innehaben, literally to have in(side), is to hold something in your possession. Yet, those who love should not seek to possess the object of their love. That much is clear.
To me, too?
I’m not so sure. For instance, I love my cardiac pacemaker. Because I have it in me. I am its Inhaberin. It has rid me of regular syncopes accompanied by loss of consciousness. Do I possess it? I very much hope so. Even though it will have to be replaced once or twice in the course of my life, because the battery goes flat after a number of years. I will probably love the new one just as much.
I don’t love my husband because he’s in me.
But when he is, I love him all the more.
Even more hardly.
I should see myself as a loveowner and take things as they fall into my love. Or, in other words, into the centre of my life.
If a mother says she’s unfortunately become of no consequence to eighty per cent of her children, the absence of a reference value is keenly felt. If she has only one child, the statement could be taken to mean that the child wastes a fifth of its thoughts on her. That’s no small amount, I find.
An increase in the number of children can lead to asymmetries. If she has five of them, it’s possible that four don’t care a damn about their mother, while one absolutely dotes on her. Or three may not think about her at all, while the other two do so half the time. It’s also possible that three of them devote a third of their thinking power to her, whilst two have forgotten her completely. Who would know?
I’ve borne five children. Yesterday I said I’d unfortunately become of no consequence to eighty per cent of them.
I hereby take back the word unfortunately.
My God, I have a fear of childhood itself… I can’t stand how I keep fuelling the fire beneath the hot porridge of it. Lest I suffer the indignity of burning my gob or my fingers. I have a fear of fear. For instance, I’m afraid of a fear that seized me as a five-year-old girl, because I’d been dreaming of an enormous snake. She lay next to me in complete darkness, apparently waiting for something. Probably for me to move. Lying stiff became unbearable and I broke a sweat. When I heard my great-grandmother in the adjacent room get up to put coal in the furnace, I leapt to my feet, bold and determined, and ran to her, screaming.
Losses are expected. They happen whenever something grows and thrives. If a person grows, he gradually loses the quaintness of his earliest years. That at some point he is no longer able to slip through unnoticed at the train station pay toilet and save himself the fee could also be seen as a loss. Growing up, a person loses playfulness and spontaneity, which some, thankfully, manage to delay, or even avoid altogether. At any rate, it is highly probable that such people will lose civility as soon as they reach an age at which civility is expected of them. But we can also talk about loss when something suffocates and dies. Those who have to watch as one fades away talk about it the most. In the process, the loss hits them only indirectly, whilst the one withering away suffers it directly. The waning life has nothing in common with the waning moon, which will eventually reappear, perfectly round.
I first heard the turn of phrase from my father. I was sitting in a rattan basket on the handlebars of his bicycle. At a picnic for two we went down a small slope leading to a small spring much too fast, and we didn’t keep our eyes on the ground. At any rate, the front tyre went flat, ten kilometres from home. Right old pickle, that, my father opined, but there was something to be learnt from every pickle. He said that, took me out of the basket and handed me the contents of the tool bag attached to the seat. He removed the inner tube from the tyre, pumped it up and used the spring water to find the hole. When he found the punctured spot he immediately dried it, roughed it up with sandpaper of some kind and finally applied glue and a patch to it. We then had to wait, and we passed the time making a wreath of meadow flowers for my mother. Later he put the inner tube back into the tyre and we rode home. That first pickle I found myself in may have helped me, when I subsequently learnt to read, never to mistake a pickle for a pickle-herring.
Tribsees is a town in the District of Vorpommern Rügen, local government area of Recknitz-Trabental, village-sized at best. Situated on the Pomeranian side of the river Trebel in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern borderland, it seems to be withering in its contradictions. If one enters it through the western gate, the eastern can be seen immediately, at a distance of around 750 m. The old town still follows its mediaeval structure. Europe saw to it that the streets and pavements were excellently repaired. Including street lighting. There is even art in the middle of the market, to admire or detest, as the case may be.
However, the majority of houses offer an image of horror. A minority is made up of those which are inhabited and have therefore been refurbished or at least kept in reasonably good repair. Unlike many awaiting demolition, mouldering away with their caving roofs and gables next to brownfield sites. From this it does not follow that I am a longing, or that Tribsees is my capital. But:
I am a longing.
Tribsees is my capital.
Provisions for a Journey
If one shortens the vowels in Wegzehrung, the German for travel food, one gets Wegzerrung –dragging away. When someone is dragged away to somewhere, in most cases it happens in an instant, it isn’t an undertaking that takes a while. Dragging away thrives on the element of surprise. Conversely, provisions for a journey are mostly well-planned and transported in a rucksack, a bag or a basket. In former times they comprised eggs, buttered bread and an apple in a tin, with a metal or plastic bottle of herbal tea. Nowadays it’s often chocolate bars, salami sticks, richly filled baguettes and canned fizzy drinks.
Once the surprise effect has worn off, the person being dragged away may get his bearings and resist. For instance, if he has a rucksack with provisions, he could buckle it over his stomach and fight back ruthlessly on the spot from which he is being dragged. This shouldn’t affect the sandwich box and the tea bottle, but the chocolate and the baguettes may not come out of it unscathed. Everyone should decide for himself which type of Wegzehrung is best for situations involving Wegzerrung.
Three years ago, during a longer stay in the town of Rheinsberg in Brandenburg, it happened I had to drive to Berlin. A longing, a sick husband, a kid in a right old pickle. After I bested precisely 104 kilometres of the road, I hit a pothole. It was located between the villages of Sonnenberg and Schönermark, after a sharp left bend. I screamed, but I drove on, because there were cars scrambling not only in front of me, but also behind. That was long forgotten by the time I got home, but it happened again next time I went, so I decided to pay closer attention in the future. That didn’t quite work out: as the left bend past Sonnenberg stretched before me, my heart pounded in my ears, I drove slowly, kept my eyes on the road to dodge the pothole at the last moment – but I hit it again. And so on. And so forth. I was never able to spot road damage in time.
Could it be that the pothole stood for the cave in which my heart pounded? And insisted that I not forget the hole? That is what I wondered recently, when I drove along the same route for the first time in a long while – and nothing happened.
Because transferring the German Hunger into English involves nothing more than lowercasing its initial, leaving its form otherwise unchanged, whilst the German Ungarn becomes Hungary, the phrase hunger in Hungary is an example of alliterative handling of language in the process of hauling it into relative foreignness.
Hunger in Hungary is even better at the beginning of a sentence, but not literally better, because hunger in Hungary isn’t in and of itself a good thing. I didn’t encounter it in Budapest nor in the thermal springs in Eger. Thank God for that. But I did encounter Hungarian Roma in Hungary. Or so I thought. They, too, weren’t exactly hungry, but they insisted on being called Gypsies and considered the use of the word Roma hypocritical, because they never called themselves Roma. The word itself was only as good or bad as the way in which it was used. The German hunger for not calling Gypsies Gypsies lay heavy in my stomach and made my head open to let the heaviness in and out. There is also head hunger and belly hunger? Belly hunger in Hungary is imaginable, but not any more probable than in the rest of Europe. At least that won’t change, hopefully, when Great Britain breaks off. Head hunger, however, can take many forms and is sometimes insincere. Like hunger in Hungary.
*1979 in Sarajevo, lives in Sarajevo
Adisa Bašić has published four collections of poetry and one book of fiction. She teaches poetry and creative writing at the Sarajevo Faculty of Philosophy. Her book Promotivni spot za moju domovinu [A Promo Clip for My Homeland] won the international Bank Austria Literaris award and has been translated into German.More about Adisa Bašić