blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By Yumna Mohamed (South Africa)
It’s been a long, convoluted road that led me to who I am now; a former journalist trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. While stand-up comedy has always been my passion, I wanted my career to be in a field where I could make a tangible difference in the world and only recently did it occur to me that I could mesh the two halfway. But it was only through my journey with GYC that I came to understand the very real role art has to play in post-conflict countries, and it’s not in the way you might think.
I’ve visited many organizations in my country and beyond where art is used very effectively in expressing and dealing with trauma, most often in the form of writing, painting, drawing and even artisanal work which can even lead to economic empowerment. But something was different about the way I saw art appreciated in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sarajevo has long been known as a cultural hub, where art in all its forms flourished even under the most oppressive circumstances because this was as essential to survival as any other basic necessity. There were times during the war where there was no food or water to go around and yet somewhere amid the shelling, the sounds of an orchestra emanated from underground, giving Sarajevans life. Art was therefore not used a tool to rebuild the country, but rather a means of continuity. It was very interesting to see the different ways art is being expressed in the country today.
On our first day of meetings in Sarajevo, we spoke with actress-turned-MP Zana Marjanovic who told us about the amateur cabaret she founded in her father’s bar during the war where the infamous Sarajevan sense of humor gave way to satire that was often met with suspicion and annoyance, even by the bar’s regular patrons. She also spoke about the double-edged sword of her success. She is in an interesting position since she continues to act while pursuing her political goals and while she is very keen to engage as many people as possible, she has to be wary of interest groups who want to capitalize on her fame. And yet she still struggles to find funding for the arts today as she did during wartime, which makes me wonder how much value is placed on film and arts as a lucrative industry for the country. I’ve spoken to young Bosnians who don’t watch Bosnian and Serbian films because the content is too often war-related. On one hand perhaps it’s time to explore new genres, but on the other, film is an important medium of creative remembrance.
For example, later in the week our intrepid and knowledgeable program director Miki got us to watch “A Perfect Circle”, a Bosnian film about a writer who remains in Sarajevo during the siege while his family flees, and he subsequently finds himself taking care of two orphaned boys. This film was the most experimental and poetic depiction of the war that I have seen and, since it was made shortly after the war, we got a very realistic idea of that landscape of Sarajevo and could make comparisons to how it looks now, making it a very authentic and haunting experience for us.
Another very disarming moment on this trip for me was when we met photographer Tarik Samarah who graciously hosted us at his gallery where he was exhibiting his photos of the aftermath in Srebrenica. Samarah pointedly explained that he approached his work not as a documentarian but as an artist, with each photo playing an important role in anchoring his aesthetic depiction of life after a traumatic event. Samarah was positively ethereal and we all listened breathlessly as he talked about the key to his art, which is to let the suffering of his subjects become his suffering. This compassion is important for his own personal development too, as it keeps his ego in check.
Beyond history, the arts are also being used to address Bosnia and Herzegovina’s precarious future. I was very interested to learn that there is a small stand-up comedy scene coming up in Sarajevo. One of my new friends, Lejla Hadzic, often goes to comedy open mic nights in the city and although a lot of the content is based on the superficial differences between the way old and young people or different ethnic groups behave; there are also comedians pushing young people to think differently and expand their interests. Her comedian friend, for example, performs a whole set on nerd culture, technology and Japanese anime.
The same can be said for the contemporary music scene. The Balkans have given rise to many innovative bands that are gaining popularity across Europe. One of our soundtracks for this trip, courtesy of our Bosnian companions, was a song by Dubioza Kolektiv, a band of wacky desperadoes who mix traditional Bosnian folk music with reggae, rock and electronica. They are very relevant at the moment because a lot of their songs deal with important current socio-political issues. One of my favorite songs of theirs is “U.S.A”, about the urge in Bosnians to chase the American dream only to find that it is not all that they hoped. Quote: “One day you will understand: no place like your motherland.”
I would like to end with a reflection on the Center for Peacebuilding’s inter-religious choir in Sanski Most. The founders, imams Mevludin Rahmanovic and Vahidin Omanovic explained to us how their efforts to create dialogue between various religious and ethnic groups are often met with suspicion. But there are times, when their choir sings songs from all walks of life, that they bring surprised people to tears, unable to process the fact that they are represented. And this, for me, is what art is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is not only a means to promote healing. It is one of the last remaining common threads and a way to build trust among people who have so profoundly lost it.
Yumna Mohamed (GYC Bosnia Delegate 2015) is a journalist and aspiring writer and stand-up comedian based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Coming from a country that is still undergoing post-apartheid transition with cracks in the “Rainbow Nation” beginning to show, indicates to her that a lot more needs to be done to accomplish true reconciliation. Yumna participated in the GYC program to see how reconciliation is being handled in another part of the world. She is also very much interested in the role literature and the arts can play in post-conflict transformation.