Abraham’s Children – PART 1

Mirsad Ramić grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and came to Australia in 1981, aged 24.  He has written in many different forms, including short stories, travel journals, diaries and poems in recent years.  His work is politically charged and often accuses.  It can be dark and tragic in tone, but is often infused with underlying humour; black and cynical one minute, light-hearted the next.  Mirsad is a teacher and practising furniture designer and maker.  He believes in solutions, ancient wisdom, and the power of nature.  

This piece from Mirsad, Abraham’s Children, will be published on be:longing in two parts.  This is the first. PART 2 can be found here.

Note: This piece engages with sensitive topics that may be distressing to some readers.

In my family we don’t bore one another with insignificant trivialities of life over the phone, and nor do we manufacture drama. Although death is not to be ignored or taken lightly, when my aunt died, I had not followed up with a call. My parents always took care of passing on my messages from the other end of the world and dealt with relatives in distress and pain on everyone’s behalf. This time, things were different. My parents had passed on. In the aftermath of a tragic event, I am waiting for the right time to phone my uncle Ibrahim and express my condolences to him. 

Ancient Greek colonists stumbled across and around the heavily forested northern slopes of mountain ranges in South-Eastern Bosnia 25,000 years ago. According to local legend, Greeks left after a three year-long winter.   The only shred of evidence, along with the contours of agricultural terraces in the middle of ancient overgrown forests, is legend. Although, and this is a fact, epic storytelling and elements of Greek tragedy have been played around the mountain, and my family has enacted both major and minor roles in the theatre of life and its tragedy genre.

I saw my first uncle Ibrahim on my last visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H). I found an independent, proud, clear-headed man, living by himself in his pre-war apartment beside the dilapidated Hotel Biokovo, which had been awaiting renovation and reconstruction. We were both very concerned with my parents’ health and his failing eyesight. He was very disappointed with my father’s reclusive religious life. Neither of us smoked, but the small poorly-lit room we sat in felt claustrophobic and hazy as he unravelled the history of my Barjaktarević ancestry. My mother Fatima and aunt Biba had a direct bloodline with this family through their mother Dervisha, born Barjaktarević. They were wealthy landowners based in Sarajevo and owners of large tracts of land in the Black River region during the Ottoman era. They owned the hamlet called Barjaktarevići and had serfs working the land. Their wealth shrank during the Austro-Hungarian Land Reforms of the late 1800s, and  shrank further after WWI when all serfs in the new Yugoslav Kingdom gained land ownership.

Uncle made a good Turkish coffee and our conversation got as dark as the coffee sediment in the bottom of the small ceramic cup. My grandfather and his father-in-law Huso Krupalija, he said, had attempted suicide. Ibrahim talked about Huso’s worrisome nature and severe headaches. My head was spinning, and I was desperately scanning my memory bank, devastated by this new information. Letting blood was the traditional remedy he used; it was administered by affixing leaches to one’s temple. He kept leaches in a jar on the windowsill. You could see a magnificent, steep and heavily forested side of the Mountain through the cloudy water and fat, drowsy leaches in it. Ibrahim mentioned and explained the scarf my grandfather wore around his neck in an attempt to cover a nasty rope-inflicted injury. I remembered the neatly folded woollen scarf he wore all the time around his long neck. Although very curious by nature, people’s secrets never bothered me. Besides, people themselves generally cannot wait to reveal them. This one, somehow, got away. Apparently, my grandmother Dervisha found “dedo” (grandpa) in the hay barn hanging and still kicking. Dedo Huso was a tall but extremely skinny man. That must have saved his life. Dervisha, a small sickly woman, managed to get him down and untangle his neck out of the strong hemp rope.

I left Ibrahim’s apartment with a sense of unease at what I had found and heard. The sun was bright outside. Ejected out of a smoky broken-down time machine, I felt lucky that the mission had been aborted.  People across the road were boarding an ordinary rusty bus engulfed in diesel fumes.

One thing was certain: wealth, political success and social glory had been abandoned in my mother’s family at the time when the Barjaktarević family lost its status and the majority of its land in the Reforms. However, at the end of WWII, the winds changed, and the lack of an aristocratic past appeared to be an advantage in the new socialist era. My aunt Biba married Ibrahim, from a village called Polje (Field). Polje sits high up on the southern (Mediterranean) side of the Mountain, diagonally across from Biba’s village. Ibrahim is a “Hercegovac” (a man from Herzegovina) and Biba is a “Bosanka” (a woman from Bosnia). Bosnian women rarely married into Herzegovina. The Socialist Revolution rapidly changed this. Biba was mobilised to a Voluntary Youth Labour Brigade and spent 6 months breaking through a tunnel for a new railway network. In the early years after WWII, Ibrahim was old enough to be recruited into the newly formed People’s State Security Force (OZNA). He was engaged in a highly efficient guerrilla-style campaign designed to clear out the forests of the surrounding remote mountain villages of nationalist bands. He wore a red fez tilted to the left and a Russian holster with a revolver in it. He was tall and handsome and Biba loved the way he wore the fez – his Muslim trademark. He came from a family of farmers and tobacco smugglers. They waged an endless war with the authorities and brought packs of contraband tobacco on their backs, over the Mountain into Bosnia as they had for centuries. Unlike my Bosnian relatives, who did not trust communists, young Ibrahim had no doubt that the communists were here to stay.

By the 1960s, Biba and Ibrahim were married and had two children. Ibrahim had the respectable position of a Health Inspector, which was followed by Head of Infrastructure and Planning in a prosperous new industrial estate of Sarajevo. Later, he became Director of the local Hotel “Biokovo”. The Biokovo kitchens fed thousands of workers in the Tito Factory industrial complex on the outskirts of Sarajevo. He was managing the workers’ canteen network and employed hundreds of people. By the 1970s he was a well-known, successful and politically powerful family member. His personal connections within the Communist Party secured jobs for me and both of my sisters. He also negotiated and arranged employment for my father in 1962 when he decided to leave the village and his own bakery in Trnovo (a town on the Bosnian side of the Mountain).

Ibrahim and Biba have two children: their son Damir and daughter Ayka. Ayka gave me French lessons when I struggled to comprehend the basic grammar principles and complexities of this foreign language. She was an exceptional student, extremely smart, gentle and polite. Later, she married into a well-off family from the Old Town in Sarajevo. They had two children: Adnan and Adisa. When I met them in 1990, they were on their summer holidays in Polje, where I had gone with my father and my daughter to visit Uncle Ibrahim. Aunt Biba had died a few years earlier. I had already been living in Australia for 9 years and had not talked to many of my relatives in years. All of our communication was conducted through my parents and hyper-expensive phone conversations, thanks to the exclusive grip Telstra had on Australian communications. My 7-year-old daughter dedicated a whole page in her travel journal to our overnight visit and stay.

Ayka’s children grew up in Sarajevo. They were smart, well-behaved, respectful, well-spoken urban kids and real fun to have around. Polje is a charming village that opens towards the Adriatic and all of its warmth. It is full of clear rushing water and surrounded by forests and patches of green meadows nearer to the village. The ancient village graveyard had Muslim, Christian Orthodox and Bogomil (early Christians of Bosnia) head stones casually mixed together and overgrown with grass within its limestone walls. There was a sense of safety and pride in their controversial romance on the top of a ridge overlooking the land about to fall into another dark period of its tragic existence. The forces Ibrahim had fought in 1946 were coming out of dark holes everywhere. One of their future leaders, General Mladić, was born a crow’s flight from Polje. Although there were distant warnings and small fires appearing all over the land, none of this was clear in 1990.

Within two years, Ibrahim and his son Damir had to escape from the suburbs to central Sarajevo. Ayka and her family had been living there for years. During the war her children were evacuated and lived in Vienna with their uncle Damir who was appointed to the new B&H diplomacy. When the Sarajevo siege and Civil War ended, Adnan, Ayka’s son, continued his studies in Zagreb, Croatia. The entire territory of Former Yugoslavia was flooded with hard drugs during the war. Adnan was caught in the torrent and was found in possession of a large quantity of cocaine at the Croatian border. He served 5 years of his sentence on Barren Island, a notorious political jail from the Socialist era. Once out, he restarted his life in the new, corrupt B&H – the “Baksheesh and Hashish” – state. Adnan married and had two children with the daughter of a local gangster. He was engaged in business with his father-in-law and was doing well.

I saw his mother Ayka in 2012 at Sarajevo Main Hospital while visiting my own mother in her last few months of life. I felt a deep gratitude to her. My mother and Ayka had become very close since the death of Aunt Biba. Ayka’s caring nature helped my mother in her illness and supported her through the post-traumatic horrors haunting her from the time spent under the siege of Sarajevo. This was the first time I had seen Ayka since 1980 when I left Bosnia and went to live at the other end of the world. She had not lost her gentle fragility and was as calm and intelligent as she had been in my memories of her.

Two years went by. My parents were no longer alive. They both died 30 hours apart. No relative, other than my youngest sister who took care of them in their illness, called to express their condolences. My phone number has been unchanged since 1987.

I often dream, and in my dreams, I meet people from my present and past. Many of them are no longer alive. Sometimes we walk along roads we knew, other times we visit new places. Other strange events take place and reoccur frequently. Often, I find myself moving through the air with no effort. As I glide through the dense air above the ground, I feel that the technique of levitation is so logical. I could repeat the trick any time I like; it feels so natural. When awake, I wish those of my friends and relatives who are no longer alive could visit my dreams. In my thoughts, I am longing to meet those whose traces have faded. They do appear from time to time, unexpectedly and in irrelevant places, and play confusing roles in unclear fragments of my dreams. Sometimes, though, they bring meaningful messages.

© Mirsad Ramić, 2022