Eldar Sarajlic is a young researcher in political theory who currently lives in NYC. Originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, he once believed his generation would be able to transform the country’s post-war society. But he grew disillusioned. Read about why he won’t be returning to Sarajevo.
This is the first in our series “That Great Diaspora”, inspired by the Rachel Zucker poem of the same name. On a weekly or bi-monthly basis, we will publish writings from people who have, for one reason or another, found themselves living in another part of the world. We’re interested in hearing stories from people everywhere, so we’re soliciting your essays or your willingness to be interviewed at editor[at]balkanist.net. Whether you’re classified as an immigrant, an expat, a migrant worker, a refugee, a foreign student, or an asylum seeker, we want to talk to you, members of That Great Diaspora.
Eldar Sarajlic, Political Theorist, New York City, USA
“Already annoyed by western reporting about Bosnia’s recent football victory. First, what unity are they talking about? I haven’t seen footage showing Banjaluka or (western) Mostar celebrating. Second, why is unity something to dream about? Bosnia needs more democracy, human rights and socio-economic development, not unity. Have they slept over the past twenty years?” — Facebook status
Eldar, you came to Sarajevo in 1997 from Tesanj, where you moved following forced migration from your hometown of Doboj in 1992. Can you describe your life in Sarajevo before you left.
I came to Sarajevo to study at the Faculty of Political Science. I came there as an outsider, a poor refugee and a student. A moldy apartment in the Kovaci neighborhood, my parents’ monthly allowance of 100 KM (50 euros), and demolished buildings were my first impressions of Sarajevo.
However, I remember the first post-war years in Sarajevo as pretty optimistic, at least from my generation’s perspective. We thought that the right time had finally come for some structural changes and that better days were ahead. A lot of my friends and I had been reading critical texts that enabled us to comprehend our social reality from a different point of view and imagine a new world, radically different than the one we were used to living in. In those days, Sarajevo seemed like a city with a bright future: Public lectures from internationally renowned intellectuals, such as Richard Rorty or Chantal Mouffe, book promotions and debates in Karabit cafe/bookstore, writing my first critical papers, exchanging opinions and dreams of a better, more educated and more profound Bosnia and Herzegovina. I liked all that potential in the air. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I hoped this would last and give birth to a new structure of social relationships. I thought that the nationalism, after being intellectually deconstructed by my generation, would slowly fade away. But I was terribly mistaken.
How did you decide to leave?
I misjudged the social transformation of Bosnia and Herzegovina because the size of the generation of progressive people I was in touch with was an illusion. I thought that our small progressive groups were actually cells of a larger organism, and that the consciousness and reflections on society would spread from those cells and grow to become the common knowledge of the entire organism, with the power to finally transform it. What I didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, was the sad truth that the small groups that gathered around progressive social, political, and cultural ideas were, in terms of demography, the maximum of what Bosnia and Herzegovina could achieve. The gradual realization that I lived inside an ocean of an unenlightened crowd, and that nothing could make them open their minds, forced me into internal exile.
I “mentally” immigrated from BiH long before my physical deployment from its geographic coordinates. The circle of people I communicated with gradually shrank; as did the number of public events I felt comfortable attending, or the number of reasonable people concerned with societal issues I could debate with. On the other hand, my professional life had led to me spending more time abroad. My work on research projects at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford included frequent travel to conferences around the world; and writing and lectures in English had been alienating me from the local intellectual production (which was miserable anyway). Finally, entering a PhD program at CEU in Budapest physically removed me from Sarajevo, a town which no longer felt like home, and that I’d visit more as a foreigner or a guest. My identification with the society I was born into started eroding gradually and, it seems, permanently. I realized that the days of my “mental immigration” weren’t over. It became my existential reality, a basic characteristic of my being.
My connection with Sarajevo during my studies in Budapest survived thanks to the relative proximity of the two cities, and to railways with cheap round trip tickets. However, this changed when I got an opportunity to spend two semesters at Columbia University in New York as part of my PhD research. My wife and I decided to move there, and eventually started accepting it as our permanent place of residence. We’ve been in New York for more than a year and a half now, and it feels like we’ve been living here forever.
Our arrival in New York was guerrilla-style, without any structural support, and was lead more by a desire for new experience then by any wise planning. Help from my family and friends was crucial for making it happen.
What were your first months in New York like? Having in mind that your immigration was done “guerrilla-style”, I’m interested in the details about accommodating to a new reality. I’m thinking of your social life, and achieving economic independence.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, all immigrant stories look alike; at the same time, each of them is different. Adjusting is a painful process, and a kind of out-of-body experience. Body and mind aren’t synchronized in dealing with the environment, and the best way to experience this is living in immigration. The body is faster, it accepts the new local rhythm as soon as the jet lag passes. But the mind adapts more gradually. It’s affected by the somatic reaction, and processes the new reality according to its own rhythm and tries to resist before it finally complies. And then you just open your eyes and continue living as if everything is completely normal.
Cultural integration isn’t a problem; we were Americanized as kids through pop culture, movies, music, and TV shows. The problems are economic and social integration, finding a job that can sustain a decent living. This is an expensive city. Only after several months of simultaneously attending lectures, reading, writing my dissertation and waiting tables at an East Village restaurant, did we manage to find adequate employment. My wife now works in a successful company, and I’m teaching ethics and political theory at a local college, as well as finishing my dissertation. The social integration process, however, is still ongoing and is very challenging. But it has been enrichening at the same time. Immigration can be a wonderful philosophical experience. I am now a different person, richer for a whole new dimension of life, and better prepared for anything the future might bring.
In conversations like this, people I’ve talked to usually express nostalgia, nice memories, longing for their hometown, and melancholy. How did you see Sarajevo when you first moved to New York?
Leaving is good for getting the right perspective on the significance of the place of birth in the grand scheme of things. Sarajevo-centrism is typical for those born there, as well as for its transplants who, like me, grew to believe that we are from the most important, the best and most authentic piece of land on the planet. But the truth is that Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Balkans are but a small piece of the world whose importance today doesn’t exceed its geographical borders. We don’t have the best food in the world, nor do we have the most solidarity in our communities, and we aren’t always ready to offer a helping hand when you need it. Our political problems aren’t interesting to anyone anymore, and we are a marginal country the majority of Americans have never heard of. When I say “I’m from Bosnia,” the most common response that I get is, “From Boston? Oh, how nice!” That’s not just because Americans lack general knowledge about geography; it’s also a sign of our global relevance.
How do you feel in New York today? What are the good and bad sides of living in New York compared to Sarajevo?
The advantages of living in Sarajevo are being close to friends, family, and some local symbols from growing up. The fact that Sarajevo is a small town might be another advantage, because it takes just a half an hour to go and meet a friend in a cafe, or to go skiing, or hiking, which is impossible in New York. For example, it takes me an hour-long subway ride just to get from Queens (where we live) to the Upper West Side (where Columbia University is).
But a small town has its shortcomings too. Sarajevo practically doesn’t exist on the world’s cultural map, regardless of what they tell us during the Sarajevo Film Festival. Raising a child in Sarajevo is probably easier and more affordable than in New York. But in Sarajevo you can’t take your child to see a dinosaur’s fossil, or to an astronomy lectures for kids. A child can grow up without ever knowing what human diversity really means, that customs and radically different ways of life exist on this planet. All of this narrows the minds of entire generations, which then grow up without a chance to comprehend the size of the world. That’s why it’s no wonder that Sarajevo youth are so amazed by Besim Spahic and local football: They’re not aware of anything better than that.
What hopes do you have for Bosnia and Herzegovina?
I want to hope for the best. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the land where I was born, and I spent the majority of my life there. So regardless of all the criticism and bitterness that I feel at times, I want things to be better. However, I’m not sure that there is a movement strong enough to transform Bosnian society. I want to be clear: the problem with BiH isn’t its politics, or the Dayton Agreement, or individual politicians. The problem of BiH is it’s society. The problem is that there is no critical mass of people, capable and willing to change any sphere of life there. Isolated individuals do exist, as well as small groups of progressive people, but that’s not enough for radical social change. Unfortunately, the majority of inhabitants of BiH and Sarajevo are unenlightened, poor economically and culturally — cogs in a machine. In such an environment, progressive change is impossible.
Still, I’d like to be wrong about that. I believe that Hannah Arendt was right when she said that one shouldn’t underestimate the possibility of radical change in a political society. That’s why I do hope that one day BiH will surprise me and confirm her thesis.
Do you ever think of going back?
No. Although I’m aware that perhaps the return of many people like me (educated, relatively young, and ambitious) would be beneficial for Bosnian society, I’m not ready to do it. Change in Bosnian society would require the sacrifice of an entire generation, who would need to pay the expenses of a revolution with their own health, ambitions, dreams, and personal comfort. I’ll be honest with myself and readers: I only have one life (I don’t believe in an afterlife) and I don’t want to spend it on a revolution. I don’t want to pay for ideals with my own body. Socrates believed in life after death, so he was ready to die for ideals. My health, psychological and physical, my family and friends are worth more than any ideal, especially one that relies upon the existence of some supra-social community, such as a country or a nation. Bosnia as a metaphysical ideal doesn’t exist for me, and I don’t want to be sacrificed for any aetheric illusion. I am deeply convinced that an enlightened society shouldn’t be based on a sacrifice, but on a social contract.
If you could take the best of both New York and Sarajevo and build a new city, what would it look like?
It’s a complex question, and I don’t have a simple or adequate answer. An important dimension of a city’s character are plain numbers — that is, how many people live there. I think that any city with about two million inhabitants can be great for living. For example, Budapest is a wonderful city, fit for a comfortable life (excluding the growing right-wing nationalism and difficult-to-learn Hungarian language). I believe that a city’s comfort decreases with an increase in the number of inhabitants, because trying to organize one’s life in huge cities such as Moscow, New York, or Mexico City can sometimes turn into a nightmare. Still, all that depends on personal preferences.
Diversity is another important element that contributes to the dynamics of a city’s culture. A city with many immigrant communities allows you to encounter different cultures, sports, and gastronomical experiences. All that, of course, depends on the basic social organization of the city: local regulations, institutions, and the broader political, economic and cultural attributes that shape the life of each town.
But if I could design my ideal city, it would contain some of the more striking elements from most of places I’ve spent time. The city would have the size of Berlin, the mountains of Sarajevo, the diversity of New York, the opusteno “laid-backness” of Budapest, the history of Edinburgh, and the climate of Istanbul.