Kemal Bakaršić passed away in June of 2006, three months shy of his 50th birthday.
His moving account of life and the struggle during wartime for "a new structure of communicating with the world," against the backdrop of a war upon libraries and museums, may be found here, prefaced by a briefnIn Memoriam.
He spoke in 2005 of the cancer he was fighting, but didn't dwell on it, and I left Sarajevo that spring with no worry that soon he might cease to enliven it. We spoke by phone during his last weeks, when recalling struggles and small triumphs of the siege brightened his voice. Marina, his beloved wife, said on those calls that Kemal was afraid only that his friends would forget him.
Marina now writes, in March 2012, of the continuing health of Fondacija Kemal Bakaršić, the foundation established by his (wealthier) friends in his memory:
We give two awards every year to the best librarians and/or students
MM of librarianship. The Foundation participates in the organization of
MM the ICSL, the International Conference of Slavicist Librarians, which
MM is held every year in April. This is something that Kemal had begun,
MM and his colleagues manage to keep on the tradition. You can find out
MM more at www.openbook.ba.
Marina also notes, having recently read again Kemal's wartime cri de coeur, that "Words and photos help us in becoming 'guardians of memory'."
And so, rather than elaborate a eulogy here and now, it seems best to reminisce about the photos at hand, with as much detail as old notes and memory may divulge. Perhaps a few threads of spirit may revive.
Kemal at his desk, in the large office he shares with two other Assistant Ministers at the Presidency, seat of the new republic's government.
The photo is poorly lit because the overhead lights are off (even as he types at a computer keyboard) to conserve electricity.
Marina and Kemal on their wedding day.NAnd The Book That Saved Our Lives: Rilke, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak - Letters of Summer 1926. Shrapnel and all.
Susan Sontag in 2001 published an introduction to The Book That Saved, closing a circle (begun by Godot) without likely realizing it.
Another circle: Pasternak when young read a paper to a salon of philosophers and artists, about death and memory, which won him a place in their circle forever, and
which seems to perpetually circulate among intelligentsia east of the Elbe. Tsvetayeva recalls it as an inspirational landmark, in Art in the Light of Conscience.
Doctor Zhivago rehearses its ideas while trying to comfort his dying aunt, suggesting she will always exist, physiologically, in the brains of those who love her.
And in 1993, the Bosnian novelist Tvrtko Kulenović, head of Sarajevo's PEN chapter, rehearses Yuri Zhivago's rehearsal on camera, while narrating Haris Prolić's
Death in Sarajevo on a soccer field peopled with rough-cut gravemarkers, cringing and ducking as sniper rifles crack.
Marina's wartime salary, as a Professor at the University, is three kilos of flour per month.
Kemal here is wearing the same jacket and tie as in the wedding photo, and Marina a similar blouse.
When I asked about this later, Kemal replied yes, it had been their intention preparing for our walk,
having noted my shutterbug habits, to visually recapitulate their vows. Photographs, camera
film, two years into the siege, were rather rare, and sudden death in the street still a fact of life.
We bumped into Goran Simić.
Goran is a poet, and happens to be a Serb.
Goran and his wife Amela are the hosts of the Last Homely House West of the Drina With Electricity Nonstop,
a magical place for conversation thanks to an illicit electricity tap into a neighboring army office.
The empty cigarette packs laid out on the table explain the look on Kemal's face (and Marina's in droll reaction). As a librarian, he is more uneasy than most
Sarajlije about the cigarette mill's ravenous consumption of books. Yet like most under siege, he smokes like a chimney.
The stone artifact on the table is a replica of a stećak, the medieval and distinctly Bosnian sarcophagus. Its documented use reaches back to the 1100s,
three centuries before the arrival of the Ottomans and Muslim culture.
Just under 70,000 stećci are extant today, of which 86% are in Bosnia and Hercegovina, with the rest nearby in borderlands. Croats and Serbs in these
areas made some use of stećci, but they do not appear in their national homelands or histories.
The decorative motifs vary widely, reflecting nature. The Fleur de Lis found on today's Bosnian flag is more common than a Christian cross. Most distinctive
is the strange but iconic fellow who stands prominently at an end of the major axis, waving. In warning or in greeting?
Marian Wenzel, an American, studied the stećci as an art history student under Anthony Blunt in London. Hers was the finding that inscriptions on some
sarcophagi indicate Croatian and Serbian residents. Until then the stećci had been associated purely with the mysterious (to history) Bosnian Church, which
local tradition recalls as founded by the Bogomils. Western academics have long been at work trying to disprove the local tradition, as, centuries before
them, crusading armies and diplomats from Zagreb, Budapest and the Vatican did their best to eradicate the Bosnian Church itself.
Whatever the true history and doctrines of the Church may have been, the stećci are weighty evidence of a Bosnian society distinct from those of Croats and
Serbs, back to when the south-slav Nations were taking shape in their rough lands, which the major-power Christian capitals mapped as battlegrounds.
Extant parchments penned in such capitals as to what the devil the Bosnian Church was all about seem to me (pace John V.A. Fine, e.g.) inconclusive.
The book seems to be Kemal's fine copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah. We spent a lot of time poring over it. As Kustos, chief custodian,
of the National Museum's library, Kemal was the caretaker of the medieval original, perhaps the most important haggadah in existence.
Contrary to quite a bit of Western press, throughout the siege it was safe in a bank vault. nOtherwise Marian Wenzel might have swiped it.
Marian Wenzel formed the Bosnia-Hercegovina Heritage Rescue foundation after the Bosnian war began, then began to argue that the Sarajevo
Haggadah should be taken (by Marian) to America for safekeeping. The Bosnian government, to its credit, declined the offer — no mention of
which appears in this favoring biography, despite its several indications of interaction between Marian and the National Museum.
In December 1993, Kemal was writing a "detective story" about the Haggadah during World War II, trying, with some amusement, to discern fable
from fact in the stories of its survival of the Nazi occupation. His somewhat parallel experience since April 1992, as the book's custodian in a
time of high danger and low rumor, provoked and illuminates the essay. In each war, heroic stories of rescue from near-destruction took shape.
In April 1994, he gave me a draft on disk, suggesting I might improve the rough English in which he had composed it. The hope was
for quick publication abroad that would quell Marian's concerns and passions, inter alia.
The editorial task I never got around to. Kemal's essay — The Never-Ending Story of C-4436 a.k.a. The Sarajevo Haggada Codex — was
published in Sarajevo in 1995, and then in a Viennese journal in 2001, in much the same form as the wartime draft, which does its best
to say neither too little nor too much about the Haggadah's latest and then as-yet unfinished wartime adventure.
Marian's passion to possess the Haggadah was bugging Kemal a bit when I returned to the city in March 1995. She had just managed to place a
bomb in The New Republic, making spectacular use of professional flack Thom Shanker, who breathlessly reported half a dozen untruths,
including the fable of broken water pipes, and the rumor that the holy book had been sold on the black market to raise cash for weapons.
The piece fails to name or report a word from the Haggadah's caretaker, and seems intended to alarm America's influential Jews, to provoke
them to lobby the Clintons to pressure the Bosnians into coughing up the book. n Shanker's subtexts: Bosnian = Muslim. Muslims cannot
be trusted to care for precious Jewish patrimony. They'd sell their mothers to buy guns to kill their Christian neighbors.
Kemal, that March, asked for some help with the nuances of Shanker's scurrilous piece, and itemized its errors with a librarian's categorical passion. Then
in April (days after my departure, darn) the book was briefly put on display, for Passover, to disprove the most damaging of Marian's Shanked rumors.
Thereafter, until the siege was broken in late 1995, I served as a Marian Early Warning System, watching her movements on my amazing home
computer, and emailing Kemal whenever it seemed that the B-H Heritage Retrieval Society had launched another sortie to cloud his skies.
But one shouldn't exaggerate. Marian never made much headway on the Haggadah, and Kemal in my experience never lost his sense of humor while
parrying her thrusts. But I doubt he ever forgave her meddling, however meritorious or malicious it might have been. For Bosnians like Kemal are
proud to have welcomed the Cohen family among others from Spain in the early 1600s, after Isabella threw them out and the rest of the West hung
"No Vacancy" signs. Only Islam's Sublime Porte opened, offering a place to stay and grow, and a good home for the Cohens' beautiful prayerbook.
I wonder about the Fleur de Lis here ...
Back at the Presidency. That's Andre, from Quebec, an activist there in the separatist movement. He and his partner ran a small NGO that did,
for their size, amazing relief work, including in Bosnia with Kemal coordinating.
But there was often grey comedy in the air (as perhaps here), because the spirit of Quebec separatism was antithetical to the universalism
that Kemal lived, breathed and preached.
Andre & co. had been inspired with fellow-feeling by Bosnia's secession, from rump Yugoslavia. But they seemed not to see that their desire
to carve Quebec out of Canada resembled far more the desires of the Nationalists making war on Sarajevo than those of its defenders.
Kemal, on the other hand, seemed to think it a big part of his new government job to persuade the West that Bosnia's very mixed-up society —
fundamentally and for many centuries multi-National — was worth fighting for.
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