"Theres somebody I want you to meet", says Enes Škrgo, hurrying me from Zenjak no. 9 to Ulica Bosanska, just around the corner. Friendly though he may be, I know Enes won't take no for an answer; which, for the time being, is the answer I'd be inclined to give.
My head is spinning. I had just spent two hours or so at Rodna Kuća Ive Andrića, the Ivo Andrić Birthplace Museum that Enes is in charge of. I've had a very interesting and intense interview with Enes about the contemporary nationalist re-interpretation of Andrić's work and the author himself. I've seen what must have been at least half a dozen groups of students visit the Museum and leave it with what looked like inspiration in their eyes, as well as a busload of Slovenian pensioners.
I can't really take in any more info, I need some time alone. And a serving of ćevapi, which Travnik is also famous for. But I don't want to disappoint Enes who's been so generous to me and to whom it seems really important that I meet the person he wants me to meet. Besides, I think I've gotten to know Enes enough in order to know that this will be interesting.
“It's the guy who made the sculpture in front of the Museum”, Enes tells me.
It is a remarkable sculpture, indeed. One a casual visitor might easily overlook. Positioned on the lawn right next to the Museum, it comes across as rather modest, much unlike the almost turbo-art-like interpretations one sees at Andrićgrad. It is a 3D-installation rather than a statue, made of metal bars positioned behind one another. Each bar is shaped to form a part of Andrić's face.
It is only when you face it up front that you can recognize the writer's features. As soon as you walk around it, basically decontextualizing the sculpture, the visible image dissolves into meaninglessness.
We enter a barber shop, almost humble, just like most shops in most small towns. Just one barber shop chair for the clients, cupboards, basins, a hairdryer and a mirror. In the back, there is a desk with a PC and two chairs for casual visitors. Overall, the shop is barely over 25 m2 in size.
Luey from Basrah
“This is Luey”, Enes introduces me to a tall guy in his late 40’s. His closely-cropped hair and beard show quite a bit of grey already, yet his eyes and his winning smile make him look rather youthful. He’s wearing a light blue sweater.
We shake hands and Luey motions us to sit down in the back of the shop. “Kafa?” he asks. I gladly accept. Enes declines, taking his leave after a couple of minutes. He's got a museum to run. Luey, whose last name is Maktouf, arranges for coffee from one of those lovely Bosnian cafes that seem to be around every corner. He also orders a few slices of those delightful Balkan cakes that one yearns for but that are likely to give you diabetes by just looking at them.
“So, you're from Vienna”, Luey asks. “Yep”. We switch to Naški (slang for speaking in local language), which Luey speaks fluently, unlike me. “I’m from Basrah in Iraq“, Luey says. He fled his home city in southern Iraq in 1992, he tells me, right after Saddam Hussein's troops had crushed a Shia uprising against his dictatorial rule, following the defeat of Iraqi troops in the Gulf War. Like 30,000 of his countrymen, he was interred in a Saudi refugee camp in Rafah. “That was like prison”, Luey says. As we each smoke a Marlboro, he shows me some YouTube videos that document how desolate the place was. People mostly weren't allowed to leave. Luey didn't get out for seven years until somehow he was released and made it to Bosnia. Some details elude me on account of my not so good Naški.
A Full Appointment Book
The door opens. A middle-aged Bosnian woman has her appointment with Luey. He's earned quite a reputation as a hairdresser in Travnik and has a full book of appointments. As the customer sits down, he pulls out a piece of fine yarn, forming it into a sling, the end of which he takes into his mouth in order to maintain the tension necessary for his task. He's going to thread her eyebrow. That is something he's particularly popular for with the female townsfolk, Enes has told me.
His client's reactions show why. Never once does she shrink or wince from pain. Quite the contrary, Luey and she chat away, eyebrowthreadingly and eyebrowthreadedly so to speak, as much as Luey's activities allow him to.
Three more women come in, asking whether he still has a slot for them. Luey interrupts his eyebrow threading and takes a look at his appointment book. No, Friday afternoon at the earliest. Fine. He's finished a bit faster with his client than he thought, so he still has some time for me.
“I'm very grateful to Bosnia and Travnik”, he says. “This has really become my new home. I've married a Bosnian woman and I have two wonderful kids. And I want to give something back.”
This he does with his art. “The salon is my job, this is how I make my living. I had my own shop in Basrah as well”, he says. “I save whatever money I can and every couple of years, I get enough money for another sculpture”. Luey pauses and counts. “About every four or five years.”
Luey's Children Save the Day
He's done several so far, the Andrić installation from 2014 being the latest. He has donated each one of them to the people of the city for free. They are on display in Travnik's public spaces such as parks.
For the Andrić sculpture he actually found a Bosnian who had promised to pay for the metal.
“The night before the metal was to be delivered, he called and said he couldn't pay."
That made him pretty nervous, he says. “They were gonna bring the metal and I couldn't pay for it. That was a big problem.”
So he dug up every fening he could find in the house and the shop, and emptied the family's savings accounts, he recalls.
“Still, it wasn't enough money."
After talking to his wife, he even sacrificed his kids' piggy banks. “So the next day I had the money."
In return, Ali, now 10, and Farah, now 4, have been named as sponsors on a plaque in front of the sculpture.
This work of his was the one that was the most important to him, Luey says. “I've read a lot of Ivo Andrić's works. He's taught me so much about Bosnia and also a lot about what it means to be human. I love his work.”
"Ivo Andrić Belongs to All People"
The sculpture is supposed to raise a key question about Andrić, Luey says. “Who does Ivo Andrić belong to?”
“The Serbs say, "He's ours." The Croats say, "He's ours." The Bosnians says, "He's ours."
“But he belongs to all people, no matter where they're from.
“And most of all: Ivo Andrić belongs to Ivo Andrić."
As nationalists of all ethnicities try to appropriate Andrić for their own purposes, this message seems more important than ever. Be it Serb and – partly – Croat nationalists who want to make him the champion of their respective nationalist literature. Be it Bosnjak nationalists many of whom try to present him as a scare and war monger. One thing that unites them all is the urge to use the Nobel Prize Laureate to push their respective political agendas.
Any contribution to preserve the legacy of one of Europe's most important writers of the 20th century is welcome by those who try to defend him against this sort of political misuse.
One of the most remarkable contributions comes from a man from Iraq. That may be seen as a strong statement about Andrić's power to inspire people to think that they are more than the place where they were born and grew up. And that while history haunts us all, the future is ours to make.
The German language original has been published on the author’s blog.