Flags

For B

Do you remember flags on the 1st of May and on the Republic Day? Do you remember the scene from Kuduz when Sidran tells Davor Janjić: State flag in the middle, republican on the left, and party flag on the right. Or was it: party flag on the left, republican on the right? I have no idea, but I’m certain that the state flag always went in the middle.

We lived on the third floor of a six-story building. Those metal pipes, that looked like candle holders, were on our balcony. I haven’t though of them for twenty years. It was only last winter, when I played Springsteen’s new single on YouTube, We Take Care of Our Own, that I remembered them.

He says it many times in the song, Wherever this flag is flown, meaning wherever our flag is flown, we take care of our own. He said it all well; and that’s how they took care of us.

My old man is a Croat, my mother a Serb. I didn’t know this until the state census in 1991. I was thirteen then, and they got into a fight over how to declare me. Ten years ago they were both Yugoslavs, which made me a Yugoslav, too. Now, my old man wanted to be a Croat, but my mother remained a Yugoslav and wanted me to be a Yugoslav as well. My old man didn’t even want to hear about it: why would I be like my mother and not like him. Then my mother suggested they could declare me as a Serb, which made my old man completely nuts. What do you want, my mother asked, I could declare myself as a Serb, so that she can remain Yugoslav. The old man shrugged his shoulders and said: I’m ok with that. And that’s how it was.

What was I saying? Yes, in the middle of our balcony, on its front wall, when you lean over the fence, you can see the three little pipes that would look like a dick and two balls (pardon my French) if the middle one were a little longer than the other two. That was the flag holder. On the day of every major state holiday they’d ring our door and bring us the three flags on the long wooden poles: Yugoslav, Bosnian, and the party flag. They didn’t tell us which order to put them in, but it went without saying that Yugoslav flag would go in the middle. Perhaps memory is failing me now, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t matter whether the republican flag went to the right and the party one to the left, or vice versa.

My mother was always really bothered by this. During the entire months of April and November she would squawk about her bad luck getting the apartment with the balcony where we had to hang flags. Then she would squawk again after the holidays when they’d come to pick up the flags. They couldn’t leave the flags with us. The day after each holiday, they’d ring our door to pick them up, until the next holiday.

That’s how these things happened during my entire childhood, all until 1991.

They brought us the three flags during the Republic Day, but on the first of December they didn’t return to pick them up. For the first few days we thought they were late, but soon we realized it was all over. There was already war in Croatia, and Yugoslavia practically didn’t exist any more.

In April 1992, the shooting started in Bijeljina, then Zvornik, and finally in Sarajevo. Not in our town, but it’s not like we couldn’t feel the war. Wealthier Muslim families were leaving town, and some wealthier Croats, too, but ordinary folks stayed and waited in fear. The flags remained in our storage room for months until the eve of April 30th, when my mother remembered them. She said to my old man: tomorrow is the 1st of May, go and hang those flags.

The next evening there was a knock on our door. Five-six guys in army uniform came in carrying a Serb flag. Move those rags, they told my old man, and put out our three-colored one. The old man did as they asked.

In August of that year, we moved to Croatia, where we stayed for seven-eight months moving from one refugee camp to another, until we finally got papers to go to Canada. That was a really freaky time, from May to August of 1992. I went out so rarely. When I craved fresh air, I would go sit on the balcony. We never brought in that flag–it always stayed there.

My old man was fired. He taught math in high school, and they fired him three days before the semester’s end. They invented a reason, but they really fired him because he was a Croat. Sometimes, at some dead time of the day, we’d get a phone call. I only answered it once. A male’s voice on the other end said: Ustashas, get out of here, you fuckers. He didn’t hang up immediately. He breathed quickly and loudly. And after ten seconds, he yelled: get out you Croatian shit. Then he hung up.

This was nothing in comparison to what happened to other people. I mean, it wasn’t nothing, but that’s how you console yourself. You resort to all sorts of things when you’re going through hardship, so you compare your misery to that of others. It’s funny that way, because when you’re happy you never think of competing with the happiness of others. But when the worst is over, you try to suppress it, and forget. That’s how I forgot about the flag holders.

I mean it’s not like it’s all milk and honey here for us. My parents divorced before I even finished high school. Here, so far from home, you’d expect them to turn more toward one another, but instead they parted ways. It was really tough. I stayed with my mother for a year or so until I went to college. Later, I tried to visit them both as often as I could. My old man died soon afterwards. My mother got married again to a Pole, but she divorced him after two years. I didn’t need twenty years this time to figure out that I’m happier on my own, she said.

In the last few years she’s gotten hooked on Facebook. Many people from her former life have tried to get in touch with her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went back to Bosnia. When I visited her the last time, I asked her if she remembered the flag holders. She smiled. How could I forget, my darling, how many times I cursed our destiny for getting that very apartment. God must have heard me and said–if you don’t like this place, you won’t ever need to see it again. Do you remember, I asked her, when you told dad to put the flags up for the 1st of May once the war had already started? She bit her lip. Of course I remember, she said, my poor Zdravko didn’t really like the idea, but he didn’t say a word. He was always smarter than me, and a little bit of a coward, too. Those two qualities often go together, the brains and the fear. I don’t know what I thought then, I wanted to put the flag out so as not to jinx things, or maybe to get protection from the army, or from some higher force, I suppose. The only thing that came out of it was those Chetniks knocking on our door the next day. I don’t even like to remember that, she added, and she lit a cigarette.

Who knows what happened to those flags, I said, just to break the silence. My mother smiled: I don’t know what happened to the republican and the party flags, but the state flag is here in my kitchen. She got up, walked to the kitchen, and I followed her like a dog. There it was, folded up with the rest of the kitchen rags and put in a plastic bag for extra protection. The old Yugoslav flag. If I ever came across that bag, I’d never even touch it, thinking it was a tablecloth or something like that. My mother opened the plastic bag and spread the flag out. I got goose bumps. I mean, I like the maple leaf by now, too, but this was something else. My mother looked at me while laughing tenderly and reached her arms out to me: take it, I kept it all these years for you. You are, after all, the Yugoslav.

You know, she added, when those jerks brought the Serb flag, they didn’t bring the pole with them, so your father had to take the Yugoslav flag off first before putting out the Serb flag. My mother had taken the remaining flag and put it among her things. I have no idea why, I suppose it was to keep the evil spirits away.

I took the flag and I was really happy to have it, but I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. It didn’t make sense to keep it in a drawer, or put it in my window, or nail it to my wall. So I brought it here, which must be its destiny.*

….

*If you go to YouTube and click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCDc-_IpOpo, you will see a still image from the 12 April 2012 concert Bruce Springsteen gave in Detroit. The shot is from the very beginning of the concert and shows the first song played that night, “We Take Care of Our Own.” There, amidst the cheerful audience, you can see a young blonde woman waving the three-colored flag: the upper color is blue, the middle one, white, and the lower, red. In the middle of the flag is a five-pointed red star.

Bios

Muharem Bazdulj

Muharem Bazdulj was born in 1977 in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has published several novels and short story collections, including Druga knjiga (2000), which was awarded the Book of the Year prize by Open Society Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2005, the Northwestern University Press series Writings from an Unbound Europe published it in English translation. Bazdulj’s work has been featured in international anthologies such as The Wall in My Head, published on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Best European Fiction 2012 (Dalkey Archive Press). His short stories and essays have appeared in World Literature Today, Creative Nonfiction, Habitus, and Absinthe, among other literary journals. Two of his early novels are available in German translation: Der Ungläubige und Zulejha (2008) and Transit.Komet.Eklipse (2011). He works as a journalist for the Bosnian daily Oslobođenje, and the Association of Journalists of Bosnia and Herzegovina honored him as the country’s best journalist in 2012.

Nataša Milas

Nataša Milas is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She works on Russian and Balkan literature and film and translates from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian literature. Her translation of Muharem Bazdulj's novel Transit, Comet, Eclipse is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press. She is guest editing the Fall 2013 issue of Absinthe: New European Writing, which will focus on Bosnian literature. Nataša's most recent writing has appeared in In Contrast: Croatian Film Today, Kino Kultura, and Slavic and East European Journal.

Zastave. Copyright (c) Muharem Bazdulj, 2013. English translation copyright (c) Nataša Milas, 2013.