There is a photograph in sepia of my maternal grandparents that has always haunted me. I carried it in my purse together with a handful of other family photographs when I escaped Romania to Italy in 1983. My grandmother is wearing an elegant black dress, her hair is gathered in a chignon and she has a corsage of white orchids; my grandfather is wearing a tuxedo and his hair is combed back leaving open his smooth high forehead. They are both smiling and look radiantly happy. My mother always said about that photograph: “They were dancing at a ball during the war.” That was all. The date on the back of the picture is December 31st 1943. Indeed, World War II, a New Year’s Eve party at the height of the war, crossing into the horrific year of 1944, Romania still fighting on the side of Germany, and American and Russian bombs falling like rain over our country in the middle of the Balkans. One of the American bombs hit my grandparents’ house in the summer of 1943 and split it in half. My mother’s family were all lucky to have found themselves in the half of the house that remained standing.
Growing up under the absurd dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and gathering many more stories about my parents’ war childhoods I often came back to those two facts: my grandparents looking beautiful and radiant at a fancy ball and their house having been split in half by an American bomb half a year earlier. How could they be so happy, so radiant, how could they dance, and how could my grandmother choose delicate white orchids and carefully arrange them in her corsage all while bombs were falling from the sky and splitting people’s houses in half or obliterating them altogether?
I only started to grasp that contradiction decades later, as an immigrant in the United States, after I had experienced and survived some of my own wars of a different nature: leaving everyone and everything familiar behind, settling in the United States as a political refugee, and the resulting displacement, loss, homesickness. The image of my grandparents offered me solace and strength throughout some of the hardest periods of my journey – if they could not only survive but even be able to dance, I could survive and be happy, too. And I finally understood that having survived the American bomb was precisely a reason to dress up, dance at the New Year’s Eve ball and be happy for every moment of stolen life.
When war erupted in the early nineties in the former Yugoslavia it felt like the reopening of an ancestral wound. The crushed house of my grandparents started taking shape in my imagination and acquiring a tragic kinship with the bombed houses of Sarajevo. I had never even been to Belgrade or to Sarajevo, to Kosovo or to Albania, but I had grown up hearing of our Yugoslav neighbors who apparently lived under a milder and more liberal kind of communism. They could travel to the West, their food stores weren’t always empty like ours, and I knew that Romanians sometimes crossed the border into Yugoslavia and then escaped to Italy. Although the Balkan countries differed from each other, those of us having been born, grown up, and lived behind what the West so dismissively referred to as “the iron curtain” or the “eastern bloc,” felt a certain sense of spiritual, cultural, and political kinship with one another. Throughout the centuries our countries had been jumbled up in various kingdoms, frontiers, and were changed and rearranged under the reckless whims of various invaders, empires, and regimes. And as a result, we shared elements of cuisine, folkloric music, a common hatred of the Soviet Union, a passionate idealization of the Western world and a great love of American music and cigarettes.
By the late nineties the news of the genocide and the rape camps became unbearable as I found out more about the unspeakable atrocities committed by Serbian officers against Muslim Bosnians. Works by the journalist Slavenka Draculic, and news about the many million dollar settlement won by the famous legal scholar Catharine McKinnon, had begun percolating. They took my breath away. I thought of the wartime childhoods of my parents and the wartime youth of my grandparents and post war Stalinist terror which they still talked about in whispers around the dinner table so many years later. Sometimes I took out the picture of my grandparents at the ball and wondered how the Bosnians survived under bombs and sniper shots, how they carried out their everyday lives. I was concerned especially with the particulars: the meals they cooked, how they got their water, whether they ever read, laughed or even danced anymore? More than anything, the mass rapes and the executions in July of 1995 kept me up at night when my young children didn’t. I started noticing occasional refugees from Bosnia, mostly women wearing colored headscarves like the ones we used to call babushkas in Romania. I wondered whether they’d survived rape camps, if they had lost family members, sons, husbands to the genocide or to snipers in Sarajevo. I wondered what was hiding behind their polite smiles, what stories they carried, what memories bloomed as they cooked their Bosnian meals that spread cumin and cinnamon fragrances all throughout the hallways of my mother’s Chicago apartment building where some of them lived.
Years later Sarajevo beckoned me with an irresistible call. In the summer of 2011 I descended upon its multicolored glory and surreptitious magic and it felt like I had been born there. It was the same summer that a newly discovered mass grave was exhumed, containing 660 bodies from the genocide. The war was still fresh. I took everything down in my little notebook: how they lived for three years without water, gas and electricity, how they ran amidst sniper bullets to get water from the few sources in town, how they even wrote poetry and wore their best clothes just to feel normal and beautiful on some really ugly days. When I was in Sarajevo, I never felt like a refugee, and nobody ever asked me where I was from the way it still happens in my adopted America with exasperating frequency.
The people I met shared their city with me like you would share a warm loaf of bread with a hungry person. Still, I felt as if I betrayed them for not being here during the war, but instead of reproaches they thanked me for being interested in their history.
People told me their stories of survival and also stories of everyday life that had nothing to do with the war. I moved among silk and copper artifacts and almond and honey pastries with the ease of someone who has found her home, yet sadly knowing I had to leave it again. I knew I would spend the next several years of my life writing a story that starts there in Sarajevo, during the same decade when I was living in my native Romania and that it would be the story of two women who grow up during Tito’s regime and are young adults at the time of the Bosnian war. I knew it would be the story of two empowered women who are tied to each other for life and whose love and friendship survives all the upheavals and turbulences of history. To me their lasting portrait will always be akin to that of my grandparents’ photograph in sepia: a snapshot of irrepressible passion for life in the midst of ruin, and framed by Sarajevo’s red azaleas to my grandmother’s white orchids. This is how my novel “Country of Red Azaleas” was born.
However, the eternal refugee in me has recently started to feel restless and anxious again that what I had thought was going to be my adoptive home for good, might just turn into a terrifying place of discrimination and violence. The political discourse of hatred and fear mongering takes me back to the speeches that we were forced to listen to during the time of the dictatorship I grew up under, it echoes stories of my parents’ years under Fascist rule and then Stalinist type rule: a hollow demagogical language dipped in the “banality of evil.” To bring it even closer to our times, it resonates with anti-Muslim sentiments and actions during the Bosnian War, for it was largely Serbian “Christian” factions, troupes and the Republika Srepska that carried out a three year long siege and war mostly against Muslim Bosnians in the Bosnia Herzegovina areas. Could history really take such absurd turns that those of us who once painfully uprooted ourselves and took refuge in the “home of the brave and land of the free” might start looking back towards our native lands that we once ran away from as our new refuge? At least my native country is not at war and now has a democratically elected government. But how about our Muslim brothers and sisters whose countries are at war and had thought America was a safe haven? Is it any more? I now understand even better the sense of vertigo that my grandparents must have felt standing in the half of the house that had escaped the American bomb, the precariousness of having no way to turn and no safe haven: American bombs on one side, Stalinist gulags on the other side. The expression “carpet bombs” is only now acquiring its sinister concreteness, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that rose with a vengeance in former Yugoslavia is no longer a rhetoric of those “remote” Balkan countries. Are the “Balkans” coming to America while the “carpet bombings” are ferociously eager to be catapulted onto different parts of the world? Maybe onto the very countries some of us once left. Maybe bombs are among some of the very last things made in America and there is even a huge surplus of them. So what’s an anxious refugee to do in times like these? Cling to a life affirming image of joy and beauty in the midst of hate, violence bombs? Put a white flower in her hair, go dancing and hope that her gesture of leaving her country and family with a handful of photographs as her most precious possession is still worth that irreversible break?