October 2012

Elvis Bego


The Bosnian Madame Bovary

Jan Morris wrote somewhere that when she (she might have been he back then, and "James") visited Mostar, she felt the pull of the east, of Islam. There was seduction in all that shaded indolence, the cold green waters, coffees that last hours, the muezzin's mystical yowl that summons up the desert sands from a thousand miles away. Part of the allure of Bosnia for westerners, I think, has been the surprising nearness of the East. To put it more bluntly, and problematically: in Bosnia the East is tamed, less scarily dogmatic. You wander the stony streets, look at one of the divers plunge from the Old Bridge, take a picture striped with minarets and fringed with snowcapped mountains, buy something quite foreign-looking from the little shops, and an hour later you're among Venetian cathedrals of the Dalmatian coast.

These shops of Mostar have their own famous sevdalinka (traditional Bosnian song), called "Mostarski ducani" (The Bazaars of Mostar). Some call sevdah the Balkan Blues. Or compare it to fado. I get this, and agree, but sevdah is also often good-humored, unsentimental, and describes personal dramas from the outside too. This is one such song. It begins:

They are beautiful, the bazaars of Mostar
But more beautiful than they are the bazaar workers
And most beautiful of all, the bazaar worker Mustafa

The move from the civic to the personal, from shop to worker, is swift; sevdah is almost always about intimate human stories. Mustafa is roughly sketched into the picture. What does the composition need now? A woman, perhaps.

Enter Fata, a married lady. Significantly, the fact of the marriage is shaded in straight away: the only description we have of her is that she is Suljaga's. He's an eminent local, as we can tell from his name (aga was an Ottoman title). She is strolling into town, "wandering all by herself," looking for Mustafa. For some reason that I cannot account for, I always picture this happening under a heavy cloud. Cool, unpeopled cobblestones, a barren breeze, but no rain as yet.

As it happens, she finds him in the seventh shop, and asks for gold. The six others were perhaps not goldless, but they were certainly Mustafaless. She asks him for a whole oka of gold. An oka is a weight unit somewhere between a pound and a kilogram. Mujo (a diminutive of Mustafa), all sheepish apologies, tells her that he can't, the scale had been messed up by some of his friends who'd been carrying it somewhere.

Now, the interesting thing, for me, is why did she have to go to Mustafa? Just because he is the most handsome of them all? That's a good enough reason, sure. But couldn't there be more behind the story? Is there a history between them? I don't necessarily mean of the salacious, sexual kind. Does she have debts and creditors to satisfy? Has she asked this of him before? This is why she makes me think of Madame Bovary with that hint of desperation and financial unease. I'm sure she has a dagger in her purse, and a black tinge by her eye, like one of Delacroix's Arabian odalisques. An oka is a lot of gold; that's a sack of saffron.

Will Suljaga become a cuckold like Charles Bovary? Or is he already?

Mujo tells Fata that she should go in the back of the shop and "take as much gold as you like."

And then the denouement, or denudement. The last verse goes:

Ah, she erred, Suljaga's Fata,
Ah, she erred, poor soul [literally: mournful is her mother],
In went Fata, alone,
But Mujo went in after her, and bolted the door.
In went Fata, alone,
But Mujo went in after her, and bolted the door.

That's it, the antic poet knows no more, or at least says no more. Behind the bolted door remains darkling speculation. I've often asked myself and others what to make of this ending. In other words: was Fata raped? At first the lyric seems to imply that what must ensue in that dark back room is unwanted by her: she "errs," and is pitied (or is that the voice of the community, united in judgment?). However, the ambivalence of the ending is obvious to me. The last lines are delivered with a genial wink too. Also, Mujo, the handsomest of bazaar boys, surely needs no coercion for his lays. I think his rakish charm was what she'd wanted all along. Her freewheeling, independent character is implied throughout the song, which is important in the context of her living in a predominantly Muslim community: bear in mind the song was written more than a hundred years ago. Maybe, like Emma B., she's read too much romance, The Arabian Nights perhaps, or even some of the realist catastrophes of private life that were beginning to get translated in the western Balkans around the turn of the century, but even these won't scare a girl like her. She won't throw herself in front of a train, or seek poison from her dubious pharmacist. Maybe Suljaga is as dull as kelp, gout-ridden, and violent, and far too old for her.

So, if you ask me, I think our madam lifts her skirt among the tinkling silver and gold and the inchoate scale to welcome her Rodolphe, or her Léon. You know, he might be kinder than those ever were.