Interview with David Albahari
By Natasha Sardzoska
David Albahari (1948 – ) is a Serbian writer with Sephardic Jewish origins. He was born in Peć, has graduated at the University of Belgrade and lived in Zemun in Serbia and Calgary in Canada. He also a literary translator from English. His collection of short stories Description of Death won the Ivo Andrić award for the best book of short stories published in Yugoslavia in 1982. His novel Bait won the NIN award for the best novel published in Yugoslavia in 1996, as well as the Balcanica Award and Berlin Bridge Prize. His novel Götz and Meyer is a deeply unnerving tale of obsession and memory, part Holocaust story and part rumination on the incompatibility of history and storytelling. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He is member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts. We have met in Zemun one cold November day and discussed our perceptions and experiences of borders, borders identities, border crossings and border dwellings.
Borders nowadays become blurred, shifting, porous, fervid and unstable. What is border for you? What was the border, according to you, between European Union and the former Yugoslavian states – now and then? What has changed?
Border is something that cannot necessarily exist physically but it can still exist in any individual as a personal relationship with the surrounding world. Personally, I was always afraid of borders. Even though today borders do not exist in the European Union, I can still feel them because I know there were real borders years ago. On the other hand, I do not feel borders when I travel in the countries of the former Yugoslavia because, at least in my life, there were never borders there.
I define border as a reflection of a historical reality that I transpose in the present moment. For example some historians argue that the border between Europe and the Ottoman Empire used to be the river of Sava, which was dividing Belgrade, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, and Zemun part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
For me, every encounter with uniformed persons is a terrible experience because I do not feel comfortable when I am with uniformed people, because they reflect symbols of power, and because they perform the decisional power to decide about you, they can influence your life: let me give you one simple example, by controlling my passport they can forbid my entry in a single country, customs and police can affect my physical integrity and so on and so forth.
I do not feel I belong to one culture. I have lived in many countries and I feel the imprint of all those cultures in my interpretation of meanings, life habits etc. Would you also say that you were enriched with many cultures but at the same time deprived partially from your culture of origin?
I always belong to many cultures. I consider the notion of identity as a complex assemblage of several cultures and I consider each new identity an enrichment for the human being. Humans learn how to use or deploy their identities; by this, I want to say that if the person is open towards themselves, they will be open towards others. When I go to the Jewish community I become 100% Jewish and I will not go there as rocker and pretend not to know who those people are and what do they do. But if I have to deploy my rocker side of the personality, I will: in me there are ten David’s who, when needed, just appear and get released outside of me.
In this sense there is no such thing like an identity of a writer, because writer becomes a writer only in the moment when they write. You cannot carry this identity outside. I myself am I writer only when I write. One American writer has even said that the writer cannot be a revolutionary, he says that one man can be a revolutionary man but not a revolutionary writer. There are plenty of writers who always stress out to be writers, or they strive to be writers, but being a writer is not a question of identity.
Zygmunt Bauman has written that the world we inhabit builds and destroys mini Berlin walls each and every day. What element from the Balkans, or to quote Maria Todorova from the balkanization practices, do you associate to the European Union? Do you think the Balkan states are facing nowadays new nationalistic cultures-in-making?
I am very much convinced that there were many attempts and plans by politicians, and some other political factors, to build as much as possible walls in the spaces of former Yugoslavia – not necessarily physical but mental. Yet, having begun to travel after the wars in former Yugoslavia, I have realized that walls maybe exist really but not amongst the people with good will and artistic spirit: for those people there are not walls! I know this is maybe too optimistic to say, but it is as it is. As an author I feel the same in Macedonia, in Slovenia or in Montenegro as I used to feel before the war. We have all decided to call “our language” (i.e. nasi jezik) the language we speak and that language will always remain our language. Macedonian and Slovenian are different but “our language” is the same for anybody else. New generations are raised with writers who do not really care about Yugoslavia, but they are however collaborating and spreading network between the countries of former Yugoslavia; so what happens? When I attend a literary festival somewhere in Europe, I know that I will share the same dining table with writers from Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia etc.
Why did you left Belgrade during the war? What impact has made on you the dissolution of Yugoslavia?
In 1994 the University of Calgary has invited me as writer in residence. This is how I moved there with my family. Between 1990 and 1994 I was president of the Union of Jewish municipalities in former Yugoslavia. Basically, I was the last federal president in former Yugoslavia, because when everything fell apart, only the Jewish communities tried to stay together. When the new states were created, our union and the federation of the Jewish communities fell apart too. In 1999 the Jewish Organization of Croatia initiated the encounters amongst the Jewish from former Yugoslavia: this means that we were the first to get together after the war. I think that the Balkan culture can be best seen in the Sephardic kitchen and music.
Why I left? Well, because I had no time to write, because I was dedicated to my humanitarian work: we took care of around 800 Jews who came from Sarajevo to Belgrade. I took care of them too. I decided to go because I needed to write. When we arrived there, my writing was floating and flowing as water: for 18 years I have written more than 20 books. It made me feel good as writer.
Where is your home, if I may ask?
Ha! One Serbian proverb says: “if home was good, even the wolf would have it”. I wrote a text about how I discovered that I have two homes: when I travelled from Calgary to Europe, to Serbia, I always used to think that I go home, and when I was going back to Canada from Belgrade, I always used to think that I am going to Calgary. But one day, I entered in the airplane on my way to Calgary, I took my seat and I have heard someone talking to me “ah, so you are going home?” and then I said that I go back home in fact. Only then I realized that I have two homes, but there is a difference between them: the household in Calgary is just a house, but our household, our apartment in Zemun is more than that, this is my home.
Natasha Sardzoska is philologist of Italian language, anthropologist, writer, poet, researcher and teacher, interpreter and translator, born in Skopje, Macedonia. She holds a PhD from the Karls Eberhard Universität in Tübingen, the Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 and the Università degli Studi di Bergamo under the European excellence program Erasmus Mundus. She has taught at the SEEU Max Van Der Stoel, at the University of Tourism in Skopje and at the Schiller International University in Heidelberg. She was editor of the EMANATE Magazine in Brussels and has interviewed well-known politicians among which Marielle de Sarnez and Meglena Kuneva. She collaborates with international reviews, namely Doppiozero in Milan and Transmidia in Rio de Janeiro. She has been working for the French National Agency for Higher Education AERES in Paris as quality assurance expert, for the Italian Ministry of Justice as project assistant, the National Antimafia Bureau as interpreter and for many international agencies and organizations among which IOM and EC.
She is the author of three poetry books, Blue Room, Skin and He pulled me with an invisible string, her poetry was translated in Serbian, Italian, Spanish and English. She has translated and published books from Italian and Portuguese language and her doctoral dissertation drawing on the dissolution of former Yugoslavian borders impact on lives and artwork of expatriated and exiled artists was published in the National Library of Tübingen in Germany.