prose

Bekim Sejranović: Excerpt from his novel From Nowhere To Nowhere

Bekim Sejranović (1972-2020) was born in Brčko, Bosnia and Hercegovina. He attended nautical school in Rijeka, Croatia where he also studied South Slavic Languages and Literature. He moved to Oslo, Norway in 1993 where he continued his studies, earning a master’s degree in South Slavic Languages and Literature. Sejranović is the author of a collection of short stories, Fasung (2002), and five novels: Nigdje, niotkuda (2008)(Nowhere, From Nowhere), Ljepši kraj (2010) (A Better Place), Sandale (2013) (Sandals), Tvoj sin Huckleberry Finn (2015) (Your Son Huckleberry Finn) and Dnevnik jednog nomada (2017) (The Diary of a Nomad). His novel Nigdje, niotkuda (2008) (From Nowhere To Nowhere) won the prestigious Meša Selimović award for the best novel published in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia or Montenegro in 2009. Bejranović was an official court translator and also translated Norwegian literature into Croatian. His own writing was translated into many languages including English, Norwegian, German, Italian and Polish.

The following passage is the first chapter in Sejranovic’s debut and award-winning novel, Nigdje, niotkuda (2008) (From Nowhere to Nowhere). This opening chapter deals with the protagonist’s experience of a traditional Bosnian funeral in his hometown, which raises emotions and questions encompassing religion, politics and identity.

Translation by Will Firth.



 

 The funeral

 

I was the only one standing. Towering above all the others. I stood and didn’t know where to put my hands. Should I let them dangle feebly or hold them stiffly? Should I interlock my fingers and let that ball hang below my belly? All the others squatted, their arms half raised, their cupped hands toward their faces. The hodja was at the front, in the middle of the semicircle. He recited ritual prayers, and the men, staring into the grave over their coarse hands and bent fingers, sometimes repeated a few words after him.

I could make out the “amen.”

It was too late now for me to join the others. To squat like all of them and lift my cupped hands to my face. To repeat a few words together with the men. I don’t know why I didn’t do that. I hesitated for a moment and looked for my grandfather there to see what he was going to do. Since I didn’t notice the hodja straightaway, I was surprised when he began speaking the words of a prayer in his nasal voice. At that instant I also saw Grandfather squatting with difficulty and holding out his right hand in prayer. Alija’s son supported him because the left side of Grandfather’s body was paralyzed from his last stroke. The folds on that side of his face took on the expression of a sullen laborer. He squeezed his eyes shut but they shone a little through his sparse eyelashes. I could see by his lips that he wasn’t saying the prayer aloud.

“Amen,” hummed over the hummocky graveyard.

Dull, heavy clouds had settled on the surrounding hills. The clay earth seemed to pull the men in. The air they breathed smelled of the freshly dug pit.

The bier lay beside the grave on three-foot boards. Slightly listing, because it was hard to find a flat piece of land at that cemetery. Gravestones jutted out of the ground like tusks of extinct beasts.

This wasn’t my first time at a funeral, though you couldn’t say I’d been to many. Only two others, but never as an adult, which the men crouching around the fresh heap of yellow-brown earth now considered me.

I first went to a funeral when I was five. A boy from our street drowned in the Sava River. We called him Giraffe because he was thin and two heads taller than the rest of us. That was the first time that I saw a dead body in the flesh. It was laid out in a room. Whoever wanted could go and say goodbye for the last time. I followed the others and all at once I saw Giraffe there in front of me, lying with eyes shut. He was yellow and his hair was bristly. The boy next to me stroked him on the head. I quietly farted.

The next time, my father’s stepmother drowned herself in the Sava. She’d put up with severe pains in the belly and one day she couldn’t stand it anymore. She put on her slippers and her dressing gown, walked down to the river, got into a rowboat, and jumped into the water.

I went to her funeral, like now too, with Grandfather, Mom’s father, but I didn’t want to see her body before the burial. We walked along Brotherhood and Unity Street. Grandfather and I were at the front of the procession. He put his shoulder under the bier and carried it for part of the way until somebody relieved him. And then all the men squatted down and held their cupped hands in front of their faces, whispered quietly, and repeated a few words after the hodja. When I asked grandfather later why everybody squatted, slowly closed their eyes, stretched out their cupped hands, and sometimes passed them over their face like when a person washes himself, he told me that was what believers did. That was the way of paying one’s last respects to the one who’d gone to the other world. I was small at the time and didn’t really know what the difference was; I knew grandfather wasn’t a believer but a communist. But he squatted too. He answered calmly that he didn’t normally do that, but now he did, out of respect for the dead. I didn’t get the whole respect thing. What did respect have to do with squatting, communists, and the hodja? Grandfather said he didn’t want to be the only one who stood. Everybody, or almost everybody was squatting in prayer, so it wouldn’t be good for him to be the only one standing. That explanation made sense to me.

This time it was just me standing. My gaze shifted between the soft, trampled earth and the stony faces of the other men. There was no sorrow or theatrical mourning on those faces, just a wistfulness. Deeper than the grave where we’d bury Uncle Alija and heavier than the soil we’d cover him with. I sensed that one last “Amen” would hum from the throats of the men around me and that they’d slowly, almost reluctantly get up. Somebody, probably the gravedigger and his assistants, would lower the bier into the ground on ropes. One of them would then get down into the grave. The two that remained above would hand him the boards to cover the green sheet with them like a roof.

Only then would everybody be able to take a clump of the sticky soil and throw it into the grave.

 

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