Words speak louder than war

By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 10, 2005

The language barriers in the United States speak loudly for those who exist in smaller countries, like Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In his ongoing mission to help bridge language, cultural and social barriers between the United States and Europe, Semezdin Mehmedinovic will share his poems, essays and short stories at the UA later this month.

Born in the northern Bosnian town, Tuzla, in 1960, Mehmedinovic moved to Sarajevo in 1979 to study comparative literature and library sciences at the University of Sarajevo, graduating in 1983.

Before immigrating to the United States with his wife and son in 1996, Mehmedinovic remained in Sarajevo throughout the war from 1992 to 1995.

Mehmedinovic - who goes by "Sem" for short - is impressed that his new American neighbors don't have a problem pronouncing his surname.

"It's hard to pronounce, but sometimes people in Bosnia have a hard time (pronouncing) my name," he said. "I didn't find people in America with that kind of problem. They usually pronounce my name exactly."

Through a refugee program, Mehmedinovic and his family arrived in Phoenix - where they lived for five months - before moving to Alexandria, Va.

The categorizations and re-categorizations of language and culture are frustrating to everyone in Bosnia, but Mehmedinovic is proud of every cultural segment in his life.

In his interview with Ammiel Alcalay in "Sarajevo Blues," Mehmedinovic said he identifies himself as Bosnian Franciscan, Muslim Sufi and Sephardic Jewish, which are all Bosnian cultures.

"Bosnia was a special place with all these nationalities, and with all these cultures," he said.

But, like Jerusalem, which also consists of different cultural groups, Mehmedinovic said political tensions have tried to destroy the unity once enjoyed by all for centuries.

"War tried to destroy that because they nationally want to divide people and they want to prove living together is not possible," Mehmedinovic said. "After war, I'm really happy to tell you that multicultural life in Sarajevo exists."

Having completed his obligatory service in the then Yugoslav National Army as a teen, Mehmedinovic said he was disillusioned by some of his professors who went on to have an active hand in the genocide during the war.

In his essay, "Innocent Civilians," Mehmedinovic writes, "You might run into a soldier pointing at the tip of his sneaker and the coagulated blood there that once belonged to a professor who thought that 5,000 Muslim kids ought to be killed."

Mehmedinovic, whose father was a coal miner and mother was a homemaker, said he does not come from an artistic family, but first became interested in writing around age 8 and began publishing his works soon after.

"I wrote some poems and I won some awards as a young kid," he said. "It's a little bit different in Europe than it is in the United States. In Europe, it's easy to publish books."

For example, Mehmedinovic explained, if he wrote a manuscript this week and sent it to a publisher in Zagreb, Croatia, it would take 10 days to publish, while it would take maybe two years to do so in the United States.

Addressing fatherhood in the first two poems of "Sarajevo Blues," really places Mehmedinovic's feelings of war in perspective.

In response to reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem "Der Erlkönig" (The Elf King), Mehmedinovic writes in his poem "Loss," "The magnitude of a child's fear and the father's powerlessness made my hair stand on end!

"My father died. Not here, he was in another city in Northern Bosnia. I love him as much as a son loves a father and I still haven't gotten used to the feeling that he's gone. I put off my encounter with his death and, now, when I think of him, the images that come to me are joyous and sad, innocent."

Though Mehmedinovic still has trouble discussing his painful losses verbally, his emotions are never reserved in his writing.

"Writing poetry is a very personal thing. You have to put extremely personal experience in some poetry form," he said. "It's interesting to mix different forms, poems, short stories or short essays in one place.

"For some, it's better to choose a short essay, than a poem. For some, it's better to choose a poem than a short story. I try to find some answers for the physical questions like where I am and what life is and what tomorrow is."

Before and during the war, Mehmedinovic published the underground magazine, Phantom of Freedom, among many others during his days as a journalist and columnist. Though he is still very much interested in political issues, he believes life dictates inspiration.

"I'm a political writer, but not in the way of writing pamphlets and I used to write about my reality. All in struggle write about war. I'm in the United States and I will write about my reality in the United States," he said.

Because so many Europeans have anti-American sentiments, Mehmedinovic said it is important to continue to bridge European nations with the United States.

"For me, it's important to open dialogue, keep dialogue between Europe and (the) United States while I'm still publishing my magazine," he said.

In high school, Mehmedinovic admired the poetry of many American poets, such as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Today he's interested in American beat poets, including many unknowns.

Since arriving in the United States, Mehmedinovic has gone back home only once. In May 2000, he traveled to Montenegro, in Podgorica, before spending a few days with his friends in Sarajevo.

"Usually I keep in daily contact with my friends by e-mail," he said.

Due to advancements in technology and, primarily because of the Internet, Mehmedinovic finds it slightly challenging to find many differences between life in Europe and life in the United States.

"It's hard to compare. It's just different, but now the whole world is like one city with different quarters. If the United States is the center of town, Bosnia is suburban. Sarajevo is suburbia," he laughed.

"If you compare nightlife in Tucson to nightlife in Sarajevo, you will find it the same. The interests of the young people are the same," he said."

By day, Mehmedinovic works as a freelance broadcaster for the Voice of America's Bosnian Service, which sends radio and television news and information to Bosnia on weekdays.

Though he and his family lived in Phoenix during their first five months in the United States, this will be Mehmedinovic's first time in Tucson.

"My wife is in love with Arizona," he said. "We came from Balkan snow to desert city; from snow to sand and it was like paradise."

Mehmedinovic will also visit Bisbee for the first time when he reads at the Bisbee Marquee on Friday, Mar. 25.

Semezdin Mehnedinovic will read at the Modern Languages Auditorium on Wednesday, Mar. 23 at 8 p.m. Afterwards, the poet will sign copies of his books and refreshments will be served.