March 15, 2016
People keep asking me for pictures of my “adventures” or specific stories about where I have traveled. I’ve used this as an excuse to take more photos than I would normally (because truly I love photos), but I think that taking this perspective–only talking and thinking about the days that I visited tourist sites or traveled to other cities–is really limiting. Today was one of my most enjoyable days here so far, but I didn’t do anything special today–I got up, went to work, came home. There were no “photo-ops” or magical stories to write home about. Yet, it was still an unbelievably beautiful and extraordinary day, and I think one that captures the entire essence of my time here and the Fulbright program.
I woke up this morning in a really bad mood. It has been extremely cold and rainy lately, and I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amount of work I “have” to do (although, all that work is all my fault–see my previous post). In a way, the six-month blues have sunk in, where my body is beginning to realize that I’ve been here a really long time but there’s still a while to go before I will be in a country where I can give my grandma a huge hug, talk to salespeople in English, and eat a Chipotle burrito. This morning, I didn’t even want to leave my apartment–the prospect of having a two minute “Dobar dan, kako ste?” (Good morning, how are you?) conversation in Bosnian with the very nice woman who works in reception in my faculty was just too much.
I came in, got my key anyway (and had an entirely painless and pleasant conversation in Bosnian while doing so) and settled in for a long day of individual classes with different professors. I was especially nervous because I was meeting with one of the Arabic professors who I had never worked with before, and I wasn’t sure of her level. Although I soon realized the lesson that I prepared was above her level, it was OK–we ended up just practicing conversation (which is what she wanted to do anyway). I posed what seemed to me to be an innocent question– “Where did you study?”–which of course in Bosnia, with the history of forced relocations and ethnic cleansing, turned out to be incredibly complicated. She told me the condensed version of her war story, which was a sobering reminder of how almost everyone I know here has survived unimaginable horrors. I don’t usually think about this very much anymore (ostensibly because I don’t want my friends to feel like I’m pitying them, but in reality because it’s too intense), but sitting in the safe space of my office and helping her practice English, it felt right to talk about everything, good and bad. The world can be an awful place and humans are capable of doing terrible things to one another, but all of the people that I am honored to call my friends and colleagues here so incredibly strong and resilient and good.
Then, another Arabic professor, who is the closest I have to a “work mom” here, came for her lesson. Like my first lesson, things also derailed into a deep conversation instead of the text and exercises that I had prepared. She is one of my favorite people to teach and to talk to, and we often talk about her time studying and living in Morocco while she completed her master’s degree. Quite honestly, even though I meet many people here who have studied and lived abroad, she is one of the few people who I meet who truly understands everything I am experiencing. We talked today about how living abroad changes you as a person and helps you “find” yourself. At the end of the lesson, she assigned herself homework, as she always does, and I had a quick break before my next meeting.
This impromptu meeting was with one of the philosophy teaching assistants, who has become my go-to source of information at the faculty, and one of my favorite people in all of Sarajevo. He is working with me on reading twentieth century classics of American literature in English. We’ve already revisited one of my absolute favorites (Of Mice and Men) and are now working on Hemingway–who, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had never read before. We usually just go over words (and usually they are the kind of obscure words like types of plants that I completely fail at defining them), but this passage of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” we were reading was particularly powerful, and we kept stopping to underline various lines and or admire Hemingway’s constructions (or he did. Because I’m not a writer or quite honestly much of a thinker, I just sat there and vaguely contemplated, “This is deep.”) For those of you who, like me, avoided Hemingway completely in high school, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is about an American who joins the resistance during the Spanish Civil War and leads a plot to blow up a bridge. Given how important bridges were in the Bosnian war–they were destroyed for symbolic effect in Mostar and for tactical effect in Gorazde–I spent most of our meeting today thinking how ironic it was that I was “teaching” this book to somebody much older than me, much more intelligent than me, and much more experienced in these particular matters. This point was driven home whenever we came across words for particular weapons or military tactics. “I know it’s a part of a gun, but I’ve never seen one before, so I don’t know exactly,” I repeated over and over. I knew I am the only member of the teaching staff at my entire faculty–probably at my entire university–who has the luxury to say that.
After that, I went to debate school uniforms with one of my many groups of first-year students. I had been dreading this debate, and in this class in particular, but it went quite well. The students have gotten used to the fact that I make them stand up and argue in class, and they got really into it. Then I had another “lesson”–really just an extended conversation–with the student services officer, went home for two hours to eat and shower, and came back to my faculty for my Islamic Studies class. Just my typical 12-hour day.
When I look at my schedule, it seems like I am mostly just talking with people and reading books. I jokingly mentioned that to somebody earlier this semester; they responded, “Oh, it must be frustrating, don’t you feel useless?” However, my answer at the time–and my answer now–is still a resounding no. I have never felt less useless. Yes, I spend a large part of my day as an observer, listening to people tell their stories and occasionally helping them find the words to express themselves in English, and that in itself is a powerful thing. I don’t know what concrete work I will accomplish here, but I do know the relationships I have made–with my colleagues, with my students, and with my friends outside the faculty–will continue to affect me long after I have left Bosnia. More importantly, given today’s maddening political climate, what I have learned about Islam–the concrete stories I can tell about students whose families opposed them wearing the hijab or the way my colleagues embrace inter-religious dialogue–will be ever more important as I return to the US. I don’t feel like I am developing any skills here as an employee, but quite frankly, I do not care. For the first time in my life, I feel really passionate about what I am doing–everyday when I come to work, I feel this overwhelming sense of goodness and purpose, and nothing (not university politics or plagiarizing students or even my frustration over the nine cases of the Bosnian language) can take that away.