All about normal

“That’s not normal,” Aiša said agitatedly, as her arms moved upwards only to return down and slap her legs. “Tell me, how can it be normal?” Her voice had elevated a pitch or two from the previous phrases. Emin agreed, nevertheless he wasn’t sure what exactly was abnormal about it. Maybe the norm, which had meticulously been reproduced under constant individual revision through years of bodily movements, was becoming displaced. Or, the norm she was referring to was one that all should abide by, but most didn’t seem to care for anymore. Then again, all could produce the norm, each time anew, thus coming closer to how normal could be rewritten as norm-all.

All these thoughts gyrated through his mind as she continued to express her disbelief by the state of everyday life in this transitory city. A city locked in a movement between past and future without actually coming close to a present. To be in the present would imply that she hoped for a better future, but all she did was yearn, painstakingly. Aiša lived in a punctuated time and space somewhere between here and there connected to a place called Sarajevo by a set of shifting trickster lifelines.

Her work, as a schoolteacher, was there only to “earn a living and survive;” her family resembled a Sisyphean rock that needed to be pushed up the hill as the day progressed only to roll back down by nightfall; her engagement with the oppositional political party was more a pragmatic exercise of building up a network of people because she didn’t “care about Politics.” At the end “when the masks fall, they’re all the same shit.” Viscerally Emin was inclined to agree, but he wasn’t sure what to make of that statement exactly. Surely, we are all political animals, as one Asian-rendered-European wrote once in a distant time and place not so far from their own locality. Thus, not caring about party Politics doesn’t stop it, or any other form of politics, from invading every molecule of our being. Probably, his own educational background in Western philosophy inhibited him from giving her words a proper place for themselves.

As the two workers entered the apartment on the ninth floor the conversation shifted direction to a more neutral topic, if there exists such a thing. Aiša started joking with them about the time she also ordered a new sofa and the workers forgot their screwdrivers. “Please don’t tell me you forgot your tools.” Emin was sitting on a chair, accompanying the table they had moved to the wall 30 minutes earlier to make room for the new sofa, feeling a bit awkward. He didn’t exactly know what to say to the guys so he stood up and proposed to make coffee. “What are you saying,” Aiša asked him with slight amazement. “Sit down, I’ll make the coffee.” Emin tried to refuse the implied gendered role division and said “who do you think makes the coffee here when you’re not around? You do know that I can make coffee and that I cook,” he said with a smile. “But, you don’t know how to make Bosnian coffee,” she responded to his smiling critique.

It mustn’t be normal for him to do any informal underappreciated work in front of these formal working men. Or, maybe Aiša just genuinely thought that Emin couldn’t prepare a proper local coffee. After all, he wasn’t raised there. And where he lived Senseo coffee machines were the primary providers of authentic coffee. So he sat back down feeling uncomfortable with this norm that clearly didn’t work well for all.

When Aiša opened the tap the noise ringing from the kitchen was similar to a car engine approaching from a distance. Sometimes it takes a second or two for the water to run out because it gets cut off on irregular moments, mostly at night. “Last night they closed the water,” Emin said, explaining the sound. “I know. For fuck sake, I don’t get why they have to close it with all the sources we have in Bosnia,” Aiša responded, lifting her voice above the running water. The hammer hits from the sofa-in-construction were also competing for Emin’s attention by now. Together they created a buzz that made it hard to distinguish which sound to favor.

Perhaps that’s what the norm is alike. A constant flow of sounds, most of it distracting, all roaring on a hierarchical continuum to grab our attention. And we, the individuals, attune to and disapprove of this cacophony continuously.

Opening Pandora’s jar of pain & grief

It’s 4 a.m. and I cannot sleep. How I wish this wasn’t a recurring theme in recent years, but, alas. I need to get some thoughts of my mind concerning my fieldwork, semester abroad, thesis work, uncertainties, in other words, life quandaries in general.

Past summer, after I visited the mass graveyard in Potočari (Srebrenica) and my birthplace Višegrad, I wrote a blog post about my experiences of those places of pain. Visiting them opened up a jar that has led to some unexpected results. I hoped that by being there I could invoke a much needed healing process for myself, and in many ways I did. But running over the last six months makes me realize that it had extraordinarily debilitating effects as well.

From September until January I spent time in Montréal for a semester abroad. This was supposed to be an all out positive learning experience whereby I could explore the North American educational system while soaking in the ‘multicultural’ tastes of the city. Unfortunately that’s not exactly how it went down. I did meet wonderful people, and the experience in its totality was an interesting learning school. But, at the same time, it was there that my unprocessed feelings kicked in and culminated into a deep state of haze. Before, I had experienced similar feelings of existential numbness, but never in such a prolonged manner and with such negative effects on my productive capacities relating to university work. It seemed that I was incapable of writing anything coherent that would pass the academic approval stamp.

Fast forward some months and here I am reflecting on the still lingering haze. I am reminded of Renato Rosaldo’s experience of losing his wife and how that informed his understanding of Ilongot Heandhunter’s rage. Less than a month later he wrote in his journal about the initial moment: “I felt like in a nightmare, the whole world around me expanding and contracting, visually and viscerally heaving” (171). Maybe his work resonates so deeply with me because I have a similar feeling relating to the effects of my fieldwork on me. Similarly, I share the idea that juxtaposing my experiences about uncertainty, violence, and pain can inform me about those of the participants’ I engaged with.

To do this, I first need to let my own experiences find a place of acceptance, which is much easier said than done. In order to let free the hope that was left inside Pandora’s jar I need to decenter my logocentrism to let my body feel and speak, as it obviously needs to deal with some shit, in order to better relate to the subtleties of everyday intimate embodied violence in Sarajevo. Because, when the body talks it often whispers, and whispers are only heard if you lean in close enough. Unless you can read lips of course…

Crap ‘intellectuals’ say & do

Not so long ago I attended a seminar with the appealing title What is the Matter with Sociology? A Seminar on being a public intellectual. The ‘intellectual’ who was going to enlighten us on this occasion was Sudhir Venkatesh, and on the event page he was described as a “William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology and member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Dr. Venkatesh is known for his best-selling urban ethnographies, including Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets winner of the Best Book award from The Economist…”

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of him before the public lecture he gave the day before. I was intrigued by his research topic, and attending the lecture and seminar seemed like a righteous way to procrastinate from working on my thesis.

His talk mostly centered on his research concerning youth violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. I haven’t read the book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets so it’s not my intention to criticize or support the main arguments of this work. Even though, I am amazed at the self-aggrandizing title, not to mention the cover picture with him taking on a tough pose next to a staircase. Blessed be the tenured professor, who daily loadeth us with intellect, even the God of our salvation. Selah (Psalm 68:19 – my interpretation). Excuse my cynicism, or don’t, but, it’s not to be interpreted as an all out negation of the tremendous integrity many in that privileged position do display!

Be that as it may, in this short stream of thought I want to highlight a peculiar distressing thought he displayed after I posed a question regarding his own upbringing in an upper middle class milieu and the way it relates to his research participants. I was pointing to the ways he positions himself among them, which the naive and foolish me thought would be in some sort of friendships. I know, strange of me to assume that the people ‘researchers’ spend so much time with in the field could be considered friends.

He went on to explain that he doesn’t consider them as friends, even though, he is godfather to some of their children. He is after all a scientist, and in order to produce valuable data (you know for the sake of the state – Staatswissenschaft/statistics) one cannot become too intimate with the subjects. Lest we forget, the governing/governed dichotomy should not be undermined too much!

Seemingly the legion of feminist and post-colonial critiques on such an objectifying and dehumanizing gaze have not penetrated to all upper echelons of the intellect.

This piece is not meant to single out one person. I simply used this example because it was the latest one I encountered in a long list of crap ‘intellectuals’ say and do.