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Report from Sarajevo
Dane R. Gordon reports from the Bosnian Paradigm Conference, November 18-20 1998.
Itravelled to Sarajevo in November to attend a conference entitled ‘Bosnian Paradigm’. It was not specifically a philosophy conference, although many philosophers from different countries in Europe and the US took part, and philosophical themes were evident throughout.
A paradigm is a standard, a norm, a framework, something to copy, a guide. By those definitions Bosnia is a strange choice of paradigm. As reported recently the country has not yet freed itself from its totalitarian past. It wants the advantages of free market democracy, but lacks the political will and structural probity to do what needs to be done to achieve it. Nor is it easy to be a philosopher in Bosnia in the Socratic tradition of critical inquiry and open mindedness. The philosophical perspectives of the Communist era are still favoured by a number of the older and therefore more senior professors. Proposals for new curricula and for visiting speakers from other countries are met with reserve, often enough that the younger university teachers are inclined to go about their jobs, and keep their ideas to themselves. Yet despite all this a case can be made for a Bosnian paradigm.
On our way to Sarajevo’s airport at 5:30am to begin our flight home the taxi driver left the main road and took a back route through streets of shattered houses. It was a desolate scene, perhaps more so in the early dawn, yet every now and then we passed a house with lights on, intact enough for a family to live there. Travelling from Brcko to Tuzla last Spring I saw an elementary school, destroyed, except for one corner on the ground floor which had been patched up for a classroom. I saw other such examples. The Bosnian paradigm in these respects is a paradigm of courage (like, for those who remember, London during the Blitz) a paradigm of persisting, surviving, of not allowing the most terrible violence to destroy what makes a society human, which is more than its physical life. A paradigm, perhaps, of the indestructibility of the human spirit.
Across the road from the Holiday Inn restaurant, where I ate lunch, stood the burnt-out shell of a multi-story building,and next to it a part of the University of Sarajevo where the faculty of philosophy is housed. My colleague, who teaches there, whose home where I stayed last Spring was struck by a shell, taught philosophy throughout the war, in basements usually and in less obvious buildings. Some of his students were in the army. During the day they served at the front line, about two hundred metres from the University building. At night they attended class, often by candlelight. “All men by nature desire to know.” wrote Aristotle. That desire was not extinguished in Sarajevo. My wife, Judy, visited various elementary schools. During bombardments the children were taken in groups of five or six to different basements. Teachers would walk or run from group to group to conduct classes. The importance of children’s education was referred to by various speakers during the Conference. It is a truism, more obviously crucial in Bosnia than perhaps in other countries, that the future of a country is its children.
The Bosnian Paradigm Conference Committee had accepted a large number of papers so that at the Round Table in which I took part, actually a square of long tables, there were fifty participants. Each was given ten minutes, with a gentle tap tap on a tumbler when our time was up. We all found this frustrating, some more than others. A few were so committed to the importance of what they had written that they ignored the discreet warning signals, and read their whole paper though with such speed, that those who knew the language could not follow and the translators could not keep up.
But despite what seemed to be an impossible situation, with seven Round Tables, three Discussion Groups, hours of continuous reading, for the most part no discussion, in some respects a conference nightmare, it worked. Many of the papers, even in their apocopated form, were clearly well done. A Proceedings is to be published so we can read the full texts later. The most identifiably philosophical topics had to do with ethics, not surprising when Bosnia’s recent past has been so brutal. Issues of moral behaviour, of respect, and trust were examined by several participants. One speaker, a sociologist, presented the results of 112 interviews with Sarajevans, many of them young people, on their experience of trust and mistrust in the city. Despite some evidence that trust is reemerging, the current situation is not encouraging. One of the Panel Discussions was concerned with language, a sensitive issue in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnians, Serbians, and Croats speak the same language, but inevitably with a difference in dialect as in the UK between Lancashire, Wales, Devonshire, and London. In Bosnia the differences may identify a speaker as friend or enemy, whether or not that is true, sometimes with lethal consequences. One paper described the destruction of books, not only in the Sarajevo University Library, whose remains were within walking distance of the Conference, but in libraries throughout Bosnia, and personal libraries, deliberately vandalized. Librarians are now trying to assemble copies, made earlier of the now destroyed originals.
Other papers addressed religious issues, trying to suggest ways by which the three faiths, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, generally suspicious of one another, often antagonistic, could develop mutual respect and understanding. One paper, no doubt optimistic, suggested that as religions worldwide evolve, the differences between one and another will grow less. The writer admitted it would be a slow process.
My colleague invited me to one of his philosophy classes. He first had to obtain formal written permission, and was a little surprised he was able to get it, and to get it so quickly. I spoke about what I regard as the importance of philosophy in one’s life and how a philosophical approach is helpful in any matter. My colleague began to translate, but then the students stopped him. They could understand, they said, without a translator. Students begin their study of English in the fourth grade. My wife discovered that children in the fifth grade could understand a good deal of what she said so long as she spoke slowly.
In conversations with a number of people, not all of them teachers, I encountered a sense of foreboding about the future of Bosnia. One of my philosophy colleagues at Sarajevo University argued that very small countries, such as Bosnia, threatened by larger countries, can maintain their existence only by war. War is the adrenaline which provides the small country with its national purpose. My cautious suggestion that in this increasingly interrelated world there could be another way was met by a polite but determined rejection.
Perhaps the Bosnian Paradigm Conference itself, the majority of whose participants were from Bosnia, may be the evidence that there is or could be another way. As much as I encountered foreboding in individual conversations the prevailing tone of the Conference was optimistic. During the final plenary session, the Conference president, Dr Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, gave an eloquent and moving address. In the course of this he paid tribute to the many young people of Sarajevo who had provided all kinds of supportive services during the Conference. I had noticed them; they were helpful and enthusiastic. Four years ago one of these young people was seriously wounded during a bombardment. Her doctor told her (I was listening to a simultaneous translation) that she had “discarded legs”, in other words that she could not use them again. But she is using them. To me that story itself was a paradigm of what we can hope, even though cautiously, that Bosnia will achieve.
© Professor Dane R. Gordon
Dane Gordon is a Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York