Prose and film convey vision of Bosnian leader

Play based on a story by Haris Silajdzic tours US. More projects in theworks.

For Bosnian co-prime minister Haris Silajdzic, art and politics often cross paths.

In the play "Hamdibeg," based on a story written by him, art contends with history, mysticism with realpolitik; in the end dignity prevails over tragedy. These elements come together in the resonating image of an ancient poplar tree. After dreams and dramas have unfolded beneath its branches, the tree is cut down on the orders of a petty official. When the play's love story reaches its bittersweet conclusion, Hamdibeg, an artist bereaved during World War II and threatened with imprisonment under the new Communist regime, consoles himself by contemplating his youthful drawings of the poplar.

"Hamdibeg" toured the United States last month in a production by the National Theatre of Tuzla.

Mr. Silajdzic was Bosnia's wartime prime minister and has been a co-leader since December 1996 of the power-sharing government established under the Dayton peace agreement.

During the war, Silajdzic earned a reputation for competence. He exasperated foreign mediators by refusing to accept that a just political solution could be based on ethnic partition.

Presenting the Bosnian war as an ethnic conflict is unjust, "an abridgment of everything," Silajdzic said in a recent interview with the Monitor. "The world has got the wrong picture." The true picture, he says, is of a people struggling to overcome the pitfalls of nationalism and sustain a multiethnic society.

He wants to present this in a film that will follow the fortunes of Bosnians - from Jews who were expelled from 15th-century Spain and found refuge in Sarajevo, to the generations in this century who have experienced the struggle between nationalism and multiculturalism.

"This story bridges continents and time," he says. "I think it's a good idea. I think it would help Bosnia; it would promote real Bosnian values."

Real Bosnian values, Silajdzic argues, are those of cultural harmony and religious tolerance, not strident nationalism. He blames the war on the rise of a political system that "reduced horizons to mere blood and earth, a system that killed off old values but didn't have a replacement."

Before the war, Silajdzic taught philosophy in Sarajevo and Kosovo and lectured in the US and Britain. His fluency in English was an asset when he served as foreign minister from 1991 until his appointment as prime minister in 1993.

In Silajdzic's worldview, ideals mystically prevail over the banality of realpolitik. "We have to have core values, codexes, laws. That's the legalistic side, but there is also love and compassion. There is mercy."

Art, says Silajdzic, is a means of placing suffering in a spiritual context. "I believe there will be an explosion of literature from here when we gain the necessary distance. What happened here is enough for the next century of writing, and we've never been short of talent. The world doesn't know it, but we have a very rich literature. This is a rich country where art is concerned."

"Silajdzic has a superior prose style," says Nermina Kurspahic, editor of the quarterly review Odjek in which some of Silajdzic's stories have appeared. "His personality, his education, and his talent all come through in his writing."

Ms. Kurspahic singles out an early short story, "Stone in the Air," which "touched me personally. It's a modern approach which combines personal experience with the writer's imagination."

The story describes a chance meeting between a young Bosnian student visiting Mexico and an old migr from Sarajevo who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp before gravitating to Latin America. It evokes the enduring and mystical hold that a city - in this case Sarajevo - can exert over disparate lives.

Some argue, though, that art is an inadequate response to tragedy. But "you have to bring an individual's suffering before the eyes of the public in order for people to identify," Silajdzic says.

"Sometimes writing prose," he adds, "you understand that your prose is actually poetry. You can't say what you really want without transcending the lines. Some people say that silence is the only corresponding noise that you can make about such things [mass rape, ethnic cleansing], but I think it must be expressed [on behalf of] those who probably in the last seconds of their lives wanted to tell their story but couldn't."

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