Where a dazed memory meets the solid fact: THE PHOTO THAT WASN’T THERE

Apart from the Praktika I tore into the smallest pieces at age six, my first real photo experience was our great grandmother Zarifa’s hundredth birthday.

Not much to say there: the tiny, chain-smoking woman wrapped in traditional Muslim clothes was the commander-in-chief of our big family, which was always producing more history that we could handle. Uncles and aunts fought fascism and injustice all their lives, killed and were killed, wore medals, war wounds and tattoos from Auschwitz, survived other concentration camps and prisons.

At that August day we all gathered at her house – the “tower”, we called it – to pay respects and hold our big annual gathering. Aunt Murta would make her pie, Dajdza (uncle) Alija would re-tell his hero stories, my beloved grandmother Mukadeza, Zarifa’s oldest child, would make sure all goes according to the protocol.

The protocol? Yes, protocol indeed: such a big and important meeting, a session of our family’s politburo and chamber of commerce, needed a protocol. Who is doing what, who brings who and what is on the discussion board – all had to be agreed and pre-arranged.

Especially the photo session. The execution of the photograph, the honor and responsibility, was granted to Ferid, aunt Murta’s husband and a respected university professor. He is not “our blood”. He is, just like my father, only an acquisition for the big Hadzovic family. Thus the job will be done properly and professional, no one will be priviledged.

Ferid had a pocket camera, one of those fashionable at the time that made tiny negatives and awful, grainy images. Not a problem – we always wanted to have the latest gadget, no matter how stupid it was.

The real problem was how to arrange the picture! Who is going to sit where, who is next to the big woman, is it daughters and sons together or daughter/son-in-law combination? Where are the kids – in front or behind? Children of sons, those who carry family name, or just oldest ones closer to Zarifa? Is it going to be behind that big table, what about all the food and drinks?

Ferid, our Fellini for a day, had a nightmare job to do. You would think it is just point and shoot? Not in this case. This had to be directed first and the whole scene really looked like one from a Fellini movie – everyone talking at the same time, giving directions and suggestions, moving left or right, in front or behind, for a good half an hour. It lasted so long that the traditional iron oven, in which Murta’s pie was being cooked, exploded in our summer kitchen, threatening to break up the party. The roof of the kitchen was gone, and so was our lunch, and the big woman Zarifa had had enough. The picture has to be taken now!

I used confusion to steal my cousin’s air rifle and destroyed its barrel by shooting tiny, sharp pebbles. I didn’t get caught, but still my great-grandchild’s spot was at the very corner of the family frame.

All that drama for just a happy snap, the child in me was thinking. Years later, when photography had become my profession and the camera my tool, not just a gadget to play with, I understood it all. It was more than a happy snap. It was the big proof that we existed as a family, that we were big and strong. It was proof of how tightly we stood together.

A few months later my great-grandmother Zarifa fall from the stairs inside her “tower” and broke her hip. The bone would not heal, her health was deteriorating. She had to be moved to the home of her oldest daughter, my grandmother. In accordance with family tradition, Zarifa died at her daughter’s home aged hundred and something.

The family’s last big gathering was her funeral. It took place not far from the tower where she spent her life with two husbands – the first was killed in World War I, the second was his brother – and their six children. But the last big happy picture was the one Ferid shot on that hot August day in the shade of our family’s headquarters.

And then, as it happens to every generation in our beloved but barbaric country, another war broke in 1992. Trebinje, one of the most beautiful towns in that part of the world, was “ethnically cleansed”. That awful term, invented and operated by bunch of fascists and war criminals, meant all the Muslims were to be kicked from their homes, some killed, never to come back. Camps and prisons again – for the fifth time in Dajdza Alija’s life – and the family was on the run, seeking refuge far from home, from neighboring Montenegro to far and cold Sweden. Our tower was abandoned and soon after we heard, true or not, that pigs were being kept there.

Later in my life, I’ll see many families on the run, refugees fleeing their homes, and very often the only possession they’ll carry to the unknown was the family photo album. Money and gold would be stripped by criminals or spent to survive. But pictures, the proof and reminder of a previous life, had to be saved.

Good we kept ours. My mother, a brilliant physiology student and a woman very focused on her duties, had it all saved in shoe boxes under the bed.

Fast forward a decade – a cold, grey January in Sarajevo. I had just come back from Palestine. Our family picture, so important to me, was always on my mind while I documented the horror and sorrow of others. I asked my mother to get it out from the “archive”.

To our great surprise and disappointment, the photo was not to be found. It’s gone, no-one knows where is it. Looking for someone else’s copy was not an option; the family had literally fallen apart, with many dead or too far away. We had to have our own.

Another piece of documented history was gone. But I had my memory, sharp and accurate. I didn’t need two independent witnesses, like when you had to prove your identity with the authorities after the big war. Everything was recorded in my mind.

Every detail from that non-existent picture triggers an avalanche of feelings, shapes, smells and sounds of our family. Grandmother’s invisible look scanning the scene for possible “shame” that should be hidden; the beauty of our garden; a frozen grimace on the face of an older causin and the chewing-gum that was hiding her aging teeth with its awful sweet stench; the ignorance and boredom of younger cousins, our great happiness and joy – it was all there to remain, despite the fact the paper proof is gone. I have projected it so many times on the screen inside my head that I don’t need another reminder.

That was until a year ago. Then my mother called with surprise news – she had found the photo! It was hidden beneath some newspaper clippings, land deeds and certificates that were kept for no reason. That was the very same grainy (now very pale) photo from that August day.

It would take another few months until I went back to Sarajevo and the photo was finally in my hands. What a shock that was. The photo was nothing like I remembered! No big family, no drama, no Fellini. Just us visiting Zarifa, another happy snap from the past.

So, what happened? I had built a myth, that’s what happened. I had recreated the event from my own past based on a dazed and fragile memory. I had painted the scene and the picture myself, the way I wanted it to be. I had made it all up.

My cousins are not there. Dajdza Alija is not in the photo but Ferid the Fellini is (I’m just behind him). So, who took the picture? It doesn’t really matter anymore. There are only nine of us in the frame – I expected at least thirty – plus a shadow to the right that we can’t identify. I’m not even sure now that it was Zarifa’s hundredth birthday, although my mother insists it was.

Here it is now. Here is the proof of how fragile our memory is, what people do when the only document is gone or ignored. It hurts but it’s all right. That is the power of the picture over the memory, the power of facts over the interpretation. It did to me what I hope my pictures will do to others: document an important past, no matter how little we like it.

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  1. sjajno! podseca na Julian Barnsovu ‘Sense of an ending’.
    pozdrav iz Valjeva

  2. Very nice… Start of a personal project on a large scale? It’s fascinating, and scary, ones we start to dig into our memory, and the documents of the past… I tried it too: http://veliborbozovic.com/book/my-prisoner/… Are you going to be in Sarajevo sometimes in October, or early November? Veliki pozdrav.

  3. Reblogged this on atelibecirevic.

  4. great personal reflection how the memory is unfixed and has a life of its own. always.

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