On The Armoire/Against Purity

Saida Hodžić is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. Her book, The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs (University of California Press, 2017) has won the Michelle Rosaldo Book Prize by the Association for Feminist Anthropology and the Amaury Talbot Book Prize for African Anthropology. She is currently working on two book manuscripts, Affective Encounters: Humanitarian Afterlives of War and Violence and For Whom is Africa Rising? Unsettling Transnational Feminism. In non-COVID summers, she studies post-war industrial toxicity and civic environmental activism in Bosnia.

Situate yourself, say the feminists and the anthropologists. Tell us about your positioning, your relationships, the ethical challenges of fieldwork and writing.

I would like to, I understand why you ask, but your map is not my map. Your coordinates were never meant for me –an uninvited woman/native/other who crossed the line. Your analyses of concerns and double binds sound like cleansing, purification. What you register as intensity is but the lower frequency hum of my everyday life. I am an affect alien. The wounds I sense fly under your radar.

So let me tell you a story instead. A story about the twinning of betrayal and enduring love in a dismembered city. A story that begins in Mostar and returns there.

Missing Pieces by Mirna Hodžić

Moving from the asphalt-melting heat into the sudden cool of the entryway, I am greeted by sandučići, the narrow, gray mailboxes, half of which have unfamiliar names on them. New people live here now. Others are stare komšije (old/original neighbors), people who moved in here in 1980, when naša zgrada (our building) was first completed. Forty families spread across ten floors, each in a compact apartment with a balcony, but intermingled and living together, densely and intensely. One day, I will tell a story about each family that lived here, I tell myself.

The elevator clunks on its way up, or am I rattled by the anomaly of what used to be normal? I exit on the third floor but do not turn left, I cannot bear to look at the door with a different name plate. Instead, I ring the bell of our former neighbors, people who helped raise me. Three generations of people who are like family, who are family.

Nasa Zgrada/Our Building


They open the door with wide grins, hug me, and usher me inside. They bring out water, coffee, and treats. We chat and laugh and look at pictures of children and their children. I love them. They love me.

From their armoire, a picture of Franjo Tudjman with the Pope John Paul II looks sternly ahead. Tudjman, the founder of the Croatian ethno-nationalist ruling party and the first President of Croatia, is one of the people responsible for Mostar’s dismemberment. John Paul II lent Croatia his unconditional support and remained silent on state supported concentration camps and “ethnic cleansing” in both Bosnia and Croatia. In the picture, the father of the Croatian ethnonationalist state is tight-lipped grinning, the Holy Father at his side.

Honoring the bond between the two fathers, the picture has been on the armoire for years. I do not know who put it there or who keeps it; in any given family, people neither think nor feel the same. I do know that the war damaged everyone, scooping up soldiers for fodder and spitting out them out, zombified, while their families waited in fear. Nobody in this family masterminded the war or profited from it. The men were summoned to serve in the Bosnian Croat-organized armed forces, but did not rise in the ranks of the ethnonationalists who tore the city apart. Nor did they volunteer to list every building resident with a Muslim name. They did not play extras to fascists, sorting out who would stay and who would be tortured or sent to die. We know who did: the List maker lives on a fifth floor; he too was a neighbor, a friend’s father.

One dawn in the spring of 1993, the people on the list were taken out of their apartments, arraigned and sorted out. The men were to be sent to the concentration camp and the women and children to the “other side,” the besieged part of Mostar, on the left riverbank. Our neighbor from the 7th floor, another friend’s father, protested and was shot point blank, in front of the building. His family knows who killed him.

My grandmothers, two women brought together by war, refuge, and illness, were not expelled to “the other side” in 1993 and were able to remain in our apartment. Our next door neighbors never abandoned them. They cared for them, bringing them fruits and vegetables. Another neighbor gave them his word of protection, though he was unable to shield them from the armed men who came to plunder the apartment and to harass them. My grandmother defended herself: having recognized a young soldier, she asked after his father; no longer nameless and embarrassed by the recognition, the soldier told his friend it was time to leave. In 1997, when the war was officially over, other armed men tried to expel my one remaining grandmother, dumping her somewhere in the Herzegovinian hills. She walked back to town and called higher cops on the cops – she went to the international peacekeeping forces, and told them to take her back to the home she was ardently saving for us. After her death, it was us who betrayed her by giving up on the cruel dream of return to Mostar. We now live under greyer skies, refugees from refuge.

When Pope John Paul II visited Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, after the war, he spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation. The picture on the armoire does not commemorate that visit nor the Pope alone. The twinning of the Pope and Tudjman gives ethno-nationalism a higher purpose and exculpates the sins of war.

The armoires of prewar Mostar were filled with crystal glassware and valued souvenirs, indexing the owner’s class and worldliness. The word “armoire” derives from Latin armarium, a closet for storing tools and arms. What kind of a tool is a picture and what does it serve? I do not think it is meant for me. I wonder who needs the picture today, when ethnonationalism has won? Or has it not won enough?

Prolaz, Sloboda Generalima/Passage, Freedom to the Generals

Ethnonationalism is everywhere – in the affective grammar of everyday life, the minutia of language expression, in clothes, jewelry, songs; the architecture of cities, the names of people and of streets, the distribution of care. The saturation of everyday life with political symbols is age-old. Anti-fascist Yugoslav communism also inserted itself into the streets, homes, and the capillaries of life, moving us to honor its father by hanging Tito’s picture in our living rooms and naming our streets after famed men. Our street used to be named after a Yugoslav People’s Hero, a Jewish anti-fascist and doctrinaire politician called Moše Pijade. We were taught to be proud of it, and I was. Soon after the war, the street was renamed after Ante Starčević, a late 19th century father of Croatian nationalism. Like Tudjman a hundred years after him, he envisioned a Croatian state that swallowed up Bosnia and counted Bosnian Muslims as Croats. Sending a letter to my grandmother and putting his name on an envelope felt like a betrayal.

The picture on the armoire does not hurt me, but it stings. I cannot ask my old neighbors why they keep it or what it means to them – our reunions are warm but delicate; we dance to a code of silence. I do know how the picture speaks to me. It tells me that someone I love keeps alive a dream for which people were moved to list, execute, torture, and exile. It says that the war was necessary and worthwhile. That although you would not have chosen it, and you were damaged by it, you should not regret it. That the wounds, yours and mine, are but an offering, a worthy sacrifice.

If I did not know better, I would ask how people can love you and at the same time uphold dreams premised on annihilating your being, dreams of safety and prosperity in purity. But this question is beside the point – the war destroyed something in all our beings, and so much of what we had knitted to bind us together. It did not destroy all love. Love is not found in the absence of fatal dreams. It exists through them. We are now less of a family not because of that picture, or because we love less, but because we no longer live together.

What I appreciate about the picture is that it says so much and says it openly, in plain sight. I now live in a country that does not announce its murderous intent. I inhabit worlds that understand themselves as anti-nationalist but that dispossess and injure while desiring innocence and striving for purity.

If home is a wound that splits open the world, the wound neither stays open nor heals over. The world rearranges itself. It doubles up on itself. It makes space for the unthinkable and the impure. We live under two moons. Survival dictates to casually deny this, but there are people everywhere who know the truth. I recognize fellow aliens and we nod to each other.

Mušanović: One Dream of Home Chases Another

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