Jen´s Blog is one of those I always like to return to. Here is her post where she makes the concept of sevdah more familiar to her fellow North-Americans. I appreciate each effort which opens a window of opportunity for getting to know and understand each other better and which promotes respect for and acceptance of the Other. Therefore I am glad to introduce Jen here. Jen also speaks Jezik and I am sure she doesn´t mind if your comments are either in English or Jezik.
Yesterday I attended a fun-filled family Christmas in Belle Plain, MN, with a side of family which is anything but boring and had a great time. Afterwards I went out with a very influential person in my life: my cousin Kari. She was the big sister I never had and drinking Jameson, reminiscing, and catching up with her was just what I needed.
A lot of us were able to attend the holiday feast this year although we missed those who were not there. For example, my 24-year-old cousin who moved to Trinidad for the business of computers did not make it. He makes a lot of money by U.S. standards, but he’s off the charts wealthy compared to most locals. The tall blond-haired, blue-eyed guy lives in a gated community and was initially shocked by, among other things, how little people in his office worked, and by how much people in Trinidad stand around and seem completely unaware of time. After a few months, he has come to be more patient with the different work ethic and just in general. He gives his Trinidadian employees realistic work goals (12 hours/week which will increase over time) and a sense of pride in their work. With help from computers, big screen TVs, and webcams, he was able to open Christmas presents with the family transnationally.
The conversation about Trinidad reminded me of a post I’ve been working on a for a while. One of the points that many former Yugoslavs and I discuss in regards to the differences between life here (U.S.) and there (former Yugo) is the concept of sevdah. According to this website, the most accurate translation is that it is an Arabic word from the Ottomans, that means love, desire, or ecstasy. It is also a form of music.
In my own translation, the word means a deeply felt existential enjoyment as well as a form of resistance against domination, an attitude that says a) we will survive, b) we will find humor and/or fun while doing it, c) there’s more to life than work, and d) community is important. Sevdah definitely does not have to do with buying a lot of things; it has to do with community. M. described it as living in poverty but sharing a cigarette with friends and not worrying about tomorrow. For many people, this is not a choice; it is not laziness, it is a necessary attitude of survival. The meaning cannot truly be translated because the concept is historical and cultural and does not fit the U.S.A.’s history or cultural foundations (post-Columbus) of the protestant work ethic combined with the myth of the American dream, advanced capitalism, and individualism. There was a letter to the editor in Fargo warning people if they did not continue to pursue the American Dream by proudly working 60 hours per week, they would end up like lazy Europeans who take too much vacation (anti-sevdah among other things).
In Bosnia, I learned how to relax. There was forced relaxation time in my office. Often times I would be the only one working at my computer while others played computer games (something my cousin in Trinidad also mentioned). At 4:00, my colleagues would yell at me and say, “Jenny, leave that computer right now and come drink coffee with us. Light a cigarette and come over here!”. I appreciate that now. Sometimes I did there too, but I often also asked them in my head, “don’t you have work to do!?” I admit this very reluctantly, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I found it incredibly difficult to rid myself of this line of thinking and being aware of our differing cultural perspectives on work made things worse as my psychosocial analysis spun out of control. But, again, sevdah is about community. Drinking coffee alone in a place like the former Yugo is a painstakingly lonely concept/practice. Few would choose to do such a thing, which is why I got a lot of strange glances the first time I tried to go out and drink coffee in Zenica alone. Boze sacuvaj.
My family said yesterday that it would be nice to not have to worry about answering every phone call, every email, to not have to work incessantly or think about work - maybe those people are healthier than we are, they said. There was no mention of poverty, slavery, of globalization’s sketchy impacts on people, or how little power and authority “those people” have compared to those who unquestionably tout the beliefs of advanced capitalism, and I’m pretty sure my ruminations on such issues would not have helped anything (not that we are not a loud, political family cuz we are and it’s great), so I listened and tried to remember my own frustrations at my lack of sevdah awareness.
It didn’t take long to loose all appreciation for sevdah when I came back to the States. After three months in my parents’ basement chain smoking and crying for Bosnia, I began to again feel that pervading sense of urgency I grew up with, that if I’m not working, then I’m not worth a thing. So I became a social worker. And then, for pete’s sake, I went to grad school where they taught me how to critique capitalism by giving me a lot of work with little pay or promise of future employment unless I gave up everything in my life except academia. For cryin’ out loud. (Okay, no one actually told me to give up everything else but it’s not easy to have a healthy, balanced life in academia any more or less than elsewhere, or am I totally off base here?)
M., the former Yugoslav Romani man I spoke with last week explained that when people call him from abroad and ask what life in the U.S. is like, he says in a melancholy voice, “it’s alright. There are jobs, nice houses, cars, good schools, ways to make money, you know…but there’s no sevdah.” M. is thinking about moving back to the former Yugoslavia as soon as next year.
So, I leave you with a question, rhetorical or literal. Is there sevdah in your life? Do you have a sense of community, of belonging, of enjoyment and satisfaction? Do you think about working more than not? Do you, like me, ever critique those who push (or offer) their work ethic onto others in the name of prosperity and civilization, but have a difficult time not working yourself? Maybe it’s just me. I’m probably thinking about all of this because I haven’t been working in over a week. I argued with myself about my sense of urgency to return to Fargo. I mean what’s wrong with taking some time off for family and friends? Not a damn thing, I think. But I am back in Fargo and ready to work, keeping in mind that I love my job.