The world is a vast tapestry, and everything in it happens at random. There are no laws, no rules. Chance determines the place each of us holds. In the weaving we are the warp and the knots, and, with an elusive logic, with even some semblance of order though, perhaps, order of a higher kind, these lines are ever crisscrossing and diverging, weaving in and out. There is balance at times in the weaving. For no one thread can be pulled taut and woven in until another thread is unwoven and released. As we said, it is chance that dictates these things.Tonight, in the eighteenth episode of the show Joseph and His Brothers, we will try to provide unusual substantiation for this claim, so you can grasp it no matter how weird, and indeed, disturbing, our example may seem. Our program this evening will be shorter than usual, but that is so that what we say will be all the more concise and understandable. Tonight we speak of the bizarre interplay of coincidence and chance in what actually happens, so accidental and strange, to each of us. Fortunately most of us do not experience the drastic consequences suffered by the heroes of our Sarajevo life stories, the people you will hear about today as our broadcast proceeds.
To demonstrate what we meant by the opening words of today’s show, we have decided, using the statistical sampling method, to pick two men at random among our fellow citizens, two people who at first glance have nothing in common that might suggest one of them might in any way influence the other. When we embarked on this strange project, which has taken up a great deal of time, we had no idea we would be witnessing a finale that only the elusive weaving of fate and chance could knit. Or, is there, in all this, a glimmer of a disturbing sense of underlying order after all? On with our story.
The people we have chosen to be the subjects of our investigation, using a computer-based system of selection, are Sarajevo residents Aleksandar Antonijević and Karim Zaimović. The only given, besides the fact that they are from the same city, is that the two men were born the same year. In their case: 1971. We made sure that there were no further similarities in their biographies, at least not many. So, while Karim Zaimović attended and completed the Milenko Cvitković Elementary School, Aleksandar Antonijević did the same at the Veselin Masleša School. Zaimović went on attend the First High School, while Antonijević could be found at the Second High School. They served the army in different places. Karim spent his army year as an anti-aircraft artilleryman at a Zadar base, while Aleksandar went to the Belgrade School for Reserve Officers, where, by the time he’d finished his service, he had advanced to the rank of reserve lieutenant. All that Karim brought home with him, in contrast, was 80% deafness in his left ear after a target practice episode. Perhaps it was precisely this hearing impairment, a constant buzz in Karim’s ear from that day forward, that provides us with insight into his depressive behavior and periods of slump after he returned from the former Yugoslav People’s Army, evidenced by the fact that he dropped out of the Fine Arts Academy after only one semester. The war found him a student of literature at the local Faculty of Philosophy. Need we add that he apparently used the onset of the war as an excuse to freeze his studies there, temporarily, as well?
Aleksandar Antonijevći, on the other hand, proved to be a diligent student after his return from the army, enrolling and earning his degree in law in better than record time, immediately before the hostilities against Bosnia and Herzegovina began, as if he knew the war was coming. There are several indications, in fact, that Aleksandar did, indeed, know the war was coming. His father had been elected one of the leaders of the Serbian Democratic Party in the first postwar democratic elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When war broke out, Antonijević left Sarajevo with his family and moved to Belgrade, where his father, who stayed behind at party headquarters in Pale, had secured for them a luxurious three-bedroom apartment through his connections and managed to nail his son a job as a young lawyer at the Karic Bank.
There you have thumbnail biographical sketches for Zaimović and Antonijiević to set the stage for our further investigation, especially since it was looking as if the two of them had so little in common that the whole project is bound to be a journalistic flop. But, as we’ve said, fate had it differently.
Even when we did a comparative analysis of what interested them we found that Zaimović and Antonijećvi had no shared interests. To the contrary: they were polar opposites. Aleksandar had always loved sports. He was an active member of a number of clubs, and had a special flair for soccer and basketball. He worked hard on extra-curricular study. By the time he served in the army he was fluent in English, French and Italian. He showed a particular fondness for Yugoslav legends and literature, inherited from his grandfather Stevan, a World War II veteran of the Struggle for National Liberation, a retired colonel, who until his death in 1987 lived with Aleksandar’s family in their spacious apartment in Ciglane, Sarajevo, which Aleksandar’s father Mihajlo had received as one of the highest-level managers at Energoinvest.
Karim, on the other hand, showed a remarkable dislike for any form of sports, not only as participant, but even as observer, and he often shocked his community with the fact that he had only once in his life been to a soccer game. He did, however, show a powerful interest in comic books, which he kept up. By the time chance intersected Aleksandar’s and Karim’s lives he had published some three hundred essays on comic books, making him one of the leading Yugoslav authorities on the subject, though hardly anyone in his surroundings thought this something to boast of. Apparently, judging by certain sources, Karim agreed. At the same time, he seemed unable to stick with almost anything, leaving most of what he started unfinished and, therefore, useless.
Unlike Aleksandar, Karim was no polyglot. Despite his many years of active English study, he made no effort to sustain the skill and ultimately his knowledge was shaky: a typically smooth accent from the movies, his grammar, Mexican at best. As far as Karim’s attempts to learn French and Italian, they are further proof of his inability to stick with things. He abandoned courses in both languages after only a handful of sessions.
Despite inquiries by several teams of collaborators who interviewed those of Aleksandar’s and Karim’s friends and acquaintances who remained in Sarajevo, we have no evidence that they knew each other or had ever run into each other in the places they frequented. Each of them had a different circle, and their stated interests only diminished the chances they’d meet. Had they met, such a fleeting encounter would have had no sway on the investigation which has brought us to devastating information, more than proof that we are all connected in elusive ways, that perhaps a single gesture, someone’s trifling action may drastically shape another person’s life. And so it was with Aleksandar Antonijević and Karim Zaimović.
In our stroll through the biographies of these two randomly selected fellow citizens we have reached the war year of 1992 and the beginning of the attack on Bosnia and Herzegovina, which brought about a drastic divergence between the lives of Aleksandar and Karim.
As we said before, when war broke out Aleksandar left Sarajevo and went to Belgrade, where, at least so he thought, he began a new life. According to data from our underground collaborators in Belgrade who have been observing Aleksandar’s life for the last three months, he did not appear enthusiastic about the Chetnik frenzy, despite his father’s high-ranking position in the so-called government of the so-called Republika Srpska. But there could be no excuse for his total indifference to his native city, now in flames from Chetnik shells. When we now survey the available information, it boggles the mind that Aleksandar, a native of Sarajevo and a city kid, was willing to accept the devastation of his home town, where, by all counts, he had led a happy childhood, where he had been a promising young lawyer and would probably have played first string on the Sarajevo first league basketball team.
Karim, on the other hand, remained in Sarajevo. He often claimed he stayed by choice and that he hadn’t wanted to take advantage of his many opportunities to leave. We, however, may find that he did not leap at these opportunities because despite his young years he did not feel up to the challenge of starting a new life somewhere abroad. At the beginning of the war he spent a period on the police force, then in the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and only then went to work at the BH Dani magazine, where he was one of the editors until the fateful events we are speaking of today. He lived a life typical of every average Sarajevo citizen, and he made the truce of February 19 alive thanks to good luck and, judging by statements from his closest circle, to his family’s exceptional organizational skills.
What jumps out at us at this point, one of the apparently random factors that led to creating the fatefully bizarre connection between his life and Aleksandar’s, was that Karim was a regular on the popular radio station The Wall on Radio Sarajevo. He wrote and led the show Joseph and His Brothers, from Saturday to Saturday. At first the show was something of a quasi-cultural commentary based exclusively on fabricated facts. But the show gradually evolved into a series of fabulous investigations which Karim conducted, disclosing to his listeners an entire collection of hitherto unknown phenomena such as the Sarajevo vampire, gigantic rats in catacombs under the city, and so forth.
He would be doing this to this day had it not been for a broadcast of his on March 12, 1994. His guests that day were the singing ensemble Omiš from Trogir, Croatia, and this was the link that finally intersected the random threads of Aleksandar’s and Karim’s lives, until then unrelated. From then on, chance, some call it fate, would take control of the further weaving.
What really happened? It is difficult to speak of this with certainty. Several suppositions remain. But thanks to our team of logistics experts, we have managed to reconstruct a version fairly close to the actual events, which culminated in a way even the most imaginative mind could never have devised. What, indeed, really happened?
As we said, the broadcast of Joseph and His Brothers on The Wall, Radio Sarajevo, March 12, 1994, served Karim Zaimović as an opportunity to host the Omiš singing ensemble, a quartet of jovial men from Dalmatia who touched the genuine sympathies of those listening to the show, the numbers of which had been growing steadily from Saturday to Saturday. But there also were people who listened to this episode of The Wall and many other Sarajevo radio shows who had been drafted or were serving as volunteers in the ranks of the self-proclaimed Serbian army that had besieged the city. So chance would have it that twenty-two year old Sarajevo native Dobrilo Nikolić was listening to the show that Saturday. He had gone off to the Serbian stronghold of Pale in April 1992 to join the Chetnik army as a volunteer. As the years of the war went by, Nikolić lost more and more of his Serbian fervor, and ended up a resigned loser, without any hope for the future but to do his time for an undetermined number of years in his ragged uniform.
To his astonishment, as he listened to the broadcast, Dobrilo recognized one of the guests. It was Jura of the Omiš ensemble, a man in whose home Dobrilo had often stayed with his family over summer vacation. But the person Dobrilo instantly recalled was none other than Aleksandar Antonijević. They were the same age and they’d played together on the coast in the summertime, in Trogir, since Antonijević’s family had stayed in the home of that same nice man, Jure, from Trogir. Nikolić, who had had no contact with Aleksandar for years, wondered what was up with his long-lost friend. When he was free to leave the front line in Grbavica, he happened to hear that Aleksandar’s father was, in fact, one of the big shots up in Pale. This sparked a plan in Dobrilo, weary from combat and the futility of his prospects for a future, which loomed uncertain yet tangible.
He dug up Aleksandar’s phone number in Belgrade and called him. It took Aleksandar a few minutes to place Dobrilo Nikolić, but when he remembered, he greeted his old summertime buddy with real warmth. We can conclude that Aleksandar was pleased. It had been a long time since he’d been in touch with anyone from Sarajevo. His enthusiasm was, apparently, genuine, because to Dobrilo’s amazement Aleksandar accepted Nikolić’s invitation to visit him in Grbavica on Saturday, when Dobrilo, it seems, was going to put together a birthday bash with some of Aleksandar’s other old friends. In fact Dobrilo’s plan was simple. He wanted to use his tenuous acquaintance with Aleksandar to get through to Antonijević’s father and wangle some kind of release from the army.
And so it was that on March 19th, Aleksandar was in Grbavica.
We are not able to reconstruct in its entirety Aleksandar’s behavior that Saturday. But the result of it was that the two of them, Dobrilo and Aleksandar, were under the influence of a large amount of alcohol by noon, and perhaps there were other intoxicants involved as well, which Aleksandar could easily have brought with him from Belgrade. Around 6:00 pm, Dobrilo decided to take Aleksandar up to the Serbian positions above Sarajevo, and thanks to Aleksandar’s influential surname, they received permission to visit the positions the UNPROFOR had lost control of, where there were already Serbian heavy weapons trained on the city. Stretching out on ground warmed by the spring sun next to an anti-aircraft gun, they began downing a bottle of whisky which Aleksandar had been given that morning by his father, who was overjoyed to see his son, until then so indifferent to the Serbian cause, on the very hilltops overlooking what he was fond of calling “Muslim Sarajevo,” the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At that very moment Dobrilo, who always carried a portable radio with him, happened to turn on The Wall just as the show Joseph and His Brothers was starting, led by Karim Zaimović, the other random subject of our investigation this evening, on that Saturday, March 19, 1994.
And what was on the show that day? Not much. It was one of those days when Karim had no clear idea right up to when he had to go on the air of what, precisely, his topic would be. Just before the show began it occurred to him to talk about how everything is random and nothing conforms to rules, that everything influences everything else. He made up the name Aleksandar Antonijević on the spot and decided to fabricate this character’s biography, and then he would compare the imagined man to himself as part of the show, an idea which, to be fair, was not so very original.
What inspired Karim to choose such a theme? A desire for self-promotion, perhaps? We cannot be sure. More likely it was his subconscious producing this idea in a crunch. He sketched it on a piece of paper, wondering as he did whether it might be better to call the producer last minute with some excuse about feigned illness and postpone the broadcast to give him time to flesh it out. Had he done that, things would have ended differently than they did.
But chance, indeed, intended for there to be a real Aleksandar Antonijević out there, and for him to be listening just when his biography was being aired on Joseph and His Brothers. He flew into a rage, wondering what had given this fellow Karim the right to talk about Aleksandar’s life. So everything was set for the final act in the play of chance, when one thread is released so that another can be drawn into the weaving of fate.
If Clinton hadn’t become the American president, who knows whether at precisely this very moment a truce would have been signed between the Bosniaks and the Croats. And had it not been for that truce, the Omiš singing ensemble from Trogir, Croatia, would not have come to perform in Sarajevo as guests on the show Joseph and His Brothers. Had they not been there as guests, Dobrilo Nikolićl would not have recognized one of the members of the ensemble as his old Dalmatian host, Jure, and he would never have had occasion to remember his friend Aleksandar Antonijević. He wouldn’t have invited him, as he did, that Saturday to visit Grbavica, and chances are Aleksandar wouldn’t have accepted the invitation that day if Dobrilo hadn’t nudged his memories of Jure and those days in Trogir. He would not, therefore, have been up there that Saturday, March 19, 1994, at one of the rare positions around Sarajevo eluding UNPROFOR control, and he would not have been drunk while they listened to the closing words of the show Joseph and His Brothers in which Aleksandar, the Aleksandar on the radio, whom Karim thought to be an imaginary character, was about to do something fateful.
Up on the hills around Sarajevo Aleksandar didn’t wait to hear what it was he was about to do. He was so incensed and drunk that he jumped to the gun and shot off a projectile into Sarajevo, deliberately flouting the cease-fire. And precisely at ____ o’clock, as Karim Zaimović was wrapping up his broadcast, saying that Aleksandar would lob a shell at random into the city, the random shell that Aleksandar fired found its way, by chance, to the studio. By a strange twist of fate, without hurting anyone else, it shot straight into the booth where the speaker was sitting. This was the end of the broadcast of the eighteenth episode of Joseph and His Brothers, in which . . .
Translator’s note: This story, under the title “Bez naslova” (No Title), first appeared in Evakuacija: izbor suvremene price autora iz BiH (Evacuation: A Selection of Contemporary Short Stories by Writers from Bosnia and Herzegovina), ed. Dragoslav Dedović, Feral Tribune, 1999. The story is, in fact, the transcript of a radio show broadcast by Karim Zaimović, on The Wall, Radio Sarajevo, in the spring of 1994, very much as he describes in the story. In a way that transcends irony, Zaimović was, indeed, killed a year later in Sarajevo in August 1995 by sniper fire, just a few months before the Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina that fall. By then his radio show had become a fixture of wartime Sarajevo life, both for his listeners who were besieged inside the city and for those who listened, most of them roughly his age, while they shelled Sarajevo from the outlying hills. This translation is published with the permission of Karim Zaimović‘s parents, the holders of his copyright.
Published by arrangement with the estate of Karim Zaimović. Translation copyright 2008 by Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.