Interview with Hajrudin Somun
There he was, a charming man with deep blue eyes, a kind face and a smile. His name is Hajrudin Somun, which means "the best religion,” is pronounced Hayrudin in Bosniac, Khairuddin in Arabic, Khairoldeen in Persian, and Hayrettin in Turkish.
The son of an Imam, he calls his name appropriate for a good leftist!
I met Hajrudin Somun in Sarajevo at the 6th biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS), held in September 2013 in this most beautiful city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a city known for its tolerance for its many ethnic and religious minorities until it suffered a horrible three-year siege and brutal ethnic cleansing during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Sarajevo was ravaged, its citizens targeted by snipers, its men and boys shot to death en masse, and its women raped in “rape camps.” Serb forces torched its main library, but 10,000 old manuscripts were saved by the courage of a few good men and women.
Hajrudin wrote in the daily Zaman, “Karadzic should be sentenced for ‘culturecide’ as well." In May 16, 1992, Bosnian Serbs attacked the Oriental Institute at the order of the Serb leader, intentionally burning one of the richest European collections of Islamic and Ottoman manuscripts.
In the early 1990s, Sarajevo dealt with death and destruction but through amazing resilience, rose again to become the cultural hub that it used to be, the gathering place of different religions, and a major tourist attraction. While I heard the azan or call to prayer from a mosque nearby, the church bells were echoing in another part of the city. A Jewish synagogue caters to some 700 remaining Jews. Life is pretty much back to normal in Sarajevo but the wounds of war are still visible on many of its buildings, some of which are left half standing while others continue to be pock-marked by bullet holes.
Under the shadow of the tall mountains that surround the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I had the chance to talk to Hajrundin Somun.
Give us a background of yourself. In what capacity have you been involved in politics and diplomacy?
I am a retired ambassador, born in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1937. A graduate from the University of Sarajevo in Oriental Languages, I have spent half of my working life in journalism and the other half in diplomacy. I was a war reporter for a number of years, specialized in the Middle East region, with a focus on Palestinian and Kurdish issues. As a diplomat, I have served in former Yugoslav embassies in Baghdad, as political counselor, and in Teheran as minister-counselor and deputy ambassador. I was the first ambassador of the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey, from 1993 to1998. During the first phase of the war against Bosnia, I was the foreign policy adviser to its first president, Mr. Alija Izetbegovic, and member of the Bosnian team at the Geneva Peace Talks. I also served as a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. My last post was as the Ambassador to Malaysia. Currently, I write columns and articles for the leading Bosnian magazines and the Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman. I was also a lecturer in the history of diplomacy at the Philip Noel-Baker University in Sarajevo. I am the author of a few books, among them Beirut in Poetry, The Roots of the Iranian Revolution (together with Reza Baraheni), Mahathir: The Secret of the Malaysian Success (published in Sarajevo and Kuala Lumpur), and my most recent one, Ghassan Kanafani, From the Land of Sad Oranges and The Personal Side of the World.
How and why did you become interested in Iran?
My interest in Iranian literature and culture started at Sarajevo University while studying Persian as an auxiliary language for a year. Because of my focus on other languages and jobs, unfortunately, my knowledge of Farsi remained basic until today. However, after my professor of Persian at the university, Dr. Sakir Sikiric (the first Ph.D.-holding scholar doctor of Iranian Literature and Sufism in the Balkans), told me that he used to open some Persian poetry divan before falling asleep, I promised myself that I would do the same. After visiting Iran, I went even further: I learned numerous verses in Farsi by heart and for decades used to repeat some of them in silence, moving only my lips, before falling asleep. This practice became so habitual that I continued to do it if I awoke later during the night. It is not easy to learn by heart Hafez or Sa’adi, of course, thus most often I recite Khayyam’s Rubaiyat or even more verses of Sohrab Sepehri, my favorite contemporary Iranian poet.
What were some of your fondest memories of Iran? You were a journalist from Tito’s Yugoslavia at the time of the Iranian Revolution. Tell us a bit about what you experienced firsthand.
There are so many good memories of Iran from the first time I crossed its borders as a student, at Khoramshar in the 1960’s, up until the last time I was there three years ago. For my wife Fatima Cita [who is the President of the Bosnian-Indian Friendship Society] and daughter Lejla, our first joint visit to Isfahan, in April 1978, is indelibly imprinted on the family’s memory. There, in Shah Abbas Hotel, I had the first dance with my daughter, who was 11 at the time. Staying behind in Teheran as a Yugoslav correspondent, I participated in demonstrations throughout the city or in front of Tehran University, singing, together with students and workers, the popular revolutionary song “Iran, Iran…” which I have not heard since. Those are magnificent memories, good and bad at the same time, because there were many protesters killed by police and soldiers, at Jaleh Square or elsewhere in Iran. I was there when the Shah left the country and at Beheshte Zahra cemetery when Khomeini made his first speech after arriving in Tehran.
What is the connection between Bosnia and Iran from ancient times? I visited the town of Jajce on this trip and apparently some ancient traces of Mitraism have ben preserved there. Can you elaborate?
Some traces of the Mitraism and Manicheism could be found in Bosnia, such as “Mitra’s caves” in the town Jajce, the only ones preserved. The real connection was established only after Ottomans conquered Bosnia, in the 15th century, and during their rule until the end of the 19th century. Many Bosnians who went to Istanbul to study religion and sciences came back to the country with high knowledge of the Persian language and literature and brought with them many manuscripts and divans of Persian poetry. They contributed to the special literature that emerged in Bosnia and other Balkan areas under Ottoman rule, which was written by local people in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. Persian was the language of poetry and beauty, thus most of the books they wrote in Persian were poems and divans or studies and commentaries on Persian literature. For example, no serious and deep study on Hafez’s Divan is possible even in Iran without reading comments of Ahmed Sudi Bosnavi, who was born in the small town of Cajnice, in eastern Bosnia, where, incidentally, I was born as well.
What did you think of the recent conference held in Sarajevo? What significance did it play in the life of your city?
The sixth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS) that was held recently in Sarajevo was, among other merits, a chance for the participating scholars from all over the world to become acquainted with the contribution of Bosnians and other Balkan peoples to the overall Iranian historical and cultural heritage. Announcing Sarajevo as one of the ASPS branches was recognition of that role and proof that Bosnia has its place in the Persianate world. Additionally, I personally learned so much at this conference – it is never too late to learn, even though I am in my 70s – and met so many people that I knew only by the name, or not at all. I was happy talking with Richard N. Frye about Arabs and Iranians, having a chance not only to speak with, but to host in my home the famous novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and to host the charming ASPS president Parvaneh Pourshariati and her family at my family’s cottage house.
What was the book you had in your hand when we met and what have you been doing since you retired?
I had in my hand the book Gassan Kanafani, From the Land of Sad Oranges published in 2012 in Sarajevo, in which I tried to write a story about his assassination in Beirut, July 1972, by Israeli agents. I did it in about 110 pages, combining fictional and realistic style and using real facts, meeting with him personally, using the diary of his father which had never before been done, my talks with his wife Anni (who is Danish) and children a year later, all interspersed throughout with the history of Palestine. The book also contains his short novel Return to Haifa and other stories, translated by my daughter Lejla (who also studied Arabic, and later Islamic philosophy at Oxford). Last year, I also published the book The Personal Side of the World, a collection of my writings in Bosnian magazines in the last ten years, including my reportage from Sohrab Sepehri's mezar, which many friends said was the best piece.
There are many Persian manuscripts at the Oriental Institute. How did they get there?
Before the war of 1992-1995, Sarajevo was the regional center for Oriental studies, including the Persian language and literature department at Sarajevo University. The Oriental Institute and the Library of Gazi Husrev Beg were rich with Arabic, Turkish, and Persian manuscripts, some seven and eight centuries old. Those manuscripts were brought by Bosnians who had been studying or serving at the Porte or by Ottoman teachers and clergymen coming to serve in Bosnia. Unfortunately, Serb nationalists, in an effort to uproot not only the Bosnian people, but the country’s history and culture as well, at the beginning of the 1992 war used special incendiary shells and burned the National Library and the Oriental Institute, turning most of its books and manuscripts to ashes.
Were you in Bosnia while the war was going on? Were you a witness to the horrors that went on that ravaged your country?
While following the Iran-Iraq war and other Middle East conflicts, I never imagined that something similar might happen in my own homeland. Unfortunately, it happened, even in a more brutal way. At the beginning of the aggression against Bosnia by the Serbian army, I was adviser to the country’s president, and there was the danger of being killed at any moment. The Serb artillery and snipers were shooting besieged Sarajevo’s citizens from the hills only a few hundred meters from the city center.
What were some of the worst memories of the war for you as a Bosnian living in Sarajevo?
One of my worst memories from the war was the burning of the National Library on August 26, 1992. I came back to Sarajevo after a conference in London and went to see the ruins of the library together with Daniel Moynihan, the U.S. envoy to the UN at the time. When we saw that hundreds of papers from around three million burned books and documents were, together with clouds of smoke, flying up toward the sky, Ambassador Moynihan screamed “Idiots! Idiots!” and I started weeping loudly. The other times I have cried during the war was when I saw on TV how the house of my late mother in the town of Foca was burning and when I got news that my brother-in-law’s 11-year-old son Haris was killed by a Serb shell when he was playing with other children in front of their flat.
Photos by Fariba Amini