Remembering “A Culture Carried”

“…Everybody’s story is unique, we all have our own individual stories…”

Denis Hodžić, 2016

Three years ago, the Kentucky Museum and Kentucky Folklife Program debuted A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green (Kulturno naslijeđe Bosanci u Bowling Green-u). This exhibition explored the experiences, culture, and arts of Bosnians and Bosnian Americans living in Bowling Green, many of whom were directly effected by the Bosnian Civil War of the mid-1990s.

Today, I want to highlight three things I learned from this exhibit.

The Bosnian Civil War was a genocide

Growing up, I had heard of Bosnia and knew there had been a war. Family members in the armed forces spoke of it sometimes, but I never really thought about it. When I first visited A Culture Carried, I finally learned the truth: the war was more horrific than I had ever thought. The exhibit explains in great detail, but quite simply: in the wake of Yugoslavia’s end, Bosnians tried to assert their independence. The Serbian military, wanting to secure power in the region, responded with war and ethnic cleansing. During the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995), thousands of Bosniaks fled or were killed, with over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys murdered in July 1995 alone. As the exhibit explained:

In the mid-1990s, a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina forced thousands of people into an unthinkable position: either leave their homes in a hurry, or face certain death.  For many, there was no time to plan; there was no time to pack.

Concentration camps. Rape. Murder. These things seem like memories of Nazi Germany, but they are – in fact – much closer to our time (and exist in our time) than we think.

Burned into my memory is one story that really illustrated this concept: the Dželil Family’s Story. They fled their home in 1992, but the husband, Alija, traveled back to their hometown to check on his parents. He was never heard from again. Thirteen years later, Izeta received the call that confirmed her husband’s remains had been found in a mass grave outside their hometown. She reflected,

“. . . it’s not just my husband, it’s thousands of people, same thing…..I still, I have family, my cousin in Atlanta, she’s still looking for [her] brother who [was] never found.  It’s like a very strange feeling, so many mothers, so many sisters looking for family members, and when you find somebody’s bones and you have identification you feel like you’re kind of lucky, but you’re not lucky.  It’s so sad…. They didn’t just kill them.  They didn’t tell us where they killed them.”

I still cry when listening to it.

Alija and Gina Dželil, mid-1980s. Photo courtesy Izeta Dželil and Kentucky Folklife Program.

Food is a Global Connection

I was thrilled to be able to attend several events related to the exhibit, especially foodways demonstrations. Simply put, I am a foodie and I love learning about cultures through their foodways, i.e., “the ways that groups of people procure, prepare, and consume food, according to their own traditions.”

Attending an International Year of Bosnia event at WKU, my sister and I experienced our first taste of ćevapi (a dish of small beef sausages wrapped in pita, served with raw onion and sour cream) and pita (a flaky, savory pastry filled with ground beef, potatoes, spinach, and/or cheese. I was hooked. I still love frequenting Behar Cafe in Bowling Green, just to get the fresh, homemade taste of pita and ćevapi.

Dish of ćevapi. Photo by Nicole Musgrave at Behar Cafe in Bowling Green, KY, 2017. Courtesy Kentucky Folklife Program.

Listen to Mersiha Demirović describe how learning to make pita is a rite of passage for many Bosnian girls in an interview with Ann Ferrell, found on this page of the virtual exhibit.

We are more similar than different

Bosnians have great diversity, very much like Americans. This was well illustrated in a section about religion. Bosnia and Herzegovina – and the Bosnian diaspora – is composed of many different religions. While this causes conflict, it also creates a very rich culture. At times, the similarities between the major religions of Bosnia – Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism – are more striking than the differences. Take, for example, these images of prayer beads:

Can you tell them apart? What strikes me is how similar they look – a connection that says we may believe different things, but at our core is a belief system not so different from each other.

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of A Culture Carried. We may come from different parts of the globe, eat different things, believe different things, but when you put us side by side, we are not so different after all. We each want to live in peace, able to live by our own beliefs and values without fear, upholding traditions passed down from our ancestors, but also celebrating and being part of the community we call home.

Visit the virtual A Culture Carried exhibit here.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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