“In school, I make myself stay focused. All the bad things in the world are kept at bay by science, literature or math.”
A Personal Tale of the Bosnian Genocide: The Cat I Never Named (Book Review and Podcast)
A young Bosnian Muslim woman gives a personal account of her experience during Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, which is beautifully written amidst severe brutality. The recurrent themes are seamless and grab your attention, making you pore over the pages and leaving you feeling invested in the futures of the real-life characters.
Amra Sabic-El-Rayess grew up in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After surviving ethnic cleansing and more than 1100 days under the Serbs’ military siege, she emigrated to the United States in 1996. Amra revisits her painful past and writes her memoir through the eyes of her 16-year-old self.
One powerful overriding theme in her book is education as a form of escapism. Education plays a huge part in Amra’s life and she managed to maintain it, despite all the obstacles stacked against her.
In school, I make myself stay focused. All the bad things in the world are kept at bay by science, literature or math.”
She attends a multi-ethnic school, and non-Bosniak friends and teachers flee Bihac after receiving a warning. Her education records are subsequently destroyed, she initially loses out on a scholarship, and the final hurdle to study in America is an extraordinary tale.
The commander cuffs him on the head, and he reels drunkenly. ‘You don’t fall in love in love with them, you idiot. You put Serb seed in their bellies.’ He grabs the soldier by the collar. ‘You wipe them out generation by generation. You dilute their unclean blood. You honor them with half-Serb babies, and one day they will be gone from this earth, and only Serbs will remain.'”
Throughout the book, there is a constant threat of rape and sexual violence. She writes about incidents where Serbian soldiers verbally harass or make her feel uncomfortable, and as her name is found on a list of girls and she ends up in more potentially dangerous situations. Her vivid nightmares were unfortunately a reality for up to 50,000 Bosniak women in which sexual violence was inflicted as a weapon of war.
The endearing relationship with Maci (cat in Bosnian) is Amra’s main source of comfort. Maci also symbolises unwanted immigrants and represents the ‘other’ (the practice of ‘Othering’ excludes or displaces a person or group of people who do not fit the norm of the social group, therefore, leaving the ‘other’ on the margins of society).
Despite all the harrowing experiences in the book, another overriding theme is finding comfort and love from her family and potential lover. The teenager’s dreams and warmth of her relationships juxtapose with fear of rape, death, and starvation.
Amra’s ability to tap into her distinctive young first-person narrative makes you connect with the protagonist. There is just the right amount of history in the book to further one’s understanding without alienating or distancing you as well.
Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing and genocide is a raw reminder that history is repeating itself now, which is a stark reminder of the Rohingya Muslim genocide of 2017, the on-going war in Syria, the Uyghur genocide perpetrated by China, and the rife Islamophobia that exists in our modern world today.
Amra does not diminish herself to a victim. She is a survivor of war. Through her captivating and emotive writing, she brings hope that humankind can be resilient enough to get through trauma and loss.
After reading the book, I want to know more details about Amra’s journey beyond Bosnia and how her family life has turned out. Luckily she is writing a sequel and I for one, can’t wait to read it.
You can have a listen to the TMV Podcast where Dr. Amra El-Rayess speaks to Salim and myself about her memoir and more: