Daniel Craig was a good actor before he got turned into a bad-tempered robot for the Bond films. A great film he starred in, before the Bond franchise gobbled him up, was Layer Cake. It’s one of those clever-witty-vicious crime films that the English are quite good at. Daniel Craig plays a hip, likeable London-based cocaine dealer who does “one last job” before retiring. This is a tried and tested formula in film – the hero does one last job before dropping out of his life of crime – but, as you can imagine, there’s no way that the scriptwriters are going to let our hero retire quietly into wealthy obscurity.
I’m thinking about this plot because it’s a good way to explain why I moved to Bosnia, a few weeks ago. Although there are some big differences between me and Daniel Craig’s character – I’m not a bigshot coke dealer and not about to retire – there is a major similarity which is that I’m trying to finish doing what I would call my “normal” work in consultancy, PR and publishing projects. In short, I’m doing one last job before getting into a life of independent travel, volunteering and writing books.
The job? Raising £50,000 to publish a book that contains a unique collection of posters that were made during the Bosnian war. There are a few Croatian and Serb posters but most of them are by Bosnian artists, graphic designers and various organisations that wanted to protest about their nation being ripped apart by the neighbours – as Poland was in 1939 as a result of the Nazi – Soviet pact.
The reason for telling you all this is because, just before leaving the UK, an English friend called Gwen asked me why. In particular, why will I be raising money for a book about posters that were made during the Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)? “If you’re going to raise money,” she said, “it would be good to know the background. Answering the ‘why’ question is a good place to start.” Gwen used to run environmental NGOS so she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to fundraising.
You might be wondering what it is about this Bosnian poster book that made me uproot myself from Brighton, where I had a good life with my aunt Tessa who is an active and brilliant potter. The simple answer is that when Daoud Sarhandi told me that he’s working on this poster book I wanted to be part of it. My first response to hearing that he was working on a brilliant re-design of the book (a shorter edition was published 20 years ago but has been out of print for ages) I offered to fundraise for it. Art books like this are very expensive to produce and getting some heavy-duty cash behind it is essential.
Having worked on many NGO and consultancy projects over the years I’ve developed a sort of sixth sense in knowing if a project is good or not. It’s a sort of instinct and is rather like that first impression one has upon meeting someone – is this person inspiring, or to be avoided? It’s the sort of instinct I used to ignore, only to later realise that “if only I’d listened to my gut instinct I wouldn’t be in this mess now.” I’ve worked on so many bad projects and it’s essential to avoid getting involved with one that will only bring frustration, as the people in charge are unable to listen to new ideas (this is perhaps the most common problem). Even if you’re getting well paid, you’ll probably lose about two years of your life working on it.
So, when Daoud said he’s re-doing his Bosnian poster book I instinctively took two decisions: to fundraise for it and to move to Bosnia. I knew there was no chance of raising money for this book in UK, where it would be competing with a million other good causes, and the only place I’d stand a chance is Sarajevo where they’d appreciate its relevance. The idea of hawking it round London and the big western capitals was deeply demotivating, and even if I did get a big grant I’d be subsequently beholden to the donor agency and drowned in their bureaucracy (foreign aid and development work, of which grant funds are part, has become depressingly bureaucratic). This book represents a part of Bosnia’s heritage – posters that were produced by over 40 Bosnian artists as a reaction to the war – so it makes sense that Bosnians fund it rather than one of the international grant funds. This book needs to develop its local roots rather than be another bright idea imposed from outside.
Daoud didn’t ask me to fundraise for it (and this, in itself, is a sign of a good project) but I knew the book needed it and assumed there would be nobody else vying for this non-job (i.e. voluntary) position. It was an instant, instinctive decision that became embedded in my plans for the future. It took me over 6 months to disentangle myself from a comfortable life in the UK: I sold my van, got rid of my precious touring bike, gave away my books and all the excess baggage one builds up – and above all made sure I wasn’t leaving any loose ends behind. I came to Bosnia at the end of July 2021 and don’t know how long I’ll stay. When people ask I say, “for as long as it takes.”
What’s interesting for me in answering the question – why did I come to Bosnia? – is that the real reason, that instant decision to support the book, was buried deep under a whole pile of other material, like an important piece of furniture that’s somewhere under a house that had suddenly collapsed. I had to pick through the debris, sift through lots of other, more superficial, reasons for coming here (escaping from Brexit-land), in order to find that kernel of decision making that was at the heart of it. I’d written an earlier draft of this article, then discarded it in frustration as I hadn’t found the real reason. Now I realise that as soon as I took the decision to work on the book it immediately became part of my future plan – to move to Bosnia – but the actual decision making process was so quick and instinctive that I really struggled to find it when someone asked me the most simple of questions: why?
Another reason for moving to Bosnia is that I used to live here, just after the war, for two and a half years. It was a tale of riches to rags and back to riches. During the Bosnian War my NGO, Scottish European Aid, grew huge in the Tuzla region, doing water supply infrastructure under the dynamic leadership of my brother Magnus. Although I was in charge of the NGO back in Scotland, we didn’t manage to get out hands on even 1% of the millions that Magnus was raising for his water engineering projects. I was like a waiter in a smart restaurant who handles big payments but gets paid minimum wage. So I resigned, got the bus to Sarajevo just after the war ended (winter 1995), spent my last pennies on getting a bus to Tuzla, where a friendly soul had offered accommodation. There’s nothing as motivating as being flat broke in a strange foreign city (ask any immigrant) and within a year I was making a fortune by writing, publishing and selling books to the vast American army that had just landed at Tuzla airport.
Making lots of money for me, myself and I doesn’t feel right so I set up a new NGO with my wonderful mother (we distributed English language books to schools and libraries all over the land) and for two glorious years we didn’t need to go cap-in-hand to the donor organisations as we were raising all the money we needed by selling my books to the NATO troops. The last project we did was to finance Daoud Sarhandi to drive around the country collecting Bosnian War posters from local artists, designers and printers. I left Bosnia in early 1998 and never returned until now. So coming back has a curious feeling of homecoming; the first week was a confusing rush of disjointed memories and new impressions.
Thinking about the difficulty of finding the real reason for coming here, and exposing my own decision making process, brings me back to that great English film Layer Cake. Criminal organisations have a strict policy of never keeping a record of their decision making process, for the simple reason that it can land them in jail. In Everything is done verbally on the basis of trust (“honour among thieves”). One of the best things about being a non-criminal is that I can be open about all aspects of my life without fearing the consequences.
If you’d like to see some samples from our poster book, which we’ll be publishing next year, follow this link: My Publications | Daoud Sarhandi (jimdosite.com)
I took the photo that illustrates this article in Sarajevo in July 2021. Bosnian Kingdom is the name of a shop.
As always, I’d be very grateful for any comments — however negative, long or crazy they may be. The truth is that we wannabe writers couldn’t go on without feedback.