Strings of steel: Common Text ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ hits home for Wright State’s Irena Joseph


Submitted photo Wright State’s Common Text “The Cellist of Sarajevo” hits home for Irena Joseph, who grew up in Bosnia and now teaches in the university’s LEAP Intensive English Program.


For the Gazette

FAIRBORN — She was 13 when it started — the shelling, the shooting, the ground-shuddering tread of the tanks. Irena Joseph and her family were forced to flee their home in Bosnia and live as refugees for two years to escape the bloodshed.

Today, Joseph is an instructor at Wright State in the university’s LEAP Intensive English Program. And as the area celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords — which brought an end to the fighting in Bosnia — she is helping plan activities surrounding this year’s Common Text, a powerful novel called “The Cellist of Sarajevo.”

Written by Steven Galloway and based on an actual event, the best-selling 2008 book of fiction describes a musician who plays his cello for 22 days — while under the constant threat of snipers — at the site of a bloody mortar attack on a bread line. The story is told through the eyes of civilians and soldiers in Sarajevo who are comforted by the soothing strains of the music while death hangs over the city.

The absence of shelling is almost like music, and she imagines if she closes her eyes she could convince herself that she was walking through the streets of Sarajevo as it used to be. Almost. She knows that in the city of her memory she wasn’t hungry, and she wasn’t bruised, and her shoulder didn’t bear the weight of a gun. In the city of her memory there were always people out at this time of the morning, preparing for the day to come. They wouldn’t be shut inside like invalids, exhausted from another night of wondering if a shell was about to land on their house.

Joseph was born and grew up in Konjic, a town of 15,000 about an hour south of Sarajevo. When the war began, she and her family fled and for two years lived in neighboring Croatia.

“That’s when my life changed completely,” she said. “There were tanks coming into the city, so a lot of people thought it would be unsafe to stay. Things got scary.”

He risks a glance at her and sees she isn’t smiling. “I’m afraid, Dragan. I’m afraid of everything, of dying, of not dying. I’m afraid that it will stay like this forever, that this war isn’t a war, but just how life will be.”

As a young girl, Joseph remembers being angry at the unfairness of it all.

‘‘Why can most people live their normal lives and why do I have to do this?” she remembers thinking. “Why can’t I go to my own school? Why can’t I live in my own house?’ But somehow you just get through it because you have no choice.”

When Joseph and her family returned to Bosnia in 1994, many houses in Konjic had been destroyed and many of their friends had moved away. So the family started over in a different town.

“It changed our lives completely,” she said. “We never went back to where we were from.”

Irena Joseph arrived in the United States in 1999 as a 20-year-old exchange student at the University of Dayton to study English language and literature and later return to the United States to live and get her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages at Wright State.

Irena Joseph arrived in the United States in 1999 as a 20-year-old exchange student at the University of Dayton to study English language and literature and later return to the United States to live and get her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages at Wright State.

Joseph arrived in the United States in 1999 as a 20-year-old exchange student at the University of Dayton to study English language and literature. At the university she met her future husband, now Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph. After a year, she returned to Bosnia to finish her studies.

“I really went back changed. Life here is very different,” she said. “I basically discovered that there are so many opportunities in this world. You don’t have to be in one small town.”

Joseph would return to the United States years later to live and get her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages at Wright State.

Joseph said that even though the fighting in Bosnia has ended, there is still tension among the populace.

“The number of people who were killed or wounded is something people cannot ignore or forget so soon,” she said. “So it’s been built into the psyche of the people where they are still a little uncomfortable or unsure of the people of other ethnicities.”

Joseph said some passages of “The Cellist of Sarajevo” spoke to her.

“Those are the parts that I could relate to based on the fact of the actual cellist who is trying to defy the forces of evil,” she said. “That was very powerful because it is based on a true event.”

The cellist, Vedran Smailović, regularly played his cello in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo and captured the attention of people around the world.

The building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify, and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestones of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and color. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.

The Common Text, first selected for the 2003–04 school year, is designed to give incoming, first-year students something in common they can discuss and have a theme that resonates with them. It also must be applicable in a wide variety of courses and be able to be connected to service-learning opportunities.

There are several Common Text events planned to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the peace accords, which were negotiated at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and ended years of ethnic warfare in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Galloway is scheduled to speak at Wright State on Monday, Nov. 16, at the Student Union. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, there will be the Big Read in which “The Cellist of Sarajevo” will be read aloud at the Educational Resource Center throughout the day.

Joseph says she hopes a lesson was learned from the war in Bosnia.

“We cannot let evil win,” she said. “There are some cases where there are people that are definitely doing the wrong thing by not letting others be who they are and using violence to achieve their goals.”

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills, the men in the city, herself, none of them had the right to do the things they’d done. It had never happened. It could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They had become a part of her. They told her everything had happened exactly as she knew it had, and that nothing could be done about it. No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Submitted photo Wright State’s Common Text “The Cellist of Sarajevo” hits home for Irena Joseph, who grew up in Bosnia and now teaches in the university’s LEAP Intensive English Program.
http://xeniagazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/web1_irena-joseph-16342-007-2-260×266.jpgSubmitted photo Wright State’s Common Text “The Cellist of Sarajevo” hits home for Irena Joseph, who grew up in Bosnia and now teaches in the university’s LEAP Intensive English Program.
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