Searching for Experience

on August 2, 2010 in Misc

“The writer cannot afford to wait for experience to come to him; he must go out in search of it.”

W. Somerset Maugham said that.  While I never knew much about his personal life, for me it was obvious in his novels and short stories that this was a man who had traveled widely to exotic places and met countless fascinating people.

When it comes to my own life, I’m a slacker compared to Maugham.  I’ve experienced only a fraction of the adventures I’ve craved, not only as a writer but as a human being.


One of my darker experiences was my trip to Serbia and Bosnia several years ago.  A small portion of what I saw and heard there shows up in a scene in The Compass Master.  I also named a minor character after someone I met in the Bosnian town of Tuzla.  In Compass I simply call him Hasan, and as a character he’s different from the real-life inspiration.  My fictional Hasan lives in Sarajevo and has a happier ending to his war experience because Layla saved him and his brother.

I mention the real-life Hasan because a couple days ago his name and story came back into my life like a bolt of thunder.  I was reading the Washington Post online when I found an editorial from July 11.  “15 years after the Srebrenica massacre, a survivor buries his family.”  By Hasan Nuhanovic.

Even before I read the name I knew this was “my” Hasan.  I knew it the moment I saw that this was someone who had survived the massacre that slaughtered his family, and that he had been working as a translator for the useless and cowardly Dutch peacekeeping soldiers who had been charged with protecting the civilians of the town of Srebrenica.  I knew it because the Hasan I met years ago was obsessed with discovering what had happened to his father and mother and brother, who disappeared during the massacre.  He told me about them and about the nightmare they all went through in the months leading up to it.  He told every foreigner like me that he ever met, every reporter, every government official, everyone and anyone who would listen.  Hasan was the kind of person who had survived an experience so horrific his own life was on hold and his future didn’t exist because he was still trapped in the pain of the past.

I’d really appreciate it if, for Hasan’s sake, you read the brief account of his story.

b&w ruins

As strange as it may sound, I found myself relieved to read Hasan’s editorial.  For years I’ve wondered if his family had ever been found.  Now at last the few bones of his father, mother and brother have been identified.  For Hasan’s sake I’m glad.  I’m also glad that he mentioned having a daughter, because this means he might have married the girlfriend he had when I met him; she had been serious about him even while he insisted he couldn’t contemplate marriage until he found his family.  If he now has a child then Hasan was able to pull himself out of the past long enough to create a future

You know that this blog has been about my plan to acquire Layla’s cat burglar/ adventurer/ scholar skills and at least some of her experiences.  Most of the time this means I have light-hearted forays into fun stuff like skydiving, parkour, lock picking, climbing, and so on.  In all honesty, there’ve been a couple times when I felt a little full of myself, like “ain’t I so cool?” because of what I’m doing.  But whenever you get like that life is sure to straighten you out.  Life has done it to me yet again by sending me Hasan.  What you’re doing is just fiction, life is reminding me.  Hasan is the reality.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll keep doing my Layla self-education.  But from now on I’m going to stay humble about it.

6 Responses to “Searching for Experience”

  1. Hart says:

    Helena-what a horrible sad story–so moving. If Serbia had oil, you can bet the US would have stepped in. Pisses the hell out of me where we draw the lines on when to get involved, but that is another tale. I can see the relief in closure, even if it is a bad ending. And it’s wonderful you’ve at least gotten to travel some–people like this enrich our lives, even as they pull our heads out of the sand.

  2. Helena says:

    Hart – That’s EXACTLY what was said during the Bosnian war: that if the country had oil, the U.S. would have been in there in a heartbeat.
    And yes, as tragic as Hasan’s story is, I feel as if I see the world more clearly because of him.

  3. ann says:

    thanks for sharing Hasan’s story. Its hard to believe how cruel people can be. Actually…its so sad to see history repeating itself time and time again. And all the common person wants is to live in peace with his family.

  4. Helena says:

    Ann – I can’t even begin to comprehend such cruelty. I can only hope that Hasan will now find peace with his child and wife.

  5. Ben says:

    Wow, that was an amazing story. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Helena says:

    Ben — Thank you for caring.