Amra Sabic-El-Rayess Talks with Roger

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In The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival, Amra Sabic-El-Rayess relives her young adult years in the small city of Bihać, besieged during the Bosnian War (1992–95).

Roger Sutton: What was the impetus for telling your story now, twenty-five years after it closes?

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: I do believe it’s never too late to share an important story. But the primary reason is a couple of years ago, my younger daughter Dinah, who was in third grade at the time, came home from school one day and asked me, “Mom, what will happen to me and Jannah [her older sister] if you and Dad are rounded up and taken away as Muslims?” That question started a number of conversations in our household, but evoked fear within me that my children, and many other teens and adults in this country, were experiencing these worries. That’s why I started to think about writing the book, and doing it very quickly — there was almost a sense of panic. While I am a faculty member at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and doing a lot of work internationally, and feeling like I’ve been contributing to building a better world, getting that kind of question from my own child made me realize simply being effective in the classroom or as a researcher was not enough — I had to offer my story for educators of young adults to use in countering hatred, which continues to be on the rise in the United States today.

RS: I saw an article you wrote for Al Jazeera, where you talked about the parallels between your teenage years in Bosnia and what’s going on here today. It’s certainly scary. What did your children know about that time of your life?

AS: It is impossible for me, as a parent and a genocide survivor, to separate that formative experience, which defined who I am, from my parenting. My children had heard many of those stories, but I’d never felt as compelled to share them with others. It makes one feel vulnerable — it’s not easy to share the most intimate parts of your life as a genocide survivor, and it certainly wasn’t an easy decision. But I thought through the cost-benefit analysis, and the benefit of me sharing was worth the cost to me as an individual reviving difficult moments. My children have always been aware of how I grew up, of years living under constant bombing, being targeted as a Muslim and discriminated against. They themselves, in many ways, I’m proud to say, have become activists within their own communities — and the world — to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. They’re lucky enough to be in New York City and to have an excellent education, which is unfortunately not the case for many children and young adults around the world.

RS: In the writing, did you remember things you had forgotten?

AS: The experience of the kind of trauma I lived through was unforgettable. Through developing my own resilience, I did learn how to push certain moments to the side, in order to be able to function day-to-day. But I will share with you that there are moments when a song, a scent, an individual, a tone of a voice can evoke very painful memories. I remember the scenes, the moments — I capture them in my mind, along with the emotions. The book allowed me to reflect on those experiences in ways I’d never had time to do. During the war we were focused on surviving, not starving, escaping the bombing, escaping death — I didn’t really reflect on what I was going through. Why was I so deeply hated? Why was I seen as an “ethnic impurity” simply because I was born Muslim? What could I do about it? How could I react to it? Those kinds of questions came up in the process of writing, and have led to an incredible form of self-empowerment that I truly never expected to experience in a writing project.

RS: One question I always have about memoirs — we all kind of swim through each day as a full experience, as you’re saying — you’re so busy dealing with what’s being put in front of you, you don’t even really organize it. But you have to organize it when you write it down. How do you decide what’s important to your story and what you don’t need to cover? How do you find the through line?

AS: I’m going to start by saying that The Cat I Never Named is quite a bit longer than initially planned. In terms of the stories themselves, my editor Susan Dobinick, along with my co-author Laura L. Sullivan, worked with me precisely on deciding which stories to include, because there are so many of them. I’ve written probably twice as many as are in the book — perhaps in the future some will be published as well. I wanted to be true to my own experiences as a sixteen-through-twenty-year-old during the war, and they gave me an immense amount of freedom. Each story that we ultimately selected is a reflection of multiple themes that are important to me — education, discrimination, anti-Muslim racism, resilience, hope, love — all those universal themes that are appealing to so many readers in the U.S. today.

RS: I like that in an author’s note you’re honest about moving this event or that teacher from one time to another, compressing events so they would flow more smoothly. Because we always wonder in reading a memoir: How true is this to what actually happened?

AS: Every story and every event happened. I might not remember exact dates of when I lost a certain friend or when specific bombings happened, because it was part of my daily life. Hundreds of people I had known, loved, went to school with, or played with died in that war. To mentally keep track of that at such a young age is difficult — there’s a self-defense mechanism. But it was crucially important to me to relate the actual stories of what happened. The teachers who were Serbs often did exclude me and target me as a Bosnian Muslim, though I do point out one particular high school math teacher whom I absolutely loved who didn’t discriminate against me. It didn’t matter that I was a top student, an overachiever who worked to the best of my ability and outperformed everyone.

RS: You do sound academically kind of intimidating, I’ll tell you.

AS: I lost one brother who was older than me, Amar. Amar was brilliant. He had a photographic memory. He taught himself Chinese. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a perfect child to my parents, after such an immense loss, to make up for it. And there was another element, of wanting to be loved and accepted in my own society. I thought, If I am a perfect volleyball spiker, if I win math and physics competitions, if I write the best essay in my language class, then maybe my society will accept me. It became clear that that strategy didn’t work. My focus shouldn’t be on trying to make someone else accept and love me — I’m going to be the best person I can be for myself and for those who see me, not for those who perceive me as invisible and not worthy of life.

RS: Adolescence is really the worst time for being able to see oneself objectively. When you get picked on for whatever reason, your first thought — maybe I’m projecting — is, There’s something wrong with me.

AS: I agree with that. It is that transitional period where one is beginning to be self-aware. A big portion of that is how other people around us, whom we respect or are friends with or who teach us in our classrooms, see us. I was performing at the top of my class, and I still had teachers who hated me for who I was. The obvious questions in my innocent young mind were: Is there something wrong with me? What is it about me that they don’t like? Is there something else I can do or accomplish to change that societal perception of me? What I refused to admit to myself until the war happened — and I think that is obvious from the initial pages of The Cat I Never Named — is that there was this larger anti-Muslim narrative outside of my own immediate life, coming from Serbia’s leadership. My hope is that The Cat I Never Named communicates these ideas to young adults who are struggling with the way they’re seen in American society today, so they can realize they’re beautiful people and souls inside and out. How someone filled with hate sees them is not how they should be seen, and they need to resist that kind of message.

RS: Why did you decide to put the book in the present tense?

AS: I wanted people to not just read the book but to feel it and live it and be on the pages with me. Often I’ll get emails that say something like, “My child brought this book home, and I just happened to read a few pages because I was curious about the title or the cover. I knew nothing about Bosnia, and here I am — it’s 4 a.m., 5 a.m., and I couldn’t put it down. I feel a connection to you. Your book transformed me.” There are statistics out there about hatred, but I wanted readers to forget about the numbers and experience a life from the inside, of a person who is so deeply and viscerally hated for who they are.

RS: It certainly is immersive. A big part of your fear came from not knowing what was going to happen next. I don’t know how anybody slept.

AS: That was my reality, and I wanted to be true to the level of emotional intensity that was present in my life, day in and day out. When the pandemic started, many people felt that the world was ending by us not being able to experience togetherness. The privilege of stability and security has been, in many ways, lost to the pandemic. I remind my children and my friends that in extreme circumstances — like I experienced during the war — one has to leave the processing of our emotions until tomorrow, until we have a moment to breathe. That is one of the reasons why writing this book was really healing. For the very first time, I was back in those experiences, thinking through each emotion, each scene, shedding many tears — I can point to the pages that were written through tears — but it has allowed me to process that intensity, which was not possible for me to do back then. One obvious difference today is we can wear a mask, isolate, and take a number of steps to minimize the effect. There was nothing I could do back then to minimize the risk. We were being bombed daily. Whether we slept or went out or ignored the bombing was really irrelevant. It was pure luck, really, that I survived.

RS: I thought it was a pretty amazing achievement that you make the scenes of the bombings, the attacks, and the discrimination vivid, but without sensationalizing. That must have been tough.

AS: I wanted those scenes to be raw, to be what they were, and through them communicate larger ideas without me specifying what those larger ideas are. I didn’t think I needed to do anything beyond being true to the moment, the emotions, and what actually happened. That would be the most powerful way for me to gain credibility with the reader. This is a life story that occurred, and not so long ago. This is how genocide plays out in real life.

RS: Let’s talk about the cat for a minute. I have reviewers on my staff who can review just about anything, but they say, “Do not give me any book where the dog dies.” I found myself terribly worried about Maci. Would she survive? And then at the end, I’m crying. How did you keep that emotional connection in the book without letting it overwhelm the more serious topic of genocide of actual people?

AS: When I initially decided to write the story, a number of publishers were interested. One typical question I would get was, “Why did you include Maci in the story?” My answer to that is: “She was simply there.” She was a crucial element of our life and our survival, physically and emotionally. There are moments when I credit her with saving us — on the first day of bombing, June 12, 1992, we went looking for her, and as a result we survived, but four of our friends didn’t. She provided so much love and comfort at a time when I needed it most. That was something I deeply reflected on as I was writing — I was not adding Maci to the story. Maci was simply there in so many critical moments, and I needed to be honest about her role in my life, as much as I was honest about the pain, destruction, and discrimination. My family didn’t want her at first — we didn't think we could feed her (and I was attacked by a German shepherd growing up, so I didn’t like anything with claws!). Yet this living being that we initially rejected became essential to our survival. I wanted to give her her rightful place in the story.

RS: Coming as a basically secular Muslim from Bosnia to the United States, what was it like for you here then, and what is it like now, twenty-five years later?

AS: The answer to that question is a book in itself. I hope it’s going to be one of my next projects, which would be a sequel to The Cat I Never Named. September 11 changed my experience as an American Muslim. I often feel like a “hidden minority.” Bosnian Muslims are, like me, fair-skinned. I have the physicality of an individual of privilege in the United States, where skin color plays such a fundamental role in how biases and narratives of exclusion, discrimination, and racism are built. But when people find out my background and that I am Muslim, sometimes there is a physical reaction. The body language changes. The interaction changes. The conversation changes. I can see that shift, when people suddenly see me as “the other.” This is also what happened in Bosnia — because Bosnian Muslims very much look like the Serbs, there had to be a way to differentiate who we were. During the genocide, the police and the army forced Muslims to wear white armbands. If you had the white armband, you were labeled as someone who could be killed, who could be taken to a rape camp, tortured, used for labor. Even when one seems to blend into a society, it is the narrative, the ideology, the developing of stories about other groups, that can be so powerful. Hatred can be so powerful that you can still build a difference between us in a way that justifies, in the eyes of some, genocide.

RS: Right, because what some people want is a target.

AS: It doesn’t matter who the target is, in terms of who they are as a human being. It didn’t matter that I was a perfect student. It doesn’t matter that I’m a great American citizen now, a wonderful teacher, or about the research I do. To some people who are Islamophobic, they are going to see me as an impurity that needs to be eliminated from the fabric of American society. It is sad to be aware of that. It’s deeply painful to continue to wear that target on my back, knowing that I’ve never done anything to harm anyone — not intentionally. The Cat I Never Named is my attempt to bring us closer together. Let the reader forget I am this other person from a distant place. I am someone they can actually like and connect to and feel empathy for.

RS: You’re making me remember my first job. I was a children’s librarian in Chicago, and the neighborhood had a community of Albanian Muslims who had come as refugees to this country. This would have been the early 1980s. Of course, that was a more innocent time for Muslims in America, wasn’t it?

AS: Absolutely. I will share two stories that illustrate the contrast between when I first came to the United States and the last few years (and which I experience on a daily basis). I arrived around Martin Luther King Day, January 17, 1996. I was interviewing with an immigration officer, and I was terrified of men in uniform, because in my life, men in uniform who thought I was different from them wanted to rape or kill me, and there was no third option. But he checked my paperwork, gave it back to me, and said, “I’m sorry for what’s happened to your country. You’re safe now, ma’am. Welcome to the United States of America.” I had broken English. I was a traumatized young woman. I had only a few dollars in my pocket. Why would America ever want someone like me? When he shared those words, when he said simply “welcome,” I let out the sob that I’d never let out before, because I felt reborn in that moment. I don’t know his name. I don’t know anything about him. I wouldn’t remember his face. But I will never forget the effect his words had on me.

Now fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled with a new doctor. I was waiting for at least half an hour, and finally the doctor walks in. He said, “I’ve spent all this time looking for a female doctor to see you because I didn’t want to deal with a woman in a burqa. I just realized you’re not the type of Muslim I’d thought you were, based on your name.” My response to him was that there are many different kinds of Muslims, in the same way that there are many different kinds of Christians. We all interpret religion on a very personal level, and how we show that publicly is our choice. There are nearly two billion Muslims around the world, and there’s enormous diversity. And he said, “Yes, but you really are not Muslim.” I said, “Thank you very much,” and walked out of the hospital in tears. This was New York City, one of the major hospitals, a fairly young individual, who just couldn’t see me, even when I was trying to educate him. He couldn’t see past his own stereotypes.

Which is one of many reasons it’s important for me to keep talking about these experiences. It is painful to share them with the world, and it does make me vulnerable. I do sometimes get threats from the far-right spectrum. But it is crucial to educate the world and raise awareness that there is diversity in our world, within the Muslim community and within other communities. There is so much more that we share and that should connect us than should separate us from one another or make us feel that we should be othering any community.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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