Back in the past, humor and laughter were almost a national sport in Yugoslavia, and laughter was a sign of "an emotionally healthy and safe environment"
My parents started arguing when I was already a teenager. I remember it not because their relationship traumatised me, but because of a reaction that I could not explain for a long time.
I remember those rows because, after my parents had vented telling each other everything they needed to say, for a moment we sisters felt sad, we were all silent, and then someone began to giggle softly, or repeated some words that our parents had exchanged, that then sounded ridicolous, or imitated their gestures, and in the end we all laughed out loud.
Mum would resist and play the victim, inviting us to be "serious in the face of the situation", at which point we laughed even more. Finally, surrendered, our parents laughed too.
This "laugh it off" attitude was not a family quirk, but rather a national sport, very common among us Yugoslavs. We laughed a lot and often. Not because we were stupid or not serious, no, we were a nation of young, happy people, and our laughter indicated that we were in an emotionally healthy, safe environment.
Today, psychologists would explain to us that we laughed because laughter helped us to better understand the situation, to feel more united, better – it helped us reaffirm our relationships and make new ones. Laughing is a social activity and, according to science, when we are in company we laugh thirty times more than when we are alone.
Young people laughing
At the time, we were unaware of all this and we laughed. All my childhood and adolescence passed between laughter. We often laughed for no reason, sometimes when we really did not want to, and in situations where it was not appropriate to even smile.
In almost all the photos I have kept, there are smiling faces. In some the faces are barely visible, or not at all, because we were bent over laughing.
Today, to take a picture, we usually encourage each other to smile pronouncing "cheese". Back then it was the other way around, we laughed so much that the photographer or whoever else was photographing invited us to be serious at least for a moment, just for the click.
One of the "serious" photos comes from the third year of high school. All the faces look serious, but I remember very well (the photographer was called specifically for the photo) that a moment before the "click" we were laughing our heads off.
Among my colleagues there was Radovan, who told jokes non-stop and in every situation. But most of our laughter was not linked to the humor of certain stories, but to the situations and relationships that were created between us.
In high school, we students would sometimes escape from class. We did it because it was trendy, or for the sake of doing something transgressive. Once we made a plan, and all 39 of us deserted the Russian language lesson. We usually hid in the bathroom, where smokers could light the cigarette butts.
The Russian-language professor, Vladimir, was a partisan veteran who cared a lot about rules, his sense of responsibility, and strict discipline. He came to recover us one by one, and then he told us in class, almost apologetically: "I am paid to give you this class, I cannot stand here alone doing nothing".
Addressing one of our comrades named Goran, he added: "Am I wrong or did I see you smoke?". "Oh no, professor, I wouldn't – that was steam coming out of my mouth". And the class laughed out loud. It was already the end of May, the weather was nice and it was hot, and certainly you could not see the steam coming out of your mouth like it was cold.
Some events, sometimes dangerous, I remember for the crazy laughs they aroused. One happened during a radio programme that I conducted live with a colleague. Suddenly, my colleague burned the sheet on which I was reading. With the microphone on, I could not say anything, or make any sound that could have let my scare out. Passing the paper from one hand to the other I managed to finish reading the text, but soon after, with the microphone turned off, we all laughed like crazy: because I had managed to finish reading and all together for the unusual joke.
The whole Federation laughed
At least once I realised how much laughter cannot be controlled, how it is contagious and we cannot control it. During a press conference held by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yugoslavia, someone began to laugh softly, who knows why, since nothing ridiculous had been said or done. In vain I tried to be serious, to hold back laughter, then, pretending to look for something, I bent under the table, shaking from laughter.
The minister glanced at us, cleared his throat to warn us and call us to seriousness. Finally, angry, he asked us if by chance he was saying something ridiculous. At that point we all burst out laughing loudly, to tears. The minister, offended, left the conference. In the end, no one remembered the reason for our laughter anymore, or who started first.
Our laughter found expression in art. In those years were produced films, television series, plays, humorous books that, in some cases, could be compared to the most successful comedies or world-renowned comedians.
One example among many is the Yugoslav film "Ko to tamo peva" (Who is singing over there) from 1980, directed by Slobodan Šijan. It is a classic, an "evergreen", even today, decades later, it has lost nothing of its comedy.
Or the TV series "Top Lista Nadrealista" ("The top list of surrealists", produced by Sarajevo TV), that made the whole Yugoslav Socialist Federation laugh from 1984 to 1991. Ten years before the war started, we laughed at their sketches on Sarajevo divided in two, or on our common language, Serbian-Croatian, split in four, or on the international observers who put order in Bosnia. The "Surrealists" made fun of the contradictions of society, warning us, for example, that peace could erupt and ruin the harmonious Bosnian war, or gave alarming instructions on how people should act in case of peace.
Their humor seemed surreal and absurd. But ten years later divisions and war were our reality.
Another episode I remember dates back to October 1991, when the father of Ljiljana, my best friend of the time, died. After the funeral we stopped at the deceased's house, as a tradition, to talk and drink some schnapps. There was talk of this and that. At some point Ljiljana told us that some months earlier, in the summer, "stupid JNA officers" were going around the Jahorina mountain, near Sarajevo, to check which holiday home could be used as a hospital.
"They are so stupid", we said, and we laughed so much that the widow intervened, recalling us to common sense and proper behaviour in a house in mourning.
Not even a year after that tragicomic event, we understood that we were the stupid ones. The JNA officers checked which houses could be used as hospitals because "the stupid officers" knew what we ordinary citizens did not: the war had already been planned, and the land around Sarajevo set up to place the artillery.
And before we knew what was happening, we were already besieged, bombed, hit by snipers, the hospitals were almost all destroyed or damaged, and we needed other places to accommodate tens of thousands of injured.
Laughing in wartime
What was there to laugh at in front of thousands of dead, tens of thousands of wounded, in constant fear, in the cold, without basic things like water, food, heating, in front of bombs and snipers?
Well, we Bosnians did not lose the habit or the need to smile even during the war. In the first months of the war we giggled at ourselves, how naive we were to consider those who bombed us our brothers, we laughed to reduce the fear, to defuse the situation, to give courage to the frightened children, out of spite and to show that we were still alive, that we had not surrendered to despair, and because we were trying to transform tragedy into comedy.
We Bosnians, regarded as good but funny, were the main characters of almost all the jokes told in Yugoslavia. We liked them and we invented and told them ourselves. The new jokes had surpassed the siege to which many Bosnian cities were exposed. One, from 1992, told about Bosnian fools Suljo and Mujo who, while crossing the street, are hit by a grenade. One of them loses an ear and goes back to look for it. The other shouts: "Come on, let it go, you have another ear!". But the wounded one replies: "But it's not about the ear, I had put a cigarette behind it".
Another one shows how we laughed even in front of the siege of Srebrenica and the tragic situation of about 30,000 Bosnians – something similar to the Jews and their jokes about Auschwitz. In January 1993, we told a new story: "With snow and twenty degrees below zero, the teacher tries to 'warm up' the atmosphere among the students and asks them to talk about what evokes heat, or summer. One says he found a banana in a humanitarian package, another that he found a swimsuit among the old things and that it reminded him of the beach holidays before the war. Then, little Mujo says: my grandmother's flip-flops from when she came on foot from Srebrenica". That is, from when she had walked for 300 kilometres to get to safety.
Towards the end of the war in Bosnia, in 1994, there were no more jokes about Suljo and Mujo. "Fallen in war", said those who tried to make a vic (joke) even of death.
According to scientists, an adult laughs on average six minutes a day, and so do the Bosnians, although once they used to laugh at least eighteen minutes a day. Today, the Bosnians rarely smile, new jokes are sporadic, and to make people smile you have to engage, talk to them about serious things like work, democracy, peace, justice, security – that is, what they no longer have. And if they do laugh, it's a bitter laugh.
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