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The scholar, educator, and author discusses her new young adult memoir about surviving the Muslim genocide of the Bosnian War.
Amra Sabic-El-Rayess was 16 years old in 1992 when the Serbs began bombing Bihać, the small Bosnian city where she lived with her parents and younger brother. As Muslims, they were the targets of genocide and survived four years of the privations, fear, and danger of a siege. In her debut memoir, The Cat I Never Named, she tells the story of her survival, which she credits to a loving family, a determination to continue her education, and Maci, the cat who saved her life (and her spirit) more than once.
Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is now an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Education, Health & Psychology, where she researches radicalization, exclusion, discrimination, and the value of education in fostering empathy and understanding. Her memoir is a warning against hatred and how hatred can progress from discrimination and prejudice to violence, xenophobia, and, ultimately, genocide. For more about her work, please visit sabicelrayess.org.
Carstensen: Did you always intend to write your memoir for young people?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I think I did. I thought about it as a book that should be written in a way that is true to who I was when the war happened. I did feel it would speak for itself and deliver a message to young adults who don’t often think of survivors of genocide as still living, who don’t think it happens here and now. Here I am, in relative terms, closer in age to them than what they typically imagine as a genocide survivor, and I thought that that story in itself, of a young person going through the experience, would be important to teens around the world today.
Carstensen: Why publish your story now?
Sabic-El-Rayess: My younger daughter, who was in third grade a couple of years ago, came home from school one day and bluntly asked me, “Mom, what will happen to Jannah and me”—Jannah is her older sister—“if you and dad are rounded up as Muslims? Will we be living alone?” And that was the question that really scared me, that jolted me. Here I was thinking that my child, by having the privilege of being born in New York City and educated in America, would never experience what I had experienced growing up. And here she was, concerned about her future simply because of a label attached to her, to me, and to her father. That made me feel a sense of urgency, almost a sense of panic, that something bad was about to happen to this country that I dearly love, and I wanted to leverage, in my own humble ways, the story that I had in me. I thought I could warn young adults against hatred.
Carstensen: Your ability to share what you were feeling—and why—at particular moments truly elevates your work. How did you develop your ability to write so effectively? How did you bring back some of those moments so clearly for us? Did you keep journals during the war?
Sabic-El-Rayess: The many experiences that I survived during the war never really go away. That level of trauma cannot really be cured. What does happen is you learn to live with it. In other words, any scent, any song, sound of voice, particular tone can trigger those memories to come rushing back. So recalling the memories was never an issue for me, and I’ve always loved writing. And my memory is very visual. I may not remember the dates, but I always remember the scenes, the moments, the scents, the feelings that are connected to my experiences. And I think that is something that probably I inherited from my mother, who is a history and geography teacher, so she’s very detailed. And my dad was a great storyteller. He was an orphan from WWII, and he always told us very vivid stories. I always thought that they were a powerful way to communicate larger ideas that didn’t need to be told beyond the story.
Carstensen: The utter goodness of Maci’s presence helps to make the sadness and tragedy of your memoir bearable, just as it made your experiences bearable in the moment. Have you thought about the mystery of that?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I never thought about it in the moment, in the war, because we were so focused on survival. That’s what people resort to when your life is at stake and you could die any second—you don’t really have time to process emotions, thoughts, or even what’s happening to you. And I know that everyone else is experiencing it as a story, but for me it has healed me; it has empowered me to tell certain elements of my story that, now when I think back, are pretty incredible and magical.
Maci’s entire appearance—the grace, the care, and unconditional love that she had given us—was more humanistic in so many ways than what I was getting from humans at the time, in a sense that I was so viscerally hated and reminded of that hatred every day. She was that counterforce that said, I love you, no matter what. There is a moment in the book when we lose her during the bombing and we’re miles and miles away from our home, but she comes back. She finds the way to come back, repeatedly. So all those aspects of her story are so beautiful and so meaningful to our survival at that time that they are magical.
Carstensen: Your best friend, Olivera, abruptly left the city without saying a word, just ahead of the bombing. Do you wonder about Olivera? How the guilt of betrayal might have affected her?
Sabic-El-Rayess: Well, if there’s a sequel to this book, she’ll probably reappear, because we did connect after the war. I would say that experience was extremely emotionally difficult and heartbreaking. As a young person, I realized that the world betrayed me. Not only my friends but also my favorite cousin, Zana, whose father partook in what happened to me as one of the high-ranking officers in the Yugoslavian national army, which then became Serbia’s army.
During the war, I fantasized about that moment when it would end and my friends come back and say, “I’m so sorry for what happened. I didn’t want it to happen. I couldn’t stop it. But I know that I was wrong.” That is something I still long for. I think anyone who has experienced surviving a genocide wants that closure, that acknowledgement. And I never got it.
Carstensen: How did you manage to write honestly about your experiences for a teen audience? Did your editor help you calibrate the level of detail?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I worried about censoring myself and thinking so much about my audience that I would compromise the story. Working with Bloomsbury has been amazing in terms of how they understood that I had that need to tell my story the way I wanted it to be told. Susan Dobinick, who was my editor at Bloomsbury, guided me, particularly with scenes of sexual violence and the level of detail with those kinds of topics, and I valued that. Laura Sullivan also helped ensure that this book represented my authentic voice while delivering a timeless message of hope and human resilience to all.
This is not just a book for me. This is the first time that I owned my voice. I grew up in an educational system where I was discriminated against, and I think that is a parallel that a lot of teens will find in my story. The larger idea of exclusion or discrimination comes through. And I think that Bloomsbury understood and respected the fact that I now was empowered to tell my story in my own words, in the way that I wanted, and I never had that privilege. A lot of people around the world don’t have the privilege of telling their stories.
Carstensen: Education is crucial to your story and to your life now. You also write about education as a weapon against the hatred that leads to xenophobia and to genocide.
Sabic-El-Rayess: I think storytelling is a privilege; I think being an educator is a privilege. What we teach, how we teach, and who gets the privilege of teaching in the classroom is incredibly important, because it determines whether we’re able to build social cohesion through our educational system. Schools are really the only places where young adults have to get together whether they like each other or not.
I believe I may be the only full-time faculty member who has a Muslim background at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Education, Health and Psychology. We have an incredibly diverse population of teachers, principals, administrators, and researchers who attend our programs and who work around the world. I’m deeply aware that I may be the only Muslim woman that they will hear from, depending on what environment they’re coming from. And I take that very, very seriously, and I consider that my opportunity to shape mindsets and to counter hatred, to counter all forms of exclusion. I think teachers have a huge responsibility to be able to talk about exclusion and bring in stories that diversify perspectives, that build collective empathy. Storytelling is a channel to building collective empathy, and collective empathy helps us build stability and social cohesion, and we clearly lack that, given what’s happening in the world.
Carstensen: Reading about your experiences living through the siege of Bihać will resonate with teens more than ever right now, as they survive a pandemic. In both cases, the isolation of missing school and being apart from peers are major factors. Do you have any advice or thoughts for teens today?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I have so many thoughts on that. Obviously, I knew that we were on the brink of terrible things happening—or that was my premonition, given the hate narrative and othering in this country that has been on the rise—but I certainly didn’t know that my book would be published in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest. And it feels as if I had written that story fully aware of the moment that we’re in. And parallels are stark.
There were moments of us going back to school where I risked my life and nearly got blown up. Perhaps if kids weren’t experiencing this kind of isolation right now, they would think that was an exaggerated moment, but I think, with this experience, reading that chapter becomes familiar. We try to steal moments of happiness and togetherness. No one ever missed school or skipped classes during the war. When we had school, we all showed up, and I think that’s telling of how much we craved that human interaction.
In terms of advice, there is a moment in the book where I feel deeply depressed, but there was a turning point when I realized that I couldn’t just sit there and be depressed, because the reality is I couldn’t stop people from hating me. In the same way that teens today can’t stop the pandemic, I couldn’t stop the war. I couldn’t stop genocide. It just wasn’t in my power. But what I did recognize is that I could always do something that was within my power.
And the beauty of life is that life is utterly unpredictable. Whatever plans kids have today, often the way things play out in life is that scenario we never actually planned for. And that is what I have experienced. So I would say, focus on what you can do to be a better person, a more educated person, and use this horrific time to make a difference in ways that are reachable, that are achievable. There’s always something that we can do. That is my belief as a survivor: that we can make a difference.
Carstensen: How have readers reacted to your story?
Sabic-El-Rayess: Just seeing it as a story of a genocide survivor doesn’t do justice to the emotions and the experiences and a lot of love that happens in this book that I think is inspirational to people today. Readers are forgetting about this background of me surviving genocide and me being Muslim, and they’re finding shared humanity and shared emotions that build collective empathy and bring us closer together.
As I said, for me, it’s not just a book. It’s a voice. Having people say this story matters really gives me that peace that I have been searching for that I never got. So I thank you for that, for that act of empowerment, really, by speaking to me and giving me a voice.
Carstensen: Are you working on another book?
Sabic-El-Rayess: There are two concrete projects I’m working on. One is continuing to write books like The Cat I Never Named, writing a sequel that would be bookended by my arrival to the U.S. and September 11, exploring how that experience—as a really hopeful and revived person after surviving genocide, followed by the experience of September 11 and being a Muslim in America—has impacted my life again.
The other is an adult book related directly to my work at Columbia. Everything that I’ve done at Columbia or do as a faculty member and a researcher closely relates to all of these issues, of exclusion, discrimination, and the value of education, that are the primary themes in The Cat I Never Named. This book is going to explore how Bosnia has become an inspiration for radicalization in many different ways.
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. With Laura L. Sullivan. 2020. 352p. Bloomsbury (9781547604531). Gr. 9–12. 949.742.
Survival StoriesThe following memoirs and autobiographies addressing war and survival—some written for teens, some adult titles suitable for younger readers—make excellent companions to The Cat I Never Named.
The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. By Anne Frank. 1995. 352p. Doubleday (9780385473781). 940.53.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. By Loung Ung. 2000. 256p. Harper (9780060856267). 959.604
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. By Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick. 2014. 240p. Little, Brown (9780316327930). Gr. 5–10. 370.82095491.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. 2007. 240p. Farrar/Sarah Crichton (9780374951917). 966.404.
Zlata’s Diary. By Zlata Filipovic. 1994. 220p. Viking (9780143036876). 949.7.
Angela Carstensen is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Teen Literature (ALA Editions, 2018); director of library services at Sacred Heart Greenwich, Greenwich, CT; and a reviewer of young adult books for Booklist.
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