Meša Selimović

Death and the Dervish

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Death and the Dervish Summary

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Set in Bosnia during the 1700s, Yugoslav author Mesa Selimovic’s novel Death and the Dervish (1966) concerns an Islamic man’s futile efforts to free his imprisoned brother. In 1974, the book was adapted into a feature film directed by Yugoslav filmmaker Zdravko Velimirovic.

Sheikh Ahmed Nurrudin lives an austere and modest life as an Islamic dervish serving in a monastery in Sarajevo, Bosnia. At this time in the eighteenth century, Bosnia is under the rule of the oppressive Ottoman Empire. Amid this political climate, Ahmed’s brother, Harun, is arrested. Neither Ahmed nor the reader ever learns the reason for Harun’s imprisonment, lending a Kafkaesque quality to the narrative. What’s more, Ahmed learns that Harun has been sentenced to death. Unsure of what to do but certain he must do something to save his brother, Ahmed seeks an audience with a wealthy, elderly man who is the father-in-law of the judge or kadi in charge of Harun’s fate. Ahmed doesn’t know what he will say to the old man, whom he learns has recently fallen ill and may not have much time left.

When Ahmed arrives at the old man’s house, the man is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Ahmed meets the man’s beautiful daughter who is also the kadi‘s wife. Unfortunately, the daughter isn’t much help either. Rather than address Ahmed’s conundrum, she prattles on about her efforts to cut her brother out of her father’s will. The rich woman is highly out-of-touch and unconcerned with anything but her own problems. Sensing that the woman will be of little help to him, Ahmed’s attention drifts to the woman’s body and appearance. As he daydreams about her sensuality, imagining acts that he, as a dervish, can never enjoy, the woman interrupts his reverie by abruptly asking, “Are you listening?” To the rich woman, her story should be more important to Ahmed than the imprisonment and impending execution of his own brother.

Ahmed visits a number of other pillars in the community, but nobody will help him. No one can even tell him what happened to cause his brother’s imprisonment. Ahmed hears naught but vague rumblings about Huran having somehow offended the wrong people. The police and other legal authorities won’t help either, though Ahmed is uncertain if that means they are complicit in his brother’s imprisonment, or if they are simply too lazy and apathetic to offer their assistance.

Back at his monastery, Ahmed comes across a wanted fugitive lurking around the courtyard. Hearing some guards close by, he debates whether he should alert them to the fugitive’s presence. Perhaps doing so would engender some goodwill with the authorities as he continues his efforts to free Harun. Before can commit one way or the other, the guards are gone. This scene, among others, highlights Ahmed’s near-pathological indecisiveness. His indecisiveness continues in the morning when, rather than stay silent or alert the guards himself, Ahmed informs his understudy, Mullah Yusuf, of the fugitive’s presence. This half-measure seems to absolve Ahmed of guilt over the fugitive’s fate, passing along the responsibility to someone else. In the end, Yusuf does call the authorities and the fugitive is captured.

As the novel progresses, Ahmed becomes a student of the corruption around him, sensing it almost as a tactile thing in an effort to better navigate it for the sake of his brother. It also becomes clear that Ahmed’s desire to save his brother stems less from passion or devotion than from a sterile sense of duty. Moreover, even this sense of duty is tenuous. For example, Ahmed considers the ways he might save his brother but ultimately decides against them, concluding that his own self-preservation is more important and that he would rather not risk what little power and agency he has.

All of these qualities are those of the perfect bureaucrat. Therefore, it is fitting that, after his brother is executed, fortune smiles on Ahmed and he becomes elevated to the position of kadi. The book suggests that Ahmed’s work in this capacity is sure to be driven by the same weak-willed desire for self-preservation and lack of true honor that Ahmed displays throughout the novel.

Though it takes place over a hundred years before its publication date, Death and the Dervish presents a maddeningly oppressive society designed to mirror the Communist regimes that sought to break the will of the author and his fellow Yugoslavians in the twentieth century.