Interview with Aleksandar Hemon, writer-in-residence at the United Nations

Aleksandar Hemon, writer-in-residence at the United Nations. UN Photo/A. Gaitanis

10 May 2012 – Over the years since the UN was founded in 1945, its Headquarters building in New York has played host to a wide and eclectic range of visitors – from musicians to diplomats, from scholars to community activists.

Over the past few months, it has been the stomping grounds of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-born, US-based writer, assigned to write a book about the United Nations by a not-for-profit organization known as Writers in Residence. Born in Sarajevo, Mr. Hemon visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay for a matter of months. His home town came under siege and he was unable to return home. The 47-year-old wrote his first story in English in 1995 and has had several works published since then, with two of them becoming finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States.

Adopting a “fly on the wall” approach, Mr. Hemon has been floating around the UN Headquarters complex, sitting in on meetings, chatting with staff and visitors, attending open briefings, and generally soaking up the atmosphere.

He spoke with the UN News Centre about his residency at the United Nations.

UN News Centre: What are you doing at United Nations Headquarters?

Aleksandar Hemon: I’ve been in New York for a few months and one of the things I’ve been doing is spending time as a writer-in-residence at UN Headquarters, for Writers in Residence. It’s a foundation that places writers in institutions, in organizations, in situations, so that they can write about them – and when I say ‘writers,’ I mean fiction writers or artistic writers rather than journalists or simply reporters – the idea being that the daily practices of each organization are carried out by people within a certain framework, and to write about it and think about it would oStrangely, it was exactly what bored me that at the same time excited me.pen up those organizations and institutions to the public gaze in a different way.

I’ve been assigned the UN, and another writer went to an aircraft carrier of the US Navy, another is going to spend time at a hospital, someone else is covering a telecommunications corporation, [another] a newspaper. There was a writer who was assigned a casino but it didn’t quite work out.

UN News Centre: Why was the United Nations chosen as one of the venues by Writer in Residence?

Aleksandar Hemon: I do not know. I was offered the UN and I took it. I do not know how they chose these six particular institutions and organizations. My guess is they were trying to have as broad a range of human experience and practices as possible. The UN, of course, in and of itself, covers a lot of humanity and human experience, so I can see why the UN was one of the six.

UN News Centre: What was your reaction?

“I went on a guided tour with a group of tourists, to see how the UN is presented to someone who just walks in off the street,” said Mr. Hemon, who has been taking a “fly on the wall” approach to his residency. UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Aleksandar Hemon: My reaction was ‘yes, OK, I’ll do it’ because I thought it would be interesting to see how it [the UN] works. In some ways, the UN is a utopian idea being developed or worked [out] at as we speak. It might never be fully achieved – I mean the ideals of the Charter may never be fully practised, certainly not globally at the same time – but it’s one of those institutions that’s founded on lofty, noble goals; and what has been interesting to me is to see how those goals are pursued in an institutional environment, where the ideals and the bureaucracy have to be reconciled.

UN News Centre: What does being a writer in residence actually involve?

Aleksandar Hemon: Well, I’ve been here for a few months and have been for at least six or seven weeks – I lost count – I’ve been coming two or three days a week, sometimes spending the whole day in the UN, going to various meetings or attending conferences as a fly on the wall; sometimes just wandering about to see how people perceive it.

Today, I went on a guided tour with a group of tourists, to see how the UN is presented to someone who just walks in off the street. I talked to a tour guide who handled the tour, I spoke with her boss. I’ve been in closed meetings – the daily meetings start at 9:00 a.m., and the day’s agenda is discussed and plans made. I haven’t had a chance yet, and I hope it’ll happen at some point, to spend some time with the Secretary-General. I’ve been in the Security Council’s open sessions a couple of times, I’ve talked to the photographers who work at the UN, I’ve talked to interpreters, I went to a number of daily briefings, I went to press conferences and so on.

UN News Centre: What are your initial impressions of the UN?

Mr. Hemon has been speaking with staff at all levels and in all areas of work throughout UN Headquarters for his book. Here, he speaks with the manager of Visitors Services, Elisabeth Waechter, about her activities and those of her team. UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Aleksandar Hemon: I have two or three notebooks worth of notes, but there is a common theme of the ideals being pursued in the organization. Almost everyone says the organization has noble ideals, and there’s not quite a caveat but a qualification about the ideals: the reality of the practice, and then the ideals.

So people come and work because of the ideals, but also do not work as idealists in the sense of being delusional. They know what it is and how good things could be achieved, and then also what prevents good things from being achieved. In other words, there is a combination of idealism and realism at play – and that’s interesting to me.

UN News Centre: So from what you have seen, the UN is full of either idealistic realists or realistic idealists?

Aleksandar Hemon: I think that’s the correct description of the situation!

UN News Centre: You come from a part of the world which has seen some heavy UN involvement over the years. How has what you have seen during your residency sat with what your original ideas of the UN, stemming from its activities in the Balkans in the 1990s?

Aleksandar Hemon: The UN did not quite live up to the ideals in Bosnia, in practice; and they were not the only ones culpable in the situation. There was a mishandling of the whole situation on the part of the European Union and the United States and the UN. So, I tried to suppress whatever impression of the UN I had from knowing about what happened in Bosnia and the way that the UN handled that.

"Aleksandar Hemon's observations and reflections will provide a perspective of the United Nations that is not available through our own products and public information materials." said the acting head of the UN Department of Public Information, Maher Nasser. "Through his talent, we hope that the book would give a more personal, even human, face to the Organization." UN Webcast/Ari Gaitanis

But there’s also a simple fact that the UN consists of people, and people make individual, moral choices even within an institutional context. So I am interested in the way people operate within the organization; and whatever prejudices I might have had, I suspended them, so I could talk to people and they could tell me how it works for them.

I’ve talked to people who were activists on the ground, who worked for NGOs, and directly affected positive outcomes in various parts of the world, and then they joined the UN and they become aware of the complicated situation of working within an institution where the good results might be forthcoming in ten or 20 or 30 years from now.

So it is clear to me that the organization, as a whole, cannot be dismissed because of its particular failures, and, in fact, the failures might be used as a learning experience so that future operations are better handled.

It is hard for me to imagine how the notion of the world as a shared, human space could be conceived of, and conceptually developed, without the existence of the UN – I think it’s essential for that.

In many ways the reason for our being able to think about the world and our common interests – however failed the actions that should emanate from that have been – is impossible without the UN and would not have been possible had the UN not been founded some sixty years ago.

Mr. Hemon will write a 35,000-word book on the UN Headquarters, as part of a series by the not-for-profit organization Writers in Residence, which explores the workings of major institutions in the modern world. Here, Mr. Hemon takes notes in the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

UN News Centre: You have almost finished your stint visiting UN Headquarters as a writer in residence. What happens next?

Aleksandar Hemon: I’ve been making notes, I’ll be doing some additional research which does not require my presence here and then I’ll try to write a 35,000-word book sometime this fall. The plan of the foundation Writers in Residence is to publish four at least, and hopefully six, of the books from the series simultaneously sometime next year. I’m not aware how close those plans are to being realized but I adjust my schedule to those plans, so I’m planning to be writing it this fall.

UN News Centre: What do you think your words will help achieve in terms of public understanding of the UN?

Aleksandar Hemon: I don’t know – I haven’t written a word yet! And also, it is hard to tell how people react to words. I do think that an open conversation and a dialogue, and providing a space within which an institution like the UN could be discussed, cannot hurt anybody in the world.

UN News Centre: How would you evaluate your residency so far?

Aleksandar Hemon: It’s been a pleasant experience. I’ve acquired a lot of friends at the UN, which is a bonus that was not part of my contract! My communication with people has been pleasant and rewarding.

I have been bored a few times, I have to say – I’m not someone who is naturally attracted to bureaucratic practices. And there’s also, and it’s no one’s fault of course, the security of it all. This is the mark of the world that we live in: passing through the ten metal detectors, the badges that everyone has to have, this sense that it is not as open as it used to be. People used to be able to walk in to the building and look around, but that has not to do with the UN directly. It is the way it is.

Mr. Hemon listens in as a UN tour guide briefs members of the public in the General Assembly Hall. Writers in Residence aims to shed light on "the complexity and interest of ordinary processes and rituals and allows its writers to observe with patience and perspective what the media too often misses." UN Webcast/Ari Gaitanis

UN News Centre: You mention boredom – what about the flip-side to that?

Aleksandar Hemon: Strangely, it was exactly what bored me that at the same time excited me:

I was present at a very difficult negotiation of the Zero Draft for Rio+20. Now, the two hours that I spent in that conference, in and of themselves, were not exciting.

But what was happening was, literally, finding a common language with 193 countries present, plus the NGOs and various organizations. To have a forum in which much of humanity is represented and trying to find a common language… conceptually that’s phenomenal – it might be one of the greatest achievements of humankind.

But to follow it for two hours, whereby the seventh version of the same article of the Zero Draft is negotiated, so behind each word there are two or three proposals for alternative words – so the original 16 pages of the Zero Draft would eventually increase to 250 pages and now have to be negotiated down to 150 [pages] or so – the process, witnessing it minute by minute, is very tedious.

However, when I abstract it from that particular stretch of time and the fact that my body was not comfortable in that situation, it is a fascinating thing – there are very few situations in the world [that] provide for such an opportunity.

UN News Centre: Is the public’s perception skewed towards the ‘boring’ aspects of the UN, with the more interesting or exciting elements somehow lost?

Aleksandar Hemon: I think it’s lost and also – the Secretary-General is the face of the UN, of course, and he has a leadership role, obviously, in the UN; but he doesn’t have the executive power of, say, an American president, or someone who can just send the troops over and take a city down. So there’s a different kind of efficiency at play – if there is efficiency – which means it takes a long time for the results to be achieved.

You know, 60-some years after the founding of the UN, human rights is an established concept and no one in their right mind would deny the necessity of having a human rights policy, but some years ago it was invented in this building, as it were!

Senior staff from the Department of Public Information hold a meeting at UN Headquarters, while writer-in-residence Aleksandar Hemon observes and takes notes. UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Someone who has sharp executive powers can affect the outcome of a present situation in some country instantly and immediately – for example, they send the planes over and the planes do something about it, or they threaten with the planes – whereas the UN is not such an organization.

So, to progress slowly towards some uncertain goal requires a very impressive kind of patience. I’ve spoken to people who work in a bureaucratic organization and are bureaucrats themselves, but they still retain the ideals which exceed in some ways the amount of ideals necessary for going to the field and doing hands-on [work], because there’s an immediate reward for that.

There’s a kind of self-denial in bureaucracy that is nearly saintly – people who are working at the UN, hoping that 50 years from now, their actions – very, very small; invisible even to the people inside the UN, never mind the public – are going to have some sort of positive outcome. That is very impressive to me – I do not have that kind of patience as a person. I want immediate reward for my noble actions, and the public wants immediate rewards for any kind of action, so if we send the planes, we want to see the cities burning… but that’s not how it works here.

UN News Centre: Allow me to put this scenario to you: you are sitting in a café with a friend who asks you what is the UN – from what you have seen and heard so far, what do you respond?

Aleksandar Hemon: It’s a global forum where the world comes together so that Member States can have some agency regardless of their size. It is a place where idealism and realism mix, sometimes in unpleasant or complicated ways. And it is the world as it is – however flawed, however complicated. You can see it all here, at various levels and in various ways.

I was at a meeting of the Department of Political Affairs and they went around the world in less than 20 minutes, to all the crisis spots. It was in the room, the whole thing, you could suddenly present to yourself an image, as it were, of what is happening in the world, simultaneously. There are very few other places like that, where [it all] could all be contained in one room.

And not to mention the multi-national make-up of the room was impressive in and of itself – there were people of the world coming together to think about the world. That was not available not so long ago, a couple of generations ago. Even people who despise the UN, they think about the world, they can think about the world and that’s part of the UN legacy.

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