in Sarajevo's Aftermath
by Ted Brewer
Sun slipped through
the edges of the curtains, and I had that momentary feeling of not knowing
where I was--in what room, what city, what country. I got up, drew back
the curtains, and saw Sarajevo in a blaze of light and reflection. The sun
glared with a blinding intensity from the snow-covered rooftops and mountains
and refracted in the wisps of fog brushing up against the church steeples
and the pin-pointed minarets. From my window, I could look directly to the
other side of the valley, where houses and streets curled and writhed up
a denuded mountain side.
Fata, my new landlady, was in her kitchen dressed in a robe and pressing oranges. I said good morning in Czech. Gently grabbing my arm and enunciating her words, she corrected me with the Bosnian: dobro jutro.
"Dobro jutro," I repeated.
She laid out a breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, espresso, bread, cheeses, smoked beef. I was ravenously hungry, and ate while Fata drank Turkish coffee and smoked. She asked about my family--if I had any brothers or sisters, and how many. Two brothers and a sister, I said. She encouraged me to help myself to more food. "Uzmi jos," she said. "Take more."
I could see in Fata's movements, in the way she covered herself in her robe and moved from the stove to the kitchen table, that she relished her domestication. We moved to the living room, and Fata took her place at the end of the couch. Her ashtray and tiny fildjan coffee cup placed before her on a little placemat, she seemed immeasurably comfortable there. And I remembered something Muhamed, Fata's son-in-law and my friend in Salt Lake City, had told me about her.
Shortly after the war ended, Fata went to Germany to stay with Muhamed and his wife Meli. She was supposed to stay a few months, but after the first few weeks, she grew homesick. Germany was not her place in the world. She belonged to Sarajevo, to her mahala.
A Turkish word, "mahala" means something like neighborhood or district. But these English translations miss the kind of connotations mahala contains. A mahala can be one street, or dozens of streets. Size doesn't matter; relations and familiarity do. In one mahala you may find fifteen or twenty families who know each other well, who visit one another on a semi-regular basis, share coffee and sweets in the afternoon, who gossip and keep tabs on other families in the mahala.
Her coffee accoutrements, her kitchen and all the things in it, her place at the end of the couch, her mahala in the city surrounded by mountains--these were the things that composed her life. Outside of the mountain composition, outside of Sarajevo, though it was battered and wounded, she felt anxious and displaced.
Having grown up on the benches of Utah's Wasatch Mountains, I knew how mountains could provide a sense of safety to those who lived among or beside them, how they could stand as bulwarks to the outside world. As a child would, I took the mountains for granted, standing as they did directly behind the house in which I grew up. They supported me. Like the back of a couch.
It seemed to me, in the short amount of time I'd been in Sarajevo, that Fata too must have gathered the same sense from Sarajevo's mountains, hemming in her universe, giving it contour and parameters around which to view it.
But I wondered: How could you ever trust the mountains again once they turned against you, once they became the site from which shells, grenades, and bullets were fired at you from unseen barrels? I had tried to envision it back in northern Utah, envision Mt. Olympus, Mt. Ogden, Ben Lomond--these various peaks, so plainly and reliantly just there--becoming menacing features of the landscape, the means of the destruction below.
I remember not being able to stretch my imagination that far.
Today, on my second day in Sarajevo, Fata's son Hajro and her granddaughter Ajla, planned to show me around town, take me to the bank, and help me get my visa extended. They both arrived soon after I finished breakfast.
Ajla looked as if she belonged on the streets of Greenwich Village. Her long ashen hair pulled back in a ponytail, she wore tight, fashionable jeans, black leather boots, and a black leather coat that reached to her thighs. The daylight revealed her exquisite beauty--her Romanesque nose, her enlivened blue eyes, her swollen lips.
"Did you sleep okay?" she asked.
"Yes, I did."
We headed out the door, through the front gate, and down Hrgica, the short lane upon which the Selimadovics lived. Family houses and small apartment buildings lined the pockmarked, crumbling lane that gently curved along the hillside. The air was brisk, but warmed by the intense sunlight glaring off the snow. Smell of diesel tinted the crisp, alpine air that infused this city in the mountains.
We walked down a short, steep hill, and entered Bascarsija, the old Turkish bazaar. Lean-to wooden buildings hunkered along foot-polished stone lanes. Little shops--selling shoes, hats, copper ware, gold--occupied the ground floors. Shoppers and students strolled along the streets. Men congregated on corners, smoking and gesturing.
After I cashed some travelers' checks at the bank, we took a window seat in the Imperijal Café looking out over Ferhadija--Sarajevo's main pedestrian street. The place was packed. Waiters weaved through tables, past leather-covered booths, carrying trays piled high with cups of espresso, cappuccino, and hot chocolate, leaving a trail of steam in the air. In the corner booths, elderly ladies sat content in fur hats. Dressed in leather jackets, sunglasses propped up on shaved heads, four bulky men sat around a table, two of them speaking into cellular phones, holding them to their ears like accessories. Black market, I thought. Has to be.
Smoke permeated the air, a cigarette lit at just about every table.
Hajro and I sipped on cappuccino as Ajla ate chocolate cake. It was a school day, but Hajro allowed Ajla to take the day off so she could translate for us. Hajro obviously liked to pamper his daughter. He was proud of her, bragging that Ajla attended a gymnasium in the center of town, apparently the best there was in Sarajevo. Ivo Andric, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, had gone there.
"They say it's the best," Ajla said. "But I don't know who 'they' are. I have my doubts if it's what they say it is."
Unshaven, hair a little disheveled, Hajro looked plaintively out the window and across the street at a shell-damaged building from the turn of the century, obviously an Austrian neo-Baroque design, a building you'd fine in Prague, Budapest, or Vienna.
"Ten thousand people were killed in Sarajevo during the war," Ajla said, translating for her father. "A lot of children, a lot of women, and lot of old people."
"Nobody believed there would be war," he continued through Ajla. "Muhamed was the first to warn us. He came back from Germany and said we all had to leave. We all thought he was crazy. But, as you can see," gesturing toward the war damage, "he was right."
When the war started, Hajro got his wife and children out of Sarajevo, and then returned to take care of his mother. Fata and he remained in the house, taking cover in the kitchen (for lack of a cellar) when the shelling occurred, or, when it got too heavy, in a neighbor's basement, where Croats, Serbs, and Muslims all huddled together. Hajro and his mother were lucky, because their house was well covered by surrounding buildings. A total of four grenades landed on and around their house, one of which landed on the spot where Hajro had been standing just ten seconds before.
But Hajro, when talking of the war, revealed little of the anguish that must have characterized those years of siege. He appeared more interested in fawning over his daughter, watching her eat her cake, asking if it tasted okay. The war years were far behind, or so it seemed. He had his daughter's future to look forward to. He appeared little concerned, or had grown used to the fact, that his city and his country were still greatly ruined.
After coffee we rode the tram to the police station, where I needed to get a stamp in my passport that would allow me to stay longer than the three-month limit I received as a regular tourist. Hajro explained to the policewoman at the front desk our business, and she gave me a form to fill out and told us to take a seat in the waiting room.
An Albanian family sat in the room, which included a couple in their fifties, an elderly lady with deeply imbedded wrinkles on her face, and two sons in their twenties. I noticed "Kosovo" written on their form. I figured they must have been refugees.
Several years prior, I'd been in such a waiting room in the Czech Republic, attempting to get a work visa so I could teach English. I remembered the Gypsies that had filled the waiting room, mostly from Slovakia, trying to immigrate to the Czech Republic. I remembered the Chinese trying to decipher the languages on the forms. I now marveled, as I had then, at how people of completely different races and nationalities end up in the same room to wait for the same thing. I marveled at how utterly different circumstances, mine and this Kosovar family's, could lead us to the same place on earth in search of the same stamp.
After waiting fifteen minutes or so, we were sent up the stairs to an office on the top floor. Hajro knocked tentatively on the room and a voice told us to enter. A man with a severe face sat behind a desk.
"Izvolte?" he said. "Can I help you?"
Hajro explained what I needed, and the man told us to come in and shut the door. He pushed his seat back from his desk, lit a cigarette, and looked me up and down. My palms sweated. Hajro sat down in the corner, appearing smaller than he did seconds before, as I'm sure I did too, both of us in the sight of this face that could have served well in a KGB espionage film. I prepared myself for an interrogation.
He asked in Bosnian why I wanted to live in Bosnia. Ajla translated.
Put on the spot, I couldn't think of a single concrete reason for why I had come. How could I explain the stories that compelled me to come? How could I spell out the desire that unsettled me enough in Salt Lake City to go to Sarajevo?
Hajro saved me the embarrassment of silence, telling the man I was a good friend of his sister, and that I wanted to live in Bosnia because I was interested in getting to know the country. The man creased his eyes. His look bore deep.
The man handed me another form to fill out and told Hajro to write down what he said. The man leaned back further in his seat, looked abstractly at the ceiling, smoked, and dictated a statement that Hajro was my host and sponsor, and was responsible for my actions. Hajro obediently wrote down every word and signed it. Then the man signed it, took my 150 marks, and sent us on our way.
But to my surprise, the man first reached his hand out to shake mine.
"Thank you," he said in English, "and have a good time in Bosnia."
"Thank you," I said, a little flabbergasted.
"You are welcome."
Walking out of the police station and toward the tram stop, I breathed deep and took a good look around me, at the mountains so narrowly hedging this city.
What had driven me to come here?
Amidst bullet-riddled facades, scorched highrise apartments, entire blocks reduced to rubble, I doubted my intentions.
Having read some of the war accounts written by foreign and local journalists, I harbored a lot of anger at the U.S., the E.U., and the U.N., all of whom could have ended the bloodshed, but chose not to until rivers of innocent blood began to wash over their reputations. I felt guilty by association, and had arrived with a bleeding heart.
But who was I kidding? And what was there left to say? I imagined the silly rhetoric: "I'm sorry my country is morally bankrupt. We were, you see, too busy fighting for the life of unborn children, too engaged in battling some unwinnable drug war, too preoccupied with the O.J. Simpson trial to bother with the genocide that occurred in your country, that we had the pleasure of observing nearly every day on our television screens for nearly four years."
So what was the real reason for coming? Was it some voyeuristic impulse? To see for myself the damage, the aftermath of carnage, the setting of the tragic drama? Had I been so bereft of vitality in Salt Lake City that I needed a dose of Sarajevo?
Before the war began in Sarajevo, I associated the city mainly with the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a killing that historians have always singled out as the catalyst for the first world war. Now in Sarajevo, I wanted to visit the scene of the crime, to get a better idea of the event which in so many ways portended the century to come, the twentieth century with all its massacres and mass displacements--all its events of horror that, if the signs in Kosovo had me believe, would continue until the last hour of the century.
From the police station, Harjo and Ajla led me to the corner, located opposite the river and the bridge that had, before the Bosnian War, been named for Princip. It was now called Latin Bridge, as it had been before 1914.
After Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Austrian authorities imprisoned the Bosnian Serb in a fortress located in a North Bohemian town called Terezin. The Nazis would later recruit this same fortress as a concentration camp. Scores of Jews would occupy the same cell in which Princip died.
I visited the camp in 1996 when I was doing research for my guidebook to the Czech and Slovak republics. A plaque commemorating the site of Princip's death hung on the crumbling, concrete wall. I had no idea Princip had ended up here, here being so far from his home in Bosnia, from where he had committed his crime.
As I looked into this cell, a chill shuttered through my body. I recalled from my history classes that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia as a result of the archduke's assassination. This declaration launched World War I, and was the death warrant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From the smoldering embers of the empire emerged the Third Reich, and with it Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Terezin. In this concentration camp cell, you could read two passages of the same narrative, a narrative that stretched back to the street corner in Sarajevo where Princip set the world on fire.
Now on my way to see this street corner in person, Ajla mentioned there was a plaque bearing the footsteps of Princip, showing exactly where the Bosnian Serb stood when he shot the Archduke and his wife as they rode in their open car.
But when we arrived at the corner, there was no plaque to be seen. Ajla and Hajro looked around in confusion, and then shrugged their shoulders. It was simply gone.
I looked around, imagining the Archduke and his wife approaching down the street that ran parallel with the river, his driver taking a wrong turn, the worst of turns imaginable--into the sights of Princip's gun.
By all means, the Archduke should have been dead already. Several attempts on his life had been made earlier in the day, when he and his wife drove to the city hall for a meeting with Sarajevo's officials. Princip was just one of many would-be assassins in the crowd lining the streets when the archduke's motorcade passed by.
When the fateful encounter occurred, the Archduke was on his way back from city hall, Princip on his way back from sulking at a café. Having taken a wrong turn, the driver was backing up, giving Princip the time to draw his gun, aim, and shoot the archduke and his wife.
Pure dumb luck.
I tried to fathomed Princip's psychology at the moment he shot the archduke, how it felt to have shouldered history and sent the future reeling into madness with the simple pull of a trigger. He couldn't have imagined it would be so easy, that it would happen this way, as if fate had intervened to place the archduke in such close range.
I looked into the Milacka River, steam unfurling from the current. Metaphorically, I thought, Princip made the right decision after the assassination: to jump off the bridge and be born away in the current, to relinquish himself to the water's passage and drown if so be it. But metaphor rarely lends a helping hand to reality. Almost humorously, the river had been too shallow, only some six or seven inches deep, to float away and evade capture. Instead, he ended up in what would become a concentration camp.
I later learned that the plaque commemorating the assassination had been ripped out of the pavement during the most recent war in Bosnia, because Princip was a Serb, and thus associated with those firing upon Sarajevo. The memorial to perhaps the most significant crime of the twentieth century, an event that would have unimaginable consequences for the rest of the century, had been extracted, as if it were an abscessed tooth. The hole it left had been filled in and paved over--the scene of the crime, in effect, wiped clean.
Those who ripped out the plaque may have argued that Princip, like those who fired on Sarajevo, acted out of a desire for a "greater" Serbia that encompassed Bosnia. But we know, from Princip's testimony at his trial, that he supported, instead, a southern Slav state, a Yugoslavia under which Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, and Slovenes would live united. He was, after all, a member of a group called Mlada Bosna, or Young Bosnia, composed of Serb, Croat, and Muslim students dedicated to the idea of a Yugo-Slavia, among them Ivo Andric. In his trial, Princip described himself as Bosnian, not Serb. It was the region, not the ethnic group, that defined him.
Many would argue that some things are best left forgotten, including the assassination of a corrupt Austrian Archduke. But if anything has taught us about the destruction of the former Yugoslavia, about the past and present wars in the Balkans, memory has a lifespan that outlasts that of a human being, and it can be manipulated for the deadliest of purposes, or harnessed for the most civil of ideals.
As I stood on perhaps the most infamous street corner in the world, my own memory reverted to a tour I took of the chateau in which the Archduke had lived, a place called Konopiste, located about sixty miles south of Terezin in the Czech Republic. I went there shortly after visiting the cell where the Archduke's assassin had died. In the chateau, hundreds upon thousands of animal trophy heads hung from the wall. Gaudy furniture and dishware made of elephants' legs, tigers' teeth, lions' skins filled the rooms. The ornate Baroque chateau bespoke of another sort of holocaust.
Walking the animal-decorated halls and rooms of Konopiste, bearing witness to the volume of Franz Ferdinand's kill (he's said to have shot some 300,000 animals in his lifetime, a daily average of twenty-two), I concluded, as many others have, that hunting was no sport to the archduke, but a kind of mania, a perversion.
I felt no sympathy for the Archduke. He had sketched his fate with the gallons of blood he shed, and died in the manner he lived.
Standing at Princip's corner in Sarajevo, where there was no indication of what had happened here, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of sympathy for the assassin. He was young, an idealist student, acting from a conviction that was, in hindsight, noble and sensible, given the carnage that a divided Yugoslavia would wrought again and again in the twentieth century.
There was, I decided, no one way to feel about this assassination. The world war it ignited eventually transformed Europe, and possibly for the better, as it vanquished the Austro-Hungarian Empire and gave rise to independent multicultural states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, the latter being one of the most progressively democratic countries between the two world wars.
Then again, Princip's shot turned Europe into a slaughterhouse, and his legacy, the ring of gunfire, would continue to echo on this street corner into the 1990s, when snipers took their position in the hills above the bridge and took pot-shots at pedestrians scrambling across the bridge from which Princip jumped.
Evidence of that war of aggression was everywhere I turned in Sarajevo.
Skyscrapers scorched and gutted; houses lying in heaps of floors, walls and roofs; facades riddled with bullet holes: the architectural landscape of Sarajevo bolstered the memory of a war still fresh in the minds of the people who survived it. For many here, the landscape bolstered memories understandably sewn with hatred for the Serbs who inflicted the damage and, regrettably, for Serb people in general, past and present.
It will take years, I thought, probably decades, before Sarajevo wiped clean the scenes of the war that lasted here from 1992 to 1995. But for now, the memory of war could take many different shapes, even the shape of a rose.
* * *
I looked for them the next day, and they appeared under my feet--small indentations in the sidewalk marking the spots where shells landed during the three-and-a-half-year siege on the city. As a gesture of remembrance, the city had filled in many of these indentations with red plastic. The people here called these particular signs of the war the Sarajevo roses.
The red plastic showed the impression the shells left on the concrete--a red circle where the shell impacted and several red chips, or petals, in the pavement radiating from the center of the explosion like splattered paint. Despite the name, there was nothing attractive or decorative about the Sarajevo Roses, but they did raise questions: Did this particular shell injure anyone? Kill anyone? If so, how many? Who launched it? And why?
Before the war began, few people in Sarajevo believed their city could become a site of ethnic warfare-of all places, a city so ethnically and religiously intertwined that to create the sides needed for war meant creating enemies out of friends and neighbors, meant placing cousins, even husbands and wives, on opposite sides of a front line. It meant stirring up an intolerance that hardly had a foothold here before the first shots echoed through the city. It meant imposing identities, so that those who waged war could identify their enemies.
"Before the war," I remembered Muhamed back in Salt Lake saying, "I didn't know I was Muslim."
This, as I would learn, was how Bosnians often begin their sentences: "before the war" or "after the war." The war severed time in two, into the before and after. What was once true before the war no longer held currency after it ended.
The war signified a transformation, a crossing from one state to another, from one identity to another, from Yugoslav to Bosnian Muslim, to Bosnian Croat, to Bosnian Serb.
Before the war, Sarajevans referred to themselves firstly as Yugoslav, secondly as Bosnian, and remotely third as Muslim, Serb, or Croat. Since thousands were the product of mixed marriages, Yugoslav became the most viable, accurate description for the people who lived in Bosnia.
Of course, Muhamed knew he came from a Muslim family, his first name a rather explicit reminder of it. In his claim of ignorance, I knew what he meant: his identity did not rest on his religious background. He and Meli would feel just as much at ease in the Sarajevo Cathedral during Christmas Eve mass, which they did every year, as they would in the mosque during Bajrum. Instead of limiting their identities to that of Muslims, they added on to them; and Yugoslav, that adjective of plurality-evoking Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, Albanian, Hungarian, Jewish-suited them the best.
Looking at one of the Sarajevo Roses, I remembered a young woman I met in Prague who was from Sarajevo. She and her family fled the city when the war broke out. Her father had been called to serve in the Serb army. Instead of fighting against his Muslim and Croat friends, he took his family and left the country.
When I met this woman, I made the mistake of referring to her as Bosnian. She was Yugoslav, she said, four years after the war. She refused to be pigeonholed into the new categories manufactured by the war, by its battles over boundaries. She preferred the irony and the abstraction of a nationality that operated without the rationale of concrete borders. She preferred the greater inclusiveness of the term, and the greater solidarity it suggested.
Then again, she no longer lived in a Yugoslavia. She lived in the Czech Republic, where people still referred to Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia as Yugoslavia, as Americans still referred to the Czech and Slovak republics as Czechoslovakia.
Artifacts from the destruction and disintegration of Yugoslavia, the ubiquitous Sarajevo roses were imbued with paradox. Though reminders of the killing that went on for years, the roses appeared and sounded as poetic things, but only because of what our imaginations brought to them, and what our imaginations were able to overcome.
Without the adornment of our imaginations, these were just holes in the ground, effects of the killers in the mountains.
Usurped by the poetic imagination, the holes had become roses.
The roses showed Sarajevans could still live with, even create, paradox, while the rest of the Western world could not. The West couldn't abide Muhamed and Meli, two Muslims, celebrating Catholic Christmas and Orthodox New Year. The West couldn't abide the plurality in their identities. The West, informed by its media and politicians, could see only three warring factions--the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Somewhere outside the frame was a fourth faction, individuals fighting for the paradox contained in their multiple identities.
* * *
Jasmin wore a black leather coat, and a pair of Doc Martin boots. His long curly hair covered his shoulders. Like Ajla, he could have as easily blended in on Bowery Street as he did on Marshal Tito Street, where Ajla introduced him as her boyfriend.
"Ajla says you are writer." he says. "I think Sarajevo is a good place to be a writer."
"I guess I'll find out," I said.
Jasmin wanted to show me around. He seemed eager to meet an American, happy to be speaking English. He was twenty years old, and studying for his university entrance exams.
We walked through the center of town, Jasmin talking nonstop.
"Yes, I lived in Sarajevo during most of the war," Jasmin said with something that resembled pride.
"Nearly everyday I saw some person die on the streets, and many of them were my friends." This too, it seemed, was a matter of pride.
"The war made Sarajevo a very hard place to grow up, as you can imagine. I grew up fast here."
Near the end of the war, Jasmin's parents sent him to Vienna to live with his uncle. He hated living there.
"The Austrians thought I was some strange animal. I went to a boarding school, and my teacher, who knew I was Muslim, asked if I'd ever been with a girl. That stupid bitch didn't know anything about us. She thought we came from someplace like Saudi Arabia, like we were not Europeans."
"I'm very glad to be back in Sarajevo with my people," he added. "We Bosnians understand each other. The other Europeans don't understand us."
Jasmin pointed out his apartment, which was across the street from the twin UNIS skyscrapers. The Serbs had shelled both of the glass-encased buildings during the war. The glass on one of them had been replaced. The top six stories of the other were still vacant, windowless.
"The fire was so hot," Jasmin said, recalling the day the Serbs shelled the skyscrapers, "we could have cooked eggs on our walls."
We turned down a side street and stopped before a wooden mosque, its minaret lying on the ground to the side, blown from its perch on the top of the mosque.
"A regular story in Bosnia," Jasmin said. "This was, and still is, one of the nicest mosques in Sarajevo. But you can see what the Chetniks did to it." It seemed a personal affront to Jasmin.
We moved on, arriving at a park along Marshall Tito Street, where dozens of big oaks lurched overhead. Amidst the trees, centuries' old Islamic gravestones sprouted hodgepodge from the ground like mushrooms. Ajla pointed them out.
"Those ones shaped like turbans are for men, the others are for women," she said, indicating the ones shaped like obelisks. But I wasn't thinking so much about the stones, as I was about the trees, and the women pushing baby carriages among them, the young couples embracing below them. Life happening.
"Isn't it going to be difficult," I remembered a friend asking me back in the U.S., "to live in a city with no trees?" We had both read about Sarajevans having to cut down the trees in the parks for firewood.
I remarked to Ajla and Jasmin that I was surprised to find so many trees.
"Why?" Jasmin asked.
"Because I read that most of them had been cut down to build fires."
"I'm sure you read a lot of things about Sarajevo that isn't true," Jasmin said with a hint of disgust. "Come. I want to show you something."
At the far side of the park, a row of five or six wooden grave markers stood, surrounded by a short picket fence. All the dates of death were 1992. Buried here were policemen, all shot outside a station about twenty yards up the hill. Jasmin had known some of them.
"My heroes," he said, as he crouched down, wiped his face, extended his hands towards the miniature cemetery, and said a short prayer.
"Okay," he said, rising from his prayer. "We may go drink a coffee."
Ajla, Jasmin, and I took a seat in a nearby cafe. At eleven in the morning, the place was packed, mostly middle-aged men reading the newspaper, smoking, sipping from espresso cups.
"I'm afraid of too many bad things coming here. The drugs, the homosexuals, the prostitutes. I saw all of this in Vienna, and I hope it doesn't come here. You can already see this bad stuff happening here. Girls wear almost nothing in the summer."
I wondered how bad of a thing that could be.
"Men get wrong ideas, you know," Jasmin said. "I keep telling Ajla that she should cover her head."
Ajla looked up from her cappuccino. "But it's fine how I have my hair," she said. "Like this, with my hair pulled back over my ears. I don't think boys are getting bad ideas looking at me."
Jasmin disregarded her, and offered me a cigarette. I drew one from his pack and he lit it for me.
"This is my one vice," Jasmin said. "I don't drink or take drugs. I keep to the word of the Koran, and try to live clean. Do you drink?" he asked me.
"Yes, I do."
"I could never drink. I don't see how anyone can, because you can't think clearly when you drink. And it's important to think clearly."
"You can if you drink in moderation."
"But even a little bit is bad. Are you a good Christian?"
"No, not really," I said.
"I don't understand Christianity. How is it you can believe in three gods, and call them one?"
"The Holy Trinity, you mean?"
"Yes. It doesn't make sense. We have one God. Allah."
Just then an SFOR armored personnel vehicle rumbled down the street.
Nato's Security Force, SFOR, kept the peace in Bosnia. Its tanks, armored personnel vehicles, helicopters, soldiers were ubiquitous, especially here in Sarajevo, where it was hard to walk through the city without passing a platoon of them, at least one soldier carrying a sub-machine gun. They had become part of Sarajevo's culture, part of its cityscape.
"You see. We already have too much of the West here. We're ready for them to leave," Jasmin said.
"Why?" I asked.
"We'd rather be left alone now," Jasmin said.
"But would happen if they did leave?"
"We can take care of ourselves."
Ajla bowed her head down to the cup and slurped her cappuccino. I heard someone behind me snap a newspaper.
* * *
Ajla had to be back for class, so we left the café and headed toward her school.
Students, shoppers, SFOR soldiers sauntered down Ferhadija, Sarajevo's main pedestrian street. We passed by something called the Islamic Cultural Center. Jasmin told me the Iranian Embassy had put it there.
This, I did not expect. As Muhamed told me, and as I read, Bosnians were not the best Muslims in the world. They drank, as Muhamed did, and some even ate pork. They were, in general, Muslim by name, and not necessarily by practice.
But Iran did ship arms to Bosnia, in spite of the embargo that left Sarajevans largely defenseless against an army shooting at anything that moved, be it Muslim, Croat, or Serb.
"I believe something happened here in Sarajevo between your country and Iran. I think they found something in common. That's why there are better relations between them."
I supposed this was wishful thinking on the part of Jasmin. Judging from his fidelity to Islam, and the placement of the Iranian government's Islamic Cultural Center on Sarajevo's most high profile street, I wondered if something more profound hadn't occurred between Bosnia and Iran. After dropping Ajla off at her school, Jasmin and I continued toward Bascarsija. He wanted to show me another one of his favorite mosques.
We walked through the old Turkish bazaar on our way to the mosque. It being lunch time, the smell of cevapi, a Sarajevan specialty of grilled minced lamb, scented the air. Bascarsija was renown throughout the former Yugoslavia as the cevapi mecca, where one out of every four or five establishments specialized in preparing the meat. The atmosphere was festive: Cold air laced with the smoke and smell of grilled meats, the ruddy faces of the shoppers and shop proprietors who packed the narrow lanes--it all reminded me of the ski resort towns in the American West, except here were people engaged in their daily rituals, and not on some expensive ski vacation.
Jasmin and I crossed a bridge, upon which a plaque informed us that the bridge had been rebuilt with U.S. Aid money.
Named for the Turkish sultan Suljeman the Magnificent, who ordered it to be built in the sixteenth century, the Emperor's Mosque stood a few feet back from the river bank, its minaret and three bulbous green roofs faded against the white relief of the snowy mountain side. Jasmin asked a man in the foyer if it was okay to bring a non-Muslim, such as myself, into the mosque. With his approval, we entered in the courtyard that divided the entrance from the mosque itself.
The harried gardens of the courtyard doubled as a cemetery, where turban-shaped grave markers teetered in the snow and water trickled and echoed from small fountains. We sat down on the front steps, took our shoes off, and entered the mosque.
The exquisiteness dumbstruck me. The vines woven intricately into the carpets; the flourishes of the Arabic calligraphy on the walls; the heavy, heavy silence: Compared to the outer destruction of Sarajevo, the inside of the mosque provided a respite that was otherworldly. Oriental solemn extravagance in the midst of modern-day Balkan scarcity and ruin. There was little here I could understand, since it was the first time I'd ever been inside a mosque. Jasmin pointed out the staircase where the hodja led prayers cast towards Mecca. It was here, Jasmin said, he came every Friday at noon for prayers.
We put our shoes on and left the mosque, once more surrounded by the pervasive destruction.
From the mosque we made our way up the hillside along gnarled lanes through the mahala called Alifakovac. Two or three boys, their faces dirty and smeared with snot, sat on the steps, spinning rocks.
Jasmin stopped at the fountain at the entrance, cupped his hands, and filled them with water, gulping down two or three handfuls. I followed suit.
Grave markers, some recent, many centuries old, sprouted from the hillside. We climbed some more steps and took a seat at one of the kiosks. Jasmin offered me a cigarette and we both sat smoking and gazing at Sarajevo across the white, stone grave markers, planted hodgepodge across the curvature of the slope.
Packed tight in the narrow valley, houses and buildings vied for space in the dense battered landscape. A brooding fog weighed on the rooftops, suppressing any hint of exaltation or loftiness, declaring the city all but sunk. In the distance the tall, the scorched apartment blocks of Grbavica and the windowless twin UNIS skyscrapers pushed through the haze like the arms of a men drowning in their own misty breath. The foot of Mt. Igman glowered at the end of the valley, at the far reaches of our sight, a bookmark holding up one end of the city.
I was beginning to notice a pattern in the way Bosnians buried their dead. No visible demarcation separated cemeteries from the space of the living. There was something honest and open about their gravesites, set upon hillsides or in the middle of a park, always within full view of the people walking by. This cemetery was not neat and orderly, nor were the graves ordered in rows and lanes like the ones in America. The cemeteries in Sarajevo seemed more organic, a more honest testament to the act of death, than what we had back in the U.S.
Nearly at once the city erupted in prayer. Sounded from the scores of minarets in the city, the muezzins' singing came from all directions, bouncing from hillside to hillside, the voices made tinny by the loudspeakers' broadcast. I felt immersed in a valley of voice and prayer.
As if in revolt of the infidel religion, church bells suddenly began to peel, adding to the cacophonic religious din that suffused the city in the mountains--Islam and Christianity intertwined, knotted in sound.
"This is our heresy," Jasmin said, taking a drag off his cigarette. "We have a history of it."
He lifted his arm and pointed at the city.
"I'll never leave this place again."
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