By Way of Introduction
I first came to the Balkans in 1997 -- in search of a Croatian production
of Radovan Ivsic's King Gordogan, which I had previously opened
off-off Broadway at the Ohio Theater in New York. Little did I know then
that I would return twice more to Croatia, in June 2001 to Sarajevo, and
again in October for the MES Sarajevo International theater festival.
I was drawn back as much by a growing interest in the cultural history
of the area as by a need to witness the aftermath of Europe's most devastating
conflict since World War II.
The following is a selection of texts on Sarajevo and Sarajevans,
a city and people that endured the longest siege in modern military history.
For Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Sarajevans…
All those who drink from this fountain will return
There it is
a fountain masked by the moon
where tiny trains carry shards of thistle
and brief scars burn on feather beds
portable gold leaf mirrors
There it is
a fountain scorched by the sun
where blue herons trade shadows
and oval lips sift square eyes
through salty stamps from yesteryear
There it is
a fountain raced by the wind
where cloud chimeras flint black sparks
and Lilith roses open
There it is
a fountain trained by stars
that rise from gristled shells
embedded in its lip
by a blind mason
There it is
a fountain that whittles its hands
down to potable char
and sings dark lullabies
to white crows
Drink from this fountain
and you will return
I have drunk
from the fountain of no return
reliving each time
my return to it
drink from this fountain
drink from this fountain
that happens, happens here at the Sebilja fountain.... in a cul de sac
they still serve the incomparable juniper juice.
- Miroslav Prstojevic, from Lost Sarajevo,
wears its past well enough, but the changes from then to now are dramatic.
From a city that sat well within and against the surrounding hills, it
has grown haphazardly. At the turn of the 20th century, the city sports
open fields, farms and flocks of sheep and cattle on the down slope to
the nearby hills, a rustic contrast to the metropolis below. By the turn
of the 21st century, streets and homes emboss those same hillsides. The
forest that previously framed the landscape no longer exists save for
a thin line of ridge trees, both a result of the recent war. With the
flow of oil cut to the city, wood provided heating fuel during the long
months of the siege while ridge trees marked the boundary between Bosnian
and Serb forces. At the same time, new graveyards have mushroomed to hold
the 10,000 plus war victims and a huge neo-Gothic media transmission tower
rises over the bare eastern summit. Opposite are the ski lofts, gaunt
steel ghosts of the 1984 Winter Olympics, which, I am told, may soon be
in use again.
The newer sections of the city toward the
airport have little to say for themselves. High rises built in the latter
years of Tito's reign in the former Yugoslavia compose a bleak comment
on the ease with which city planners and architects can forgo the beauty
of time -- Sarajevo as a purely human place with its cafés, markets
and mosques -- for the platitudes of urban mundanity. Closer to the frontier
between Bosnia Herzegovina and Republic Srpska stand streets still gutted
by Serb bombardment, hideous reminders of the ferocity of the attacks.
Other new massive apartment complexes that line the two-lane highway from
the city, leading to Zenica, Mostar and other towns, are signs of things
to come -- an urban conglomeration pitched into the future.
The city will grow extensively and intensively.
The downtown will burnish its old world charm as it can while new suburbs
slowly appear and old suburbs rebuild.
Sarajevo gained wealth, prestige and beauty
by way of an ancient tradition. As a cultural bazaar, a transmission route
between East and West, with Muslims, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians,
Jews and others, the city prospered and its culture deepened.
The city's past carries its future - that
much is clear. But how the present carries both is a question that only
Sarajevans can answer. Let us hope that they find the political will and
economic resources to do so.
century Venetian envoy Caterino Zeno wrote: "The city is spread among
the hills on both sides; it is full of gardens and well kept orchards.
It is a city of merchants and is inhabited by Turks, Christian Serbs and
citizens of Dubrovnik. The houses are built of wood, stone and earth.
There are many mosques and caravan sites. It has a little fortress built
on top of a hill. The city consists of 10,000 houses, each of which has
a garden and rooms with panoramic views. The gardens are as beautiful
as those in Padua."
Skender-Pasha, for his own pleasure, there, just outside of town, on
the left and right Miljacka banks, had a beautiful and spacious palace
built for himself, a tekke, an imret, a big Karavan-saraj with a shop.
And a bridge.
some cities that straddle time gracefully. They honor their culture while
accepting the transformations that modernity has brought them. They do
not sacrifice the former for the latter. They understand that time is
relentless, but that society is something else and evolves at its own
pace. They also sense that they must struggle to preserve what they value,
and that there are some things they will lose in the effort, including
their nostalgia. Sarajevo has lost much more than a dream of its past.
Yet it is still an open city, its optimism tempered by reconstruction,
its humor forged by war. Sarajevo speaks to us now some six years after
the signing of the peace, not so much because of its past, but because
it has endured so much to sustain for itself a present that roots in the
humanity of its past.
And if this carries something of a need
to remember, it does so before the promise of future that draws from that
street and surrounding quarter date back to 1515, when the Havadza Durak
quarter and mosque were built.
The art of living is to sit in a small space together with your goods.
The picture postcard dates from 1901. A century later nothing much has
changed. There's the Sebilja fountain, central axis of the old quarter,
surrounded with shops, cafés and a milling industrious crowd. The
horses and donkeys loaded down with goods have given way to cars and trucks,
thankfully barred from entrance save for quick deliveries. The women in
veils and traditional peasant dress are romantic images of a time long
past. The men wearing fezzes or Bosnian turbans are relics. But you can
stand there, look at this postcard and know that history breathes freely,
and that whatever might change in Sarajevo, Bascarsija will not. The narrow
cobbled streets that spin out like some walker's lure and the intimate
squares where you can sit and sip coffee play their charming duets. Perhaps
there are more restaurants and pharmacies, a music store selling CDs,
the blare of Eurotrash from a pastry shop, a computer café, a cell
phone distributor, but the kiosks and stores, some still open to the street,
tell the tale of a commerce measured to man. There is the jewelers street,
the metal worker's street, the copper smith street, the textile merchants
street, the leather workers and shoe makers street infiltrated, yes, by
other merchants who sell other goods -- the specificity diminishing through
the years -- but Bascarsija is what makes Sarajevo a city.
It was here at the fountain on the outer
wall to the Ali Pasha mosque -- a stunning Renaissance affair, its war
damage now being refurbished -- that I first took a drink of the water
that flows from Sarajevo's fountains, and made my wish. For it is said
that if you drink from Sarajevo's fountains and wish to return, you will
Several months later I found myself in
Bascarsija again at this same fountain. And each day I would walk the
quarter, marveling at the ingenuity of a recognition that has made this
city, at least here, a living medium for passage, idleness and commerce
-- a vital link with the medieval bazaar.
We find Bascarsijas in other cities, our
modern capitals, and flock to them for the same reason that Sarajevans
come here. New York's Greenwich Village, the Marais of Paris, the French
Quarter of New Orleans, San Francisco's North Beach, old Dubrovnik all
return us to ourselves. Amidst the chaos of urban life, we seek those
places where we can breathe more freely, where we can walk unhindered
by the crushing verticality of steel and glass; where we can discover,
or believe we have discovered, a new corner or courtyard, a stoop given
over to games, a wooden doorway at odds with its metal neighbors, an old
painted sign from a former decade in a previous century now just barely
visible in the dirty sun of late afternoon.
were practically non-existent. You traveled on footpaths or donkey trails.
You rode a tahterivan: a sedan chair in the
form of a closed coach without wheels. The chair was carried by horses
or at least four men.
- Zivko Crnogorcevic, from his 18th-century
It all started with packing tobacco into 500 gram packets. Then came the
local brands: Duman, Herzegovina, Bosna, Huslar, Drina, Sarajevo,
Flora, Pasavina and the 1908 top of the line: Vrbas.
He speaks quickly, volubly and without end. He speaks not only because
he believes that he must speak -- that his observations, sentiments and
opinions are important, at least important enough for others to hear --but
because he fears not to speak. In this way, he forces upon himself and
those around him an opacity that his words paint over and over, shade
by shade; an opacity that deepens now and then to an ephemeral chiaroscuro,
which is -- whether he knows this or not -- more true to his life than
For within those shadows, paler here, darker
there, revolve the memories of a catastrophe that he will spend the rest
of his life surmounting.
He is one of the few now living on this
earth to have suffered the anguish of siege. And because of this distinction,
which he has rarely used for a boast, and which he would rather never
have possessed, possessing all else despite it, he lives in constant pursuit
of himself, his family, his friends, too many of whom he lost to a bullet
A man of peace and compassion, at heart
he understands his predicament, but can do nothing to counteract its repercussions,
except through the velocity that he gives to his words.
Even in his attentiveness to others, which
prompts in his flights a composure as graceful as it is deft, he is prey
to his urge to talk if, for nothing more, than to fill the silence within
He races ahead brandishing his words like
And he knows, knowing just as well that
I know, that he will, that he can do little to alter his trust in words.
Nor is silence a pardon, when he accepts
it finally freed of the immediacy of others, nor any effort to lighten
his burden, composed equally of pain, guilt, anger and fear.
From the day a sniper's bullet cut his
father down in 1992, he has sought to survive as he can, living out his
passions on the battlefield of his memory.
He speaks as I write.
He mirrors the silence I mask.
But perhaps more than his words, what carries
his body below him and fills with a distant glaze as if he were here
and there, then and now, are his eyes, which are not my
eyes. Large, soft, tired blue-gray eyes with yellow rheumy corners; eyes
that collect the tears of the day in a sweaty film he does not wipe off;
sleepless eyes that see themselves being seen seeking perhaps someone
else or something more, some other sight he has yet to see; eyes that
have stored within them a compost of images that have defined his years.
His eyes of Sarajevo.
I met J.D. one morning beside the tram stop just opposite the Sebilja
fountain in Bascarsija. A slim, soft spoken, white-haired fellow in jeans
and tennis shoes, D shook hands and spoke briefly with many passers-by.
I had never seen D before but his popularity
was clear; it could only be he.
That morning, though D was waiting for
us. A few days earlier, a photographer I met had arranged for D to take
us on a tour of the war lines.
So, she, I, another friend, the American
journalist Pam Taylor, and D, rented a taxi and took off for the hills
D is a Serb, as he put it, "by birth," but considers himself
a Sarajevan. He was educated in a French military college and served in
the Yugoslav Army. When the country began to break up with the secession
of Slovenia and Croatia, he knew what would come, this deadly antagonism
whose memory convulses us still.
Serb paramilitary forces, supported by
the Yugoslav Army, began their rampage with a drumbeat of atrocities.
Bosnian Muslims, wishing to avoid civil war, but recognizing that peaceful
options were closing down fast, proclaimed Bosnia Herzegovina as an independent,
Early on in these events, D received an
offer from the Bosnian Serb command to take over a large unit readying
to march against the new republic. "I refused," D explained.
"Sarajevo is my home."
Shortly thereafter he took command of Bosnian
forces in Sarajevo. His quick military intelligence and personal acumen
did much to overcome the UN arms embargo that, overtly or covertly, favored
Serb aggression. Despite the lack of much beyond personal arms and a rag-tag
collection of stolen Yugoslav military hardware, the police force, a small
group of experienced officers, and criminal gangs conscripted into service,
he managed the city's defense.
Bosnian Serb paramilitary units set up
cannon, mortars and snipers in the hills around Sarajevo. At the height
of the siege three to four thousand bullets and mortar shells hit the
Neighborhoods burned. People fell: combatants,
the elderly, children, infants, you name it.
"We made the Serbs know that any attempt
to enter the city would cost them dearly. The narrow twisting streets
are perfect for barricades. It would have been a blood bath. They weren't
willing to risk it. We prepared to sustain ourselves, to survive."
We came to a bare hill above the city and
got out of the taxi. The high rugged countryside spread before us. D pointed
out cannon placements and sniper blinds, explaining the accuracy that
a high-powered scope lends to snipers, who had their pick of targets.
He pointed to the mouth of the valley leading out of the city.
"The Serbs held that position, but
just behind them and a little to the side were Bosnian forces. It was
not a complete encirclement. But it was certainly enough to push for our
"Remember: They had cannon, mortar,
automatic weapons and ammunition, as much ammunition as they needed. We
couldn't match them."
Pam Taylor reminded D that she had met
him before in Washington, DC in 1993, where he came to petition the US
military for air strikes against the same Serb positions he had just noted
for us -- a petition, by the way, that fell on deaf ears. And as she did
so, she addressed him as "General."
He smiled and shook his head. "No,
just Jovan. I'm no longer a General." Then he bent down and picked
a small blue flower, the only such flower from a clump of rocks and a
scattering of low weeds. "Here," he said, handing her the blossom,
"this is what a 'general' does."
We took photos and greeted a peasant woman with her cows, who ambled off
alone toward the trees behind us marked by the ever-present yellow skull
and cross-bones warning tape and signs: "Danger: Land Mines!"
"They'll let the animals walk in to
forage," D explained. "If they don't trip a mine, perhaps the
area is safer than we believe. If there is an explosion, well, there's
meat for dinner -- if you can get to it."
As we drove back to the city, D suggested
that we meet his friends, a couple and their son who live nearby. We soon
pulled over. On the wall beside the road fronting the house, D translated
a commemorative plaque.
"There was a Serb grenade attack;
the two children died. The parents were shattered. It was very sad. Finally
they had a third child, a boy. They asked me to be godfather. They're
part of me now, family. You'll like them. "
As we walked up the front steps to the
house, the child ran out to greet his godfather. In the backyard the mother
and father were working their garden, half vegetable patch, half rose
bushes. Smiles, embraces and handshakes followed with an invitation to
sit at the garden table for coffee, cakes and Losa -- the strong, tasty,
local eau du vie. The child sat with us, sipping Coke, eyeing us
We talked of little things: where we came
from, why we were in Sarajevo and what we thought of the city. When we
were about to leave, the lady of the house picked two perfect long stems
for the women.
"You'll remember us when you gaze
at the rose," she said.
We drove off infused with the simple joie
de vivre of the family. It was something to sense that the couple
had found in death the courage to bear life again; that their remaining
son, whom they cherished, would chart his own course toward a future more
humane than their past.
We ended the tour near the border of Republic
Srpska, where bombed out streets and gutted row houses are the rule, not
the exception -- where the physical evidence of carnage reveals the brutal
absurdity of war. For half way down the street two other homes were under
repair and young kids were riding bicycles around bomb craters still scarring
D is now writing his war memoirs under
the poignant, if ironic, title "Don't Shoot!" When I offered
to help him find an American publisher and asked what he wanted financially,
he thought for a moment and responded this way: "There is nothing
I need. I have everything: my health, my wife. I'm in a taxi with two
beautiful women. No, give the proceeds to the war orphanage. I work with
the children there."
I would meet J. D. each night thereafter
at the theater, where we would discuss in the evening's performance. This
cultured, unassuming man, once a general, now a citizen, generous to a
tee, engaging, curious and open, will stay in my thoughts for some time
At 30 she's been around the block several times. It's not that she's burned
a few men and been burned back; it has nothing to do with love. It begins
in the siege, her work as a journalist, escape to a university in Kansas
and her return to Sarajevo soon after the nightmare ends and peace --
if you can call it that -- begins.
It's about her looks, her talents and what
she comes up against when she tries to make it on her own. It's about
the state of the art in her city, and what you have to do to keep yourself
in the running. It's about the old shell game -- you win one, I win two
-- and the thick political smoke that can choke off a career just starting
The siege she endures with a fatalistic
anger, a simmering rage at the violence done to her, her family, her hopes
and her nation. Like most she knows, she accustoms herself to harm's way.
There's a mortal risk to daily affairs. That's the way it is; you accept
it, horrified at how easily the habits twist down deep. It goes on for
She writes about it for the newspaper.
There's a lifeline here that keeps her just lucid enough to know when
the gore, the duplicity, the endless intimate negotiations will drown
her. Don't go here, there's a sniper with a bead on the street; careful
there, a grenade shattered two lives yesterday; remember to boil the water
long enough, you don't want a parasite cocktail; pick up a few vegetables
for the soup but don't splurge, we've got to eat what we've got, and so
on. She keeps the kind of balance that allows her to believe she'll outlast
the atrocious time of her youth.
And she comes away from it all with a peculiar
sense that, while she's lightened a load that might crush her, it's a
temporary caesura in an otherwise deafening barrage that calls itself
Escape is there, yes, she admits it; she'd
rather be elsewhere. No matter how dearly she's paid for what she has,
she'd like to think that she could have it free of charge; free, at least,
of running for her life when the bullets start flying.
And then, much to her amazement, she wins
a scholarship to a graduate program in communication at a university in
She takes the cue. She uproots herself,
walks away from her ravaged city through the tunnel beneath the airport
runway, and wakes up in a quiet student ghetto on the edge of a campus
where conflict wears a football helmet or a basketball jersey. She leaps
from Sarajevo's tormented whirlwind to the humane boredom of graduate
She's industrious, sometimes brilliant,
and keeps to the program with an intensity that gains her TV journalism
experience. She finishes her degree in half the usual time, takes a thankful
look around her and decides she's had enough. Sarajevo is calling. She
gets back on that plane.
She lands a job as a reporter with the
city's lead station. Her intelligence and charm should keep her in the
chips for some time to come.
The news section, reputedly free from external
interference, follows the cash as anyone else with an eye for the graft.
A token front for the political power base that supports the presidency
-- the same nomenclatura that ushered in the war -- it shades its "objectivity"
just enough to keep power with the powerful.
But that's the way of things journalistic.
Moralists and renegades eventually pay the price anyway. And the information
flows on as it has, from one official desk to another.
Exceptions? Of course, there are exceptions,
and governments suffer now and then because of them; but the rule trumps
in the end. And while we celebrate this or that reporter because of their
courage, we don't do so because they rule, do we?
The Sarajevo arena now is city size, a
city in sudden revival. But power plays are as subtle and as ruthless
there as anywhere else.
So she's promoted. She's earned the right. Her credentials are impeccable.
And when the lights fall on her face, we can all sit back with the knowledge
that she'll be there for us in the way we want, and that her voice will
clarify the questions we remember to ask, not those we forget to remember.
And the price to be paid for the salary,
the glory: There's a price. It's not something you can put your finger
on at first; it comes in fits and starts. But it comes nonetheless, and
when it does you make your choice. You choose your poison, and take the
consequences, however you drink it, shot glass or brandy snifter, demitasse
or coffee mug.
Quite simply, the people who owned the
station wanted her; they found their stake in the coming generation; they'd
mould her. It wasn't an outright manipulation either; there wasn't any
need for that. It began with compliments; she was doing so well, she was
a natural; they loved her. Then came the invitations: a scoop, an after-hours
drink with a new administrator, a trip to the coast.
And even if she kept her wits about her,
soon it would be too late; she'd be in too deep. And if she wanted to
pull away, she'd think twice, then twice about that twice, then drop the
thinking and get on with the job.
Her father had told her as much. He'd been
active in politics. He knew the game. He'd seen his future, plucked up
his courage and walked away from it. Of course, it was different then.
Yugoslavia did not have an adjective before it, which made it nearly impossible
to use without seeming overly precise. It was not the "former"
anything. It was a big bustling outmoded obsolete affair that could look
the other way at the time, and not punish someone for saying "Thank
you but no."
"OK," he said, when she first
told him about the TV job, and how happy she was about it: "I can
protect you when you're here in the house. But when you walk through the
door, you're on your own. I can't do much for you."
She remembered his words when she stared
at herself in the mirror of her conscience that afternoon, the afternoon
she resigned. She told me as much when she related her story.
Her career now is in tatters. She works
for a news service shuffling stories and writing the odd piece in an opposition
weekly. She lost her apartment and all the perks that came along with
it, because she couldn't afford to live alone. She moved back with her
parents, her brother. And while she applies for whatever post she can
through international contacts, she's furious at the system that gave
her a future only to whisk it away when she went with her gut and pulled
back her hand, upturned, open and ready.
the Sephardic Jewish community begins calculating the date and time in
Sarajevo, and quickly integrates into the city.... By 1849 the boot makers
guild has 172 masters and apprentices.
Need Not Wear a Human Face
Neho is a certified massage therapist who runs a burgeoning business.
For 20 KM, or $10, he comes to your apartment with his portable massage
table, a gift from a thankful client, for a half hour work out. Neho is
a healer, and his talents enliven his hands and his manner.
Like other men his age, Neho fought with
the Bosnian Army during the war. His job: bringing supplies into Sarajevo
by devious routes up and over the hills surrounding the city. At one point
he and his comrades lost their vehicle and made do with a horse. Time
and again they loaded up the horse and led it slowly over the summit then
down into camp.
The work exhausted them, but there was
no other way. Supplies were the lifeblood of the city's defense.
One afternoon, though, the horse quit;
he couldn't go on; his exhaustion had gotten the best of him.
He had momentarily lost his balance, lurching
toward the edge of a steep path when it happened. He regained his footing
and stopped dead. He turned to the precipice and gazed over. Then he backed
up as far as he could, galloped forward and threw himself into the abyss.
Another Sarajevo Story
"We had a red Irish setter, a skittish dog. You've got to walk a
dog; even during a siege you have to walk your dog. So I'd take him out
at night; sometimes by day, but usually by night. Day or night: my mother
was always worried.
"We didn't have much to eat in those
days. We lost weight. There was a market, several times they bombed the
market, but we went anyway. They sold meat, of course. You had to be rich
to buy meat. There wasn't much available.
"One afternoon I let the dog out by
himself. He ran off and didn't come back. I searched for him in the neighborhood
but I couldn't find him. Later that night though we heard him scratching
the front door. And when I opened it, well, I was astonished. He had a
big rack of spareribs in his teeth, which he hadn't eaten. He was bringing
the meat back for the family, for us!
"We cooked the spareribs and gave
him some. It fed us all for a few days. Spareribs!
"Finally an old woman we knew, who
also sold food at the market, told us the story. She'd seen it all. The
dog came down to the market on his own and sat by the butcher stall. He
sat there for a few hours, waiting for his chance. The butcher noticed
the dog but stepped away from the stall nonetheless. Then the dog struck.
He leapt up and grabbed the spareribs. The butcher was furious. He would
have made a good profit from the meat, and gave chase but was too fat
to catch him. He returned to the stall sweating and cursing a blue streak.
"Some time later we gave the dog to
an elderly lady who lived alone. We felt sorry for her and the dog was
too much for us. We were struggling enough as it was. I'd go over now
and then to visit the dog. But it didn't seem to matter much after a time.
He'd become her dog. Then she moved away. I never saw the dog again."
the women from Mostar would walk about Sarajevo in outlandish costumes
topped with a large bent visor that rose up from the collar and huge sleeves
that completely hid their arms.
During the Serb siege against Sarajevo, Bosnian forces held a small strip
of land near the airport and escape from the city. You reached it by crossing
the runway, then unused. Serb snipers murdered some 800 civilians as they
dashed across the tarmac. Even when the UN cut a deal with Serbian forces
to reopen the airport for shipments of food and medical aid, Sarajevans
were shot. The UN could use the airport so long as they did not aid Bosnians,
even those running for their lives.
In 1993 the Bosnian government ordered
the building of a tunnel below the runway, just long enough to exit in
Bosnian territory. Desperately needed supplies and ammunition entered
through the tunnel, and people who needed or desired to left one at a
The tunnel was a sophisticated piece of
engineering supported by wood beams with a narrow track for pushcarts.
But it was a piece of engineering you would have expected to see during
World War II, built by the Jews of Warsaw seeking freedom from their death
house Nazi ghetto.
In the last decade of the 20th century,
an international city was forced to survive by way of a tunnel dug below
a runway to ensure the city's life.
The tunnel houses a small museum now with
various kinds of shells used to bombard the city and a brief video documentary.
You can walk through a section of the tunnel built under the bombed house
of the host family --who survived. The son is keeper of the museum.
There's very little around the house except
for a few neighbors and empty fields.
Round About Midnight
Sarajevo is not New York. Round about midnight the city closes down. Perhaps
a few bars and clubs shunted off into hidden alleys are open, a private
party swings on into the wee hours, but the city, like some wise old cat,
curls into itself and falls asleep, lulled by the pressure wash of the
big street cleaners.
Walking back to our flat…
The cobblestones glimmer in the reflection
of dim lamps. A lone couple turns a corner. A car slowly makes its way
toward the Miljacka. The mists that cool the Indian summer dawns still
with us gather bit by bit about the walls of silent empty mosques. There's
the rumble of the last tram; the sound of a door closing...
Beside the river is the famous old library,
nearly destroyed by Serb shelling, bathed in yellow spots; its Moorish
colonnades and intricate façade float on its Austro-Hungarian bulk.
The dark surrounding hills, except for a few lit windows, merge with the
deeper black of night.
Sarajevo dreams in its dreamers' dreams
-- this city that struggles to dream by day.
It does not matter who we are, where we've
been, where we'll go. We gaze into the shallow river pouring by, plastic
bottles bobbing in the foam, and sense the subtle sleeping murmur tuned
by times ancient and modern.
Round about midnight Sarajevo closes down.
Theater in Sarajevo: From Then to Now
Halfway between Princip Bridge and Cumuraja
is the one-story Despic house…The first theater performances in Sarajevo,
light comedy pieces by Kosta Filipovic and Jovan Sterja, are related to
this dilapidated house….The stage was improvised out of school benches
covered with planks…Guests, relatives and friends came. They were not
allowed to bring lanterns…. Instead of chairs, large cushions were arranged
over the floor near the stage.
[T]his has been fucking hell from the very beginning. So our job
is to produce beauty, because people need beauty. And it's absolutely
science fiction to produce beauty in this hell, but I think we're having
some success….all Sarajevans, all Bosnians, are people of a different
kind right now. We no longer speak the same language -- not only verbally,
but in every way -- we don't speak the same language as the rest of the
world. We live in another concept of time and space. I think we are in
advance. This time and space probably belongs to the 21st century. And
what we can report from the 21st century is that it will look very, very
bad, but we can find some islands on which to remain human. So between
the unbearable lightness of life and the unbearable lightness of dying,
we try to convince people that it's much easier to choose the unbearable
lightness of life.
We started to work on the first war production
in June '92. The name of the production was Shelter. At that time, we
were hit with three, four thousand mortar rounds daily. So it took real
courage to go out, even to buy bread. And everybody who went out for any
reason counted that maybe he or she wouldn't be back. Everyday we were
coming to rehearsal, almost all of us saw somebody hit on the streets.
My friend Yasmina… saw heads on the street, stomachs, legs.… After the
opening the actors and the audience cried, over the very fact that something
like that could happen in the middle of so much horror.
Nobody who has left has come back yet.
-Haris Pasovic, theater director, interviewed
in Theater 24, 1993.)
Theater in Sarajevo:
The MES Sarajevo International Theater Festival, October 2001
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington,
DC, I received expressions of concern from friends and colleagues worldwide.
But none were as striking as the message form Sarajevo, whose sense of
urgency was unmistakable.
"We are together with you in this
terrible situation. At the office we are watching television and just
cannot believe. Send us a short message and tell us everything is OK."
The message came from Lejla Pasovic, the
office she mentioned was the MES Sarajevo International Theater Festival,
where she is executive producer, and the "we" was the dedicated
crew of young theater folk gearing up for the festival's 41st incarnation
Her e-mail brought back to me all I had
encountered during my first visit to Sarajevo in June. With my wife, Caroline
McGee, actress and chair of the Catholic University acting department,
we spent a week in the city interviewing its leading theater artists with
The artists we met, who had stayed in Sarajevo
during the war, did more than survive; they continued to create despite
the daily atrocities, the lack of necessities, and the inconceivable failure
of Western governments to resolve the nearly four-year siege laid against
them by Serbian forces. The war, which had shattered their illusions,
had not destroyed their humanity or their inspiration.
Then as now, they did what they do best:
write scripts, find theaters, rehearse, draw audiences and perform.
We returned in October to participate as
jurors in the theater festival. The city remained as we left it several
months before, except for the autumnal shift: cold foggy mornings that
burned off to brief hot afternoons and deliciously cool evenings. Its
sporadic efforts at rebuilding were gaining speed; the evidence of destruction
was still visible anywhere you turned, from shrapnel nicks on walls to
bombed out hulks of apartments, to the destroyed relics of its three tallest
buildings (the two federal government office high rises and the collapsed
Oslobodjenje tower, the city's celebrated daily). At the same time,
we came to recognize that the city took heart from its artists while accepting
economic manipulation by international monitors, the mendacity of its
politicians, and a strained tempering of patience over impediments used
to derail a conclusive fulfillment of the Dayton Accords: the return of
refugees to their former homes (however livable or unlivable they are),
the arrest and prosecution of war criminals, and the resolution of tensions
caused by the founding of Republic Srpska, an execrable appendage of the
peace. We also came to recognize, even with the mushrooming of cemeteries
around the old section of the city to hold the 10,000 killed during the
siege, that Sarajevo's revival would depend as much upon the willingness
of its artists to take risks specific to their current situation as to
shed forms that gained resonance during their struggle to endure.
Theater then, beginning June 1992, was
a courageous affair, an attempt to remain human while trapped in a city
under daily bombardment. In response to the aggression, theater was a
lifeline to sanity for its artists and their audience. For a time, a catastrophic
set of years, context ran with content; the two were inseparable, immediate
and reciprocal. And while theater provided a space in which to play, it
did so with a seriousness that brought a moral dimension of historic significance.
Theater now is a different affair. Sarajevo
theater artists must reach to discover what they had so close and used
so well, and which compelled them to create amidst so much carnage. For
better or worse, Sarajevo theater takes on the colors of the moment, and
the palette they offer is a reflection of the time in which we live.
In terms of arenas, there are four main
stages and theater companies in the city: the National Theater, Chamber
Theater, Youth Theater, and SATR Theater. All sustain professional companies
and several perform educational functions for student actors. In terms
of productions, variety is the spice and it is used with gusto, unlike
Sarajevo's cuisine, which, while hearty, is rarely delicate or piquant
In this milieu, the MES Sarajevo International
Theater Festival is unique. For two weeks the city hosts performances
in official and "off-MES" sites, this year with 20 performances
from 10 countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, France, Bosnia
Herzegovina, Sweden, Slovenia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia. Initially conceived
as a venue for "experimental" theater, MES has become something
of a mix, with state-sponsored national companies and major and minor
independent companies, several with reputations for exceptional artistry,
performing pieces well within the international repertory: Shakespeare,
Beckett, Gogol, Genet, Muller, Ibsen, Gombrowicz and more.
It is the most important cultural event
of the year in Sarajevo, something an American may wonder at given the
poor status of theater in the US, except in New York or Chicago, where
it hangs on as it can, a force to contend with when visible, but a force
marginalized by television, cinema and music commonly out of popular consciousness.
In Sarajevo, with ticket prices at 5 KM
per seat, just above $2, and with those who can't pay allowed in as SRO,
theater has retained its appeal for the majority, a place for serious
social dialogue. This may change in the near future as Sarajevo enters
the digital world and its television and cinema offerings expand. But
I would like to believe that here, at least, theater retains its magic
as a pivotal source for exploration and discovery, and that theater goers
will come to Sarajevo, as other like cities, to finally understand the
importance of the art in the civic space it inhabits.
Of preeminence in this year's MES is Eimuntas
Nekrocsius' stunning "Othello," which recently premiered in
Venice, and which MES awarded the Golden Laurel to for Best Performance
and Best Actor, with Vlados Bagdonas as Othello.
Nekrosius, now 48 years of age, concentrates
his talents on lucid interpretations of Western classics. Critical praise
follows each of his triumphs, whether it be his recent "Hamlet,"
developed over seven years, or "Othello," developed over nine
months. But whether years or months, the mechanism is similar: simplicity
of concept, a precise understanding of character and ample development
for actors to embody it, a vital counterpoint between text and subtext,
resonant physicality, and ingenious stage designs, both functional and
poetic, that propel plot transformations.
"Othello," of course, carries
something of melodrama, which Nekrosius expertly mutes. The play opens
with two "children" (mature actors) who carry on stage several
large, half-filled water bottles that they hold between their hands, rocking
them back and forth throughout the entire performance stage rear, perennial
chorus of waves to the passions of men. Above them, large "sails"--hung
on ropes from the catwalk--unfurl; we are on a victory ship approaching
Venice or the dock itself. The sails will later turn into hammocks for
Desdemona and friends to sleep in. Two wooden ship doors angled out to
the audience at the wings leak water at various moments, enhancing the
rhythmic sense of waves with an anguished undertone of tears to come.
Primitive dug outs the length of a man note the fleet; Othello will move
them about at will until his suicide, when he falls face down into one,
now his bier. In custom with nautical funerals, Cassio tips the bier into
the empty orchestra pit without allowing Othello to slide off as he recounts
his legacy, while Iago, lamed by his deceits into a contorted beggar,
hops about on one leg in the background.
Vlades Bagdonas possesses Othello completely,
using his height and strength with a naturalness that enriches his solitude
as commander and Moor. Yet he courts Desdemona, entranced by her beauty,
basking in her presence. She sways above him like some long drink he has
just now only tasted, never having known the pleasure before. It is the
closest thing to compassion we will find in him. When jealousy poisons
his love and anger replaces trust, his honor "defiled," he twists
himself, conflicted, into an engine of revenge.
A splendid Egle Spokaite plays Desdemona.
Nekrosius will compliment her repeatedly within the overall ensemble choreography.
She is a tall, agile dancer-actor, charmed by youth and position. She
first appears lugging the door to her father's house on her back, the
gift of her name to Othello. At the close to the second act, stung by
Othello's false suspicions at her "infidelities," she paces
anxiously between two wooden chairs, caught by her love and her fear of
having lost him. The action builds into panic as a foreboding of horror
overwhelms her. It is an infectious moment. The audience -- now her retinue
-- exits for the break, drained and pale, primed for the rage to come.
Her murder in ACT III is a terrible thing to watch: the argument that
leads to the blade; how she and Othello dance about in geometric anguish.
She falls twice from his arms, seemingly dead, suddenly to rise and embrace
him again, a double terzo fraught with passion and death.
Rolandas Kazlas as Iago seems to have stepped
from an Eisenstein epic during the heyday of Soviet silent cinema. When
no one is watching, he nervously weaves his web with cipher hands. What
he gives is trundled by spite, what he receives burns with bitterness.
Oskar Korsunovas, a younger Lithuanian
compatriot to Nekrosius, offered a "polyphonic" adaptation of
the Bulgakov novel, Master and Margarita¸ which had previously
delighted audiences at Avingnon, gaining him a MES Award for Best Young
Director. His writer, Sigitas Parulskis, received Best Adaptation. The
tale speaks of a history of repression that the former Yugoslavia knew
well enough. According to Tanya Miletic, a festival juror from Mostar,
it was a poignant rendering of a period that her parents and grandparents
lived through, a sort of apologia by laughter. A round, red womblike table
in which our protagonist, Ivan, sleeps is formed by the other members
of the cast: part critics, commissars and asylum mates to come. As they
drift apart onto the stage and the table collapses, the action effloresces
at kindling speed. Presentational motifs proliferate with vivacious ensemble
interludes as Ivan enters the asylum, where the critic-commissar-inmates
traduce his literary gifts, crushing him in the process.
The second act portrays Margarita, played
splendidly by Aldona Benorinte, also incarcerated in the asylum. Unlike
most of the cast, she reveals something more than a directorial conceit.
A woman as well as a courtesan, her struggle to retain the humanity in
her character, and her fidelity to Ivan, flares up admirably against the
tempo of the play.
Retrieving several burned sheets of manuscript
from Ivan's masterpiece, now largely a pile of ash, she mounts the human
table we saw in the first act, which becomes a large revolving torture
table for her breathless confession. The Ball follows fast, a "Keystone
Cops" shadow play of cocktails, trysts and robotic entanglements
whirled up to a giddy confusion. A video projection suspends our excitement,
the exhaustion after the drunk, in Margarita's "dream of a dream
of flying" above empty lanes and spectral forests.
That this kind of spectacle exalts clever
stagecraft and inventive visuals, leaving less to character development
and poignant relationships, is a given. Certainly, it prompted little
concern in the audience, caught up as they were in the mayhem, perhaps
relieved at not being asked to submit to the emotional complexities of
identification, at least for this evening. But it is just this
sort of difference, and where it tends, that the theatre of spectacle
must question. Otherwise, the cinematic or digital techniques that directors
prefer will not carry the piece as they might wish. Hopefully, Kosunovas
will discover in proceeding works that the spirit of carnival he orchestrates
to honor Bulgakov, need not rely as much on expediency as in the performance
he offers us. For his grasp of adaptation, which is precise, need only
establish an intimacy that touches on the profound.
Special mention goes to Egle Mikulionyte
(Aushka), an ugly, unkempt char woman who opens and closes the play to
a scratchy radio orchestra as she mutters to herself, dancing with her
mop -- welcome relief to the preferred imaging of women as vamps on Sarajevo's
stages and streets.
"Ferdydurke," Witold Gombrowicz's
masterful farce that chronicles the descent of a man into the body of
an adolescent, is revealed anew by Janusz Oprynski and Witold Mazurkewicz
of Teatr Provisorium and Kompania Teatr, respectively. At the Edinburgh
Fringe Festival this year, the Polish production gains the Fringe First
Award while in Sarajevo the work prompts special recognition for "Best
Noted for a precise rendering of the spirit
that animates the original -- equal parts slapstick, satire and subversive
poetics -- we are catapulted into a sensibility at odds with all things
mature. The action evolves in a tight playing area not much longer than
a school bench crammed with three chums who seek to push, prod or otherwise
fleece each other of their space. The bench will transform into a support
for a boarding school window, and move between school and park, or some
imaginary medium between both, as battles mushroom and limbs tangle. Competitive
masturbations, jocular shoving matches, nose picking duels, snot shots,
dandruff analyses, farts, lice tasting and more follow one another like
some Looney Tunes conundrum.
Where we are and how we got there is hard
to tell, except for Ferdydurke's" child-men who delight in their
viciousness, as we once did. And no matter how much it might repulse us
now, it revives a physical space as much free of "good behavior"
as of the "metaphysical values" that Gombrowicz loathed, and
that his readers learned to loathe along with him. Oprynski and Masurkewiz,
of course, are exceptional readers with verve enough to stage the work
without compromise or genuflexion to the author or his perch atop the
tree of Polish belles letters, along with several other riotous
Having performed Ferdydurke 232
times prior to Sarajevo, they will bring it to La Mama in New York for
several weeks. I will be curious to see if New York audiences respond
as grade school kids in Poland, who, in seeing themselves on stage, do
as the actors, believing the license before them sufficient reason to
"Gunpowder keg," written by Dejan
Dukoski, and directed by Slobodan Unkovski, is a tour de force revival
of the 1994 Belgrade premiere. If MES had an award for stage design, my
vote would go here: a bald, open stage with several shower heads in the
back and each inch of wall space, including a table and
table cloth stage front, obsessively marked to count off the days
in this Balkan madhouse torched by the barbarity of war.
Its characters have common purpose: to
inflict or suffer physical and emotional abuse in one extreme vignette
after another. An old cripple (a former cop) lurches into a café
on crutches, empty except for another man sipping beer. When the cripple
sits down the fellow approaches to remind him of a previous run in --
when he "broke every bone in his body with a tire iron and 20 lb.
hammer" in revenge for the cop's near emasculation of him some time
before -- the title of the scene: "Health and Happiness." An
aborted rape turns fatal and the protagonist is finally shot by the girl's
boyfriend. He stumbles into a filthy outhouse, where he bleeds to death
banging his head against its walls. A city bus is taken over by an irate
passenger, who grows enraged at having to wait for the bus to depart.
He terrorizes the three other passengers until the driver returns, flattens
the punk and throws him out for "having left the door open."
"Gunpowder Keg's" finalé is a devastating summa of the
wounds exposed, the means to do so and the expected result: a rusty nail
for the coffin of Yugoslavia. The same cripple who opens the play drags
forward to the audience to stutter: "I have something important to
tell you, but I cannot remember what it is."
It is also the first time in seven years
that a national company from Belgrade has performed in Sarajevo, and the
attendant emotions are high. As Lejla Pasovic explained: "There will
be tears tonight at the theater. We still feel Yugoslavian."
There are other performances at MES, including an effective reprise of
"Waiting for Godot" and the "Off-MES" line up, topped
by a multimedia dance theater evocation of Heiner Mueller's "Abandoned
Shores" from France's Compagnie Faim de Siecle. But space
forbids me to continue.
Sarajevo retains its charge as a hot bed
for theatrical research and experiment. As Bosnia Herzegovina speeds its
transition from "international protectorate" to a political
and cultural entity independent of monitors, it is well that its artists
keep their edges honed, their vision clear. Lack of appropriate public
funding will be an issue for some time to come; this year's MES lost half
of its government grant at the last moment. And Western Europe and the
United States are just around the corner, whose liberal production opportunities
may entice talented Sarajevans to leave. Can Sarajevo theater culture
flourish in these new conditions? The MES festival makes the case that
What I found in Sarajevo, especially with its theater artists who remained
in the city during the war, has only enhanced my initial impression of
talent in the service of tenacity, wit over mendacity and courage over
Where art of any sort flourishes, especially
the social art of theater, the life of a city, a nation, can find within
itself a free space in which to contest its illusions as to celebrate
In the best of theater I have always found
a presence, which is extraordinary only when it is generally lacking in,
or obscured by, daily life. That this presence is there at any moment,
perhaps needing only a brief provocation to appear, is certain enough.
That we turn to theater to reassure ourselves that we have not missed
it when we most need it, or to clarify the confusions we bring to it,
is also certain enough. It is a presence as simple as it is profound,
as immediate as it is enduring, and it is also what seems to hold us together
as a culture, a people: naked human truth -- revealed through the artifice
of mask, character, gesture, and mise en scene, yes, but only as
a means to divest itself of them.
No doubt, theater artists and critics may
take umbrage at this statement. But I do not know of an art with the potential
-- in performance -- to strike a chord of such resonance, a chord that
reverberates through us, and that continues to draw us back to our seats
in theaters worldwide.
Sarajevo is no different, except for the
traumas endured and the revivifications engaged, experiences that mark,
and will continue to mark, Sarajevans.
History is never as kind as we wish it
to be. The 20th century leaves behind it a conflictive and bloody legacy.
At the same time, in the name of art it provides us with an effervescence,
a joie de vivre, that we celebrate despite all that might prevent
us from doing so. The current MES Sarajevo International Theater Festival
is a testament to the belief in Sarajevo that dramatic performance remains
a key to the kind of life we wish to lead. On stage we search for, and
find, our realities.
In Sarajevo, theater is a primary means
to explore our realities. For me, the reality of theater reveals itself
Edin Numakadic is one of Sarajevo's leading artists. I had known of his
work for some time but finally met him at his studio in the Ali Pshjini
Polge section of Sarajevo in October: a small, three-room apartment on
the 5th floor of a nondescript walk up that bordered the no man's land
between Bosnian and Serb positions during the war.
Numankadic is a tall energetic man in his
50s. He inhabits his studio as a captain does a ship, save that here his
crew are his ten fingers, his wrist and arms, his brilliant eyes and his
robust sense of humor. Beyond several small windows awash with dust, the
intensity of the space is purely interior. Canvasses, found objects, collage
boxes, art by friends and contemporaries, and books are scattered everywhere.
The following text appears in the catalogue to a large exhibition of his
works just outside Florence, Italy, early 2002.
years during the war I did "Inscriptions." I came here; I walked
8 km every day after work to my studio. I needed to do this. The work
allowed me to keep my sanity, my mental health. Sometimes it was dangerous.
What else could I do? I had to create to survive. It was a matter of survival,
of waking up the next morning. You were alive….I left seven or eight times
during the war, too. I'd travel to Paris, Berlin, where exhibitions of
my work were held. I even went to Seoul, S. Korea, where I received first
prize in an international art exposition. And when I left, my friends
would ask me to stay. "How could I return to Sarajevo," they'd
ask. "I was in danger, there was the war," and so on. "Why
not stay here, work here"?
I returned to Sarajevo each time. This
is where I come from. My family has been here for 400 years. I would leave
through the tunnel that ran under the airport and return through the tunnel.
I would leave Europe, and all the freedom and wealth there, and come home,
war or no war. I could easily have left. I didn't.
The Art of Edin Numankadic
Eyes that draw, hands that read; a language
of gesture, choreography of signs. The syntax of time, the slow inevitable
corrosion of meaning.
I remember, I forget; I remember to forget,
I forget to remember. Memory sifts through me. I close my eyes, I open
them. I am man and stone, the stone that outlasts the man, the man who
marks the stone to outlast himself.
A word, a phrase. I put down the book,
I put down myself, I pick up my brush, I stand above the stone, the canvas
stone, the two-dimensional rectangle that mimics the stones of my place,
my time, my origin. What will carry my wonder, my despair, my anger, hope,
love, loss, my triumph, my defeat, my silence, my breath, my sight better
than the canvas stone? What will return a space as small as a moment,
as close as a sky, as sudden as a street? -- the canvas stone.
But I will not let the canvas stone be.
I give to it what it refuses to take. I struggle, I work, I inscribe.
And I do it again, and again; again, and again on the same space, the
same brittle obscurity. I will not rest until the inscription divests
me of the illusions I haunt. I will not rest until I haunt the inscription,
no longer having need of my illusions, my need for illusion. I will not
rest until the inscription banishes any hope I might have placed in my
compact with meaning or silence, with stillness or dance, with embrace,
with solitude, with plentitude. I will not rest until I wrest from the
canvas stone the closing of a final door into the depth of the matter
For the canvas stone, which is its own
door, and which opens and closes by its own will, repudiates me. It is
as much as it is not. It becomes; it reveals; it whirls to a sudden irreplaceable
stop. Only then is it free; only then does its freedom infect me. Only
then does the process of inscribing catapult into time the pure power
of the act. The act that inscribes me into all I am not; that sustains
and banishes me; that turns and returns; that transforms the canvas into
stone, the stone into canvas -- the act of inscribing the canvas stone.
There is no fable here and no poetry. There
is no fiction and no philosophy. There is no seduction and no mask. There
is only the act on the canvas stone: the rhythm of signs that have lost
their meaning; the sign of a rhythm that provokes an aspiration to assign
it a meaning -- and the convulsion of the encounter between them.
The canvas stone is not a mirror to the
self; it is a selfless mirror to the space that time inhabits. Its body
is silence; its speech gesture. It is the clarity of accepting the distance
between memory and image, language and meaning, place and movement, origin
and exile, beauty and disfigurement. It is, for its own time, which is
ours, our time, a timeless enigma that abuses the abuse we have heaped
on meaning, on language and on gesture.
Nor is the canvas stone of Edin Numankadic
exclusive. It is in each place we look, any moment we catch on the run
or that catches us, that fixes us. It is the place where we shred ourselves
when we look and when we listen anew. It is the shredding itself in the
heat of time that inscribes its marks on the space we inhabit.
Here are the Inscriptions of Edin
Numakadic, inscriptions with the density of stone.
Sarajevo tombstone, considered to be that of Haseci Hatun Kadun from 1436,
is not a half century older than the battle of Kosovo; it also dates from
the time when the Turks conquered Constantinople (1453), held Belgrade
under siege (1456), conquered Smederevo (1459) and toppled its Serbian
An Afternoon in Mostar
One afternoon near the end of the theater festival, the three jurors --
Tanya, Judit and I -- and Lejla Hasenbegovich, executive producer, and
a driver took off for Mostar in a new VW van.
I had been through Mostar twice before
by bus en route to and from Dubrovnik during the high heat of summer.
I had seen the town quickly; the bombed
out factories and homes; an air of quiet desperation at the bus station…
In late October, morning can be raw enough in Sarajevo, especially with
an inclement fog that dissipates by noon. Driving from Sarajevo you ascend
into mountain gorges submerged in fog, thinly or thickly, depending on
where you are. You turn and twist up the road, passing through narrow
valleys where small villages hug the walls to brief plateaus, where other
villages appear and vanish as if they had no other reason to exist than
to entice you to believe that they did exist, and had existed in some
cases for centuries.
The steep rock formations and Alpine vegetation,
brutal and beautiful, cast back on Sarajevo an enforced solitude that
is also the hallmark of the Bosnian landmass.
Yes, it is easy to imagine what it must
have been like a century ago when cars were rare and the current road,
still largely unpaved, routed horse-drawn equipages and caravans. The
two-hour drive to Mostar would certainly have taken several days then,
and more if there were landslides to deal with or other human misfortunes
along the way.
Romance with this landscape comes and goes
with the villages you pass. But it is there, and it lures you on.
Below is a clear swift river, a hydro electric
plant, an adjacent "Lake Bosnia" -- the largest body of water
in the country -- several larger towns replete with the worst of Sarajevo
architecture. Then you're through the pass, the sun breaks out, the fog
vanishes, the air warms up -- you've reached the weather that flows from
The road soon winds down to an agricultural
plain stretching toward Mostar.
Farm fields give way to vineyards, vineyards
to the blasted ruin of a house, small groupings of destroyed houses, newly
rebuilt homes, a large factory demolished by shelling, another factory
producing bricks -- one of the more lucrative industries in the area --
then green fields where cattle and sheep graze against bare rocky hills.
And Mostar, gravely damaged, sporadically
picking itself up out of its trauma, still in conflict...
As we drove further in, war damage became
commonplace. We parked near the center of town, itself reaching back before
the 14th century, and walked to the river. There it was: the chilling
ruin of the famous medieval bridge.
Initially shelled by Serb gunners then
finished off by Croatian bombs during the brief, but bloody, conflict
between Bosnian Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims, the bridge is as
a provident symbol of the frailty of friendships developed over centuries,
and the ease with which two peoples can come to hate each other, blown
like leaves by political winds of power and rage.
Yes, there are cafés in the town
center; the restaurants sometimes cater to small groups of tourists from
Dubrovnik or seekers visiting the shrine of Medugorje, where the Virgin
is said to appear: a shrine visited mostly by foreigners, I should add,
not Bosnian Croat Catholics. Yes, you can sip coffee on a terrace over
the rushing green Neretva River, where whirlpools topped by foam blossom
up. Yes, you can walk about, wincing at the huge cross newly built by
Croats like some useless reproach on the mountain that guards the city,
and idle for a few moments over a fragrant rosebush rising out of a patio
refurbished from rubble. You can wander into the medieval hamam also destroyed
by shelling and wonder at what it must have been like to spend several
hours sweating in the slow steam while sipping tea or coffee, talking
over the day's events with a friend or coming to some conclusion about
an issue of concern. Yes, you can buy postcards and rest in the garden
of a mosque full of Friday practitioners, or chat with a rug dealer who
has set up shop under a lean-to against the wall of a disused building
or give a hungry child a few coins to buy a drink or something small to
But you know that something terrible happened
here not too many years back, and that the world has perhaps already half
forgotten just what it was. And in the stillness that the thought induces,
framed by the rush of the river, is an echo of spattered blood.
Mostar is divided. Croats inhabit one part,
Muslims the other. It is a division born of expediency but as false as
the city is old. There are two civil authorities, two school systems that
teach in two dialects of the same tongue for two national agendas, two
collective hopes and two kinds of antagonism born of death, despair and
betrayal. And while efforts are being made to breach the divide through
sporting and cultural events, it will take some years, a generation or
more, before the city coheres again.
Fifteen or twenty minutes south of Mostar
is Blagaj, a famous medieval Sufi tekke built dramatically at the base
of a steep cliff convulsed with images carved by erosion, the great mollifier
of all things brutal. The river enters a large cave here, its crystal
green body snaking into the shallow darkness where birds make their nests.
Formerly Bektashi, now Mevlevi, the tekke
still functions for ceremony and worship.
An orchestra of birds effloresces from
the small trees that line Blagaj's banks. The air is sweet, the solitude
stirring. There's an attractive café on the opposite bank. You
can forget the war, the killing, the enmity, until you return to the parking
lot where an SFOR armed personnel carrier is parked next to the van.
We drove down a dirt road, passed small
dilapidated trailers to Blagaj Inn for a late lunch of the local trout,
only to rush back to Sarajevo to catch the opening of a festival premier,
Nightmare in Bosnia: a satirical revue that belied its title if
only to mask the day-to-day reality of living and creating in Sarajevo.
The nightmare had fled the sleep of a single
dreamer to infect the dreams of many. It lingers, it corrodes, it stares
us in the face until we no longer see it, then retreats to strike again,
gaining or diminishing as we struggle to understand it. It has many names,
it knows many places. It calls itself Mostar, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Banja
Lucka, Pale, Sarajevo, and a hundred other small and large towns.
Mostar -- scorched compass in a wind of
urchin rose from a rubble sun
where crucifixion ghosts gamble limbs as
if they were crackers
and a bitimous green kiss.
carries its crush of silent screams.