Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Log 274: Sarajevo, desperately trying to rebuild its reputation for culture, multinationalism and calm, unhurried beauty

Sarajevo, Bascarsija at nightImage via Wikipedia
The Moslem quarters, Bascarsija,of Sarajevo

I found a paradox at the heart of the beautiful city of Sarajevo, which I visited this week. It is a city that emanates an unusual sense of human warmth, creativity, amusement and even adventure. And yet it has become a symbol for one of the most dramatic and appalling acts of civic barbarity in modern times. It is a city whose recent experiences would reduce to tears anyone who cares about the quality of human life.

In other words I fell in love with Sarajevo, and felt like weeping for what it had to endure during the 1990s Yugoslav war, when it was besieged by the Yugoslav National Army, and Serbian Bosnian militias, who mounted their guns in the hills surrounding the city and made it almost impossible for anyone to leave their houses.

The four-year siege of Sarajevo has been extensively written about and celebrated in print, song, dance and every conceivable medium of expression, so there is no point in my recalling it in any detail. A sort of grim humour has arisen about the war, and a little book I bought, a sort of fake Michelin guide written in 1992 and 1993, exemplifies how unconquerable is the human spirit. It says its purpose is to instruct visitors on how to survive “without transportation, hotels, taxis, telephones, food, shops, heating, water, information, electricity”, and claims to show the city as a place where “wit can survive over terror.”

“This book was written at the site where one civilization was dismantled in the course of intentional violence…” writes the book’s author, Miroslav Prsojevic, “and where another had to be born.” It is a “picture of civilization that emerges out of cataclysm, which makes something out of nothing, gives some messages for the future. Not because the future is necessarily a future of wars and disasters, but because humans are growing older and being born into a world which is ever less secure.”

They begin their chronicle by saying that in April 1992, appeared around the city “two-hundred-sixty tanks, 120 mortars, and innumerable anti-aircraft cannons, sniper rifles and other small arms…..At any moment…any of these arms can hit any target in the city. And they did hit, indeed, --- civilian housing, museums, churches, mosques, hospitals, cemeteries, people on the streets. Everything became a target. All exits from the city, all points of entry, were blocked.”

Well, on to the present day, to the city that seems to have been largely rebuilt, although it is rather a strange landscape when these shiny new buildings share the cityscape still with innumerable monstrous ruins of huge buildings that once were functional, but were bombed into uselessness, ever-present reminders of what happened.

Under the guidance of a friend who had been there several times we headed for the older part of the city known as Bascarsija. A guidebook writes about a man called Gazi Husrev Bey who was born in 1480, became ruler of Bosnia for 20 years and laid the foundations for the city as it is today, building it up to a city of 50,000. An Islamic school he built has been open for 470 years, and when it was founded it was dedicated to gifted and good pupils who would be taught “rational and traditional sciences.” He built Mosques and Franciscan monastries, one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches, public drinking fountains, inns, Turkish baths and a soup kitchen offering free meals to the poor. A foundation that this man created is still functioning after five centuries, financing stipends for students, feeding the poor and engaging in other charitable work. He is buried next to a former prisoner of war, a Christian, whom he freed and gave the title of a Duke.

In these early acts, surely, can be seen something of the spirit of the city that remains today. For myself, I can say I have seldom if ever been in a city whose inhabitants seem to be touched with such a particular grace.

For example, on our first day there our friend led us to a delightful spot, a courtyard hidden in behind one of the pedestrian streets constructed for the most part of wooden buildings, low-lying, expressive and friendly (every shop has a folding bench in front for the weary traveler or citizen to sit on, for example). This courtyard was quiet, although the streets around were vibrant and full of the bustle of a normal city. It sheltered under an immense tree, and was surrounded by small but elegant shops selling beautiful carpets mostly made in Iran. Some art works, of astonishing vivacity, were made of carpet, and although our friend enjoyed the peaceful ambience, he regretted that a tea shop that had existed there before the war had disappeared. I could not help but think that any people who could create such a perfect environment, so full of quiet human values, must be an exceptional people. And this was confirmed by the next place we visited.

This section of town is the Moslem section, of course, and --- perhaps this was exceptional because Ramadam had just started --- it was impossible to find a place in any of these beautiful little streets that served any alcohol. We asked a taxi driver, a garrulous, helpful middle-aged man, who undertook enthusiastically the assignment to find us a place where we could have a meal with some wine,by driving us up some very steep hills until reaching a point that he couldn’t go any further.
We had to walk the last precipitous slope up to a restaurant which, like the coffee shop in the courtyard, was another example of creative design. The restaurant existed on several levels, each room being complete in itself, each sharing the exceptional views over the city. (I counted 19 mosques in sight as I ate my meal.) Over an ember fire at the back of the room turned a lamb on a spit for which, unfortunately, we were too early. But we left it to the helpful and friendly waiter to choose what he served us. So we started with a totally delicious Bosnian soup, went on to a mélange of dishes comprised of chopped meat, marinated and cooked in sauces, mushrooms, vegetables, and ended with a superb dessert of the eastern variety. The cost of this triumphant invention was about half of what a similar meal would have cost in Toronto or Montreal. I know both of those cities have superb eating places, but I doubt that either could rival this Sarajevan restaurant for atmosphere, its air of quiet civility, and its magnificent view.

On the way back we had to order another taxi. But again we found an enthusiastic middle-aged man anxious to fulfil what we wanted: our objective was to go somewhere we could have a final drink before retiring, He took us to a place across the river from our hotel, to a pub the like of which I have never seen in all my wanderings. It was a tall building, open to the roof several stories above, its central space surrounded by balconies where meals were served while the ordinary people got on with their drinking downstairs. The design of this place was amazing: exquisite designs on the ceilings, even those above the bar, just another evidence of the civilized air of this whole city.

It was raining lightly the next morning, but not enough to prevent us from wandering through the city streets, themselves a feast for the eyes, past the dozens of coffee houses, and shops selling everything under the sun. If this part of town was damaged, rather little evidence of it remains: that stands to reason, because the rebuilding of these low-rise streets of mostly wooden buildings would not have required the vast financial operation needed for your modern high-rise blocks of offices, which have been built further along, although not verfy far away, in town.

We visited a modest little museum devoted to the occasion in 1914 on which the 20-year-old Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, an event that is said in history to have precipitated the First World War. There were seven assassins among the crowds through which the Royal coach moved. One of them threw a bomb that hit the coach and rolled under the following vehicle, exploding. Incredibly, the procession continued. Some of the assassins lost their nerve. Princip went to have a coffee, and when he emerged he discovered the procession had taken a wrong turning. Finding the Royal couple right in front of him, he fired twice, and killed both the Archduke and his glamorous wife Sophie.

That evening another equally helpful taxi-driver took us out of town to a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed the Bosnian specialty dish, lamb, again an excellent meal. On the way back the same taxi-driver --- who had told us he was bringing up his children to believe we were all brothers, everyone, no matter of what religion or ethnicity, belongs, and is one of us --- offered to show us around at his own cost. He took us to a small park built around a spring, a beautiful place.

Well, we didn’t spent a lot of time in Sarajevo, but long enough to contract a deadly disease Sarajevo-itis, which will no doubt demand that I make another visit, if I live long enough to do so. On the way back to Dubrovnik we passed through immense mountains of bare rock, stratified and exposed in an unusual way, which seemed to suggest that the whole area had at some time in the distant past been thrown up by some convulsive movement of the earth’s surface.

Dramatic though these mountains are, they can’t hold a candle to the city, the work of men and women, people of evey race and religion, the city pre-eminent in Europe for its successful building of a multicultural, multilingual, multireligious civilization that was relentlessly attacked just 18 years ago by men bent on imposing their barbaric ethnicity and nationalism over all others.

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