Monthly Archives: June 2007
In order to study abroad through the university one must officially have travel insurance. Because I like to get my money’s worth, I consider it a great idea to end up in the hospital at least once in order to cash in on these benefits. So. I took it upon myself to inspect the Bosnian hospital facilities in Tuzla after experiencing another harrowing case of food poisoning. After at least an hour in a cold waiting room with an old clock whose hands were stuck at 12:30 while rain dumped down outside, they finally checked me over and gave me an IV. Laying in my hospital bed there, whimpering and wishing I had someone to hold me, the heavy rain had stopped and the window was open right next to my metal bed – letting the cool breeze in as it brushed the pine, locust, and birch trees outside. The sun came out. I remembered where I was, contemplated the randomness of life and how I would have never been able to imagine this moment years ago, but here I was; as I watched the trees wearing sparkling raindrops dance in the sun it seemed that I could be anywhere.
We spent the last few days in Banja Luka (in the Republica Srpska) visiting several organizations and political parties, and getting a general feel for the Serbian side of this ongoing dialogue, to put it lightly. The city was tidy and upper-middle class (or appeared to be) and none of us really liked it. We spent the evenings at the hotel, sitting at umbrellaed tables outside drinking wine and playing cards. I’ve taken to smoking Karl’s pipe in the evening and rather enjoy the taste of it with wine. The weather was great there and the days were really hot and sunny, but after three nights we packed up our things and headed to Tuzla. Needless to say, it was nice to be back in the federation (despite the chevapi-induced food poisoning…), and I was reminded of this fact while laying in my quiet hotel room that night, listening to the call to prayer from a mosque nearby (a sound almost completely unheard in the republic). On the way to Tuzla we visited a youth organization in Devetak and chatted with their students for some time. The experience was pretty amusing as the visit was scheduled at the last minute, which apparently inspired them to be resourceful. In the past the students had given our group some sort of performance – usually traditional song and dance – but because of their lack of preparation for this visit they ended up sedating our hungry bellies on cookies and fanta and forcing us to watch a home video on an event that they had recently held in a neighboring town. The sound quality was gruesome and some points were unbearably hilarious, but nontheless, we patiently endured.
When it was over a bit of dialogue ensued between the main directors and our group and a few of the young people who sat along the parameters of the room for the film took the opportunity to sneak out. I heard some quiet music in the background and thus snuck out with my camcorder to explore its origins. Two high school dudes dressed in Chuck Taylors and Iron Maiden t-shirts were practicing on the stage, one of them timidly singing while the other plucked his un-amplified electric guitar. I recorded them playing Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” and was lucky enough to hear them play “Polly” just for me in that huge dark and musty room, a mural of a beautiful Muslim woman and a landscape draped across the background. This organization is doing great and important things for young people in the surrounding community but receives little to no support. Its painful to see such an important organization suffering from lack of resources to the point of an inability to simply replace windows, fix the roof, or supply functional computers to its patrons.
While in Banja Luka we visited with representatives from the SNSD (Party of Independent Social Democrats) and SDS (Serbian Democratic Party). These were both interesting meetings marked by an obvious Serbian agenda, but also by a sort of vigor for economic progress and ethnic diversity (at least from the vantage-point of those we spoke to). But despite all of the new growth and conflict-resolution that is taking place here its clear that there is still tension beneath the surface. I can almost guarantee that another conflict will break out here and judging from the current linguistic situation, I think the international community is well aware that a bloody conflict is brewing between consonants and vowels, with apostrophes not knowing who to side with. Words like Srpska, Trrg, Cvrstina, Brsljan and Brcko will brandish their ethnic cleanliness and try to encourage other, more heterogeneous, vowel-friendly words to follow their lead on this mass exodus of elimination.
But really. While there are still some lingering tensions here between the ethnicities and the federation and the republic, it is similar to any other place in the world. There is a wide income disparity and people do what they can to supply themselves and their families with necessary means of survival. The young people memorize the lyrics of Nevermind, the fathers drive to work in the morning, these people eat and drink and talk and shit. Life goes on, somehow. Some things are just universal. Like those little pine tree air fresheners that are always scented entirely not of pine (instead Hawaiian Breeze or Vanilla just to confuse our ocular-olfactory senses) and are indiscriminately embraced in the cabs of everything from Ford explorers to VW Rabbits to Benz cement trucks. They are like love or the human condition – perhaps incomprehensible, far from perfect, always lasting too long or not long enough; they might not turn out to be at all what they seem, but man, do they smell sweet.
BiH is VW Golf, VW Golf, VW Golf, Yugo
BiH is meat and cheese, bread and olives
BiH is tiny cups of strong coffee in tiny copper pitchers
BiH is lamb kebabs and dolma
BiH is a mosque, a cathedral, an orthodox church
BiH is a little girl laughing, an old man frowning, looking at the sidewalk
BiH is scented toilet paper printed with pink flowers or colored a light green
BiH is running across every street, avoiding death-by-tram, beeping its horn before it rounds a corner whose only visibility is offered in a wierd little round mirror mounted on the adjacent wall
BiH is working a twelve hour day and doesn’t know what minimum wage is
BiH is the million lively roses that dance in the Sarajevo afternoon rainstorms
BiH is wearing high heels on 500-year old Turkish cobblestone
BiH’s women are fighting umbrella wars on the streets midday
BiH is incessant, brave, fearless and endless humor
BiH is teenagers in converse hightops, women in tight jeans descending steep hills, men beeping their car horns when they round the corner
BiH is singing
BiH is bakeries on every corner
BiH thinks that liver is quite tasty
BiH doesn’t care if you get sick on the bus
BiH is a chain smoker, fuck the ninnies who can’t handle it
BiH is drinking beer from its major breweries – Republica Srpska’s Nekatar and Sarajevo’s Sarejevska Pivo, and loving it. Or just drinking slivovitz.
BiH is empty buildings, shelled buildings, abandoned buildings, old and new buildings, burnt-out buildings, buidlings left behind by families who’s tremble in 1992 never went away and they never came back…
BiH is ubiquitous Tito paraphernalia
BiH is hating elevators and loving 2-inch sidewalks that are used more as VW parking spots with perhaps an inch for you to scoot around oncoming traffic
BiH is aware of the millions of landmines still planted in its fertile ground and is staying off of all unmowed grass
BiH is runnning across sniper ally in high heels
BiH is trying to forget, but never forgetting
BiH is a rape victim, splayed out and bruised
BiH is Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Sarajevo
BiH is not the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the Republica Srpska, it is the exchange of children’s smiles on the street, totally oblivious to the “ethnic” or “religious” identity of the other and noticing only their likenesses. It is working together to rebuild the library, the national museum, the streets. It is survival and love against all odds. It is learning how to remember and forget at the same time.
Walking home to our apartment in Sarajevo in darkened streets, suffi muslim chants running through my head, rain never felt so sweet on my tired shoulders. When visiting the center for Islamic theological studies we learned of a suffi mosque nearby and decided to attend their Thursday night session honestly hoping to experience the mesmerizing dances of whirling dervishes. While we weren’t honored with this experience, we did get to witness the chanting and prayer practices of this interesting Islamic sect in circumstances quite different from the regular rituals of the five daily prayers. Haji, Karl and a few of my fellow students and I met up with several young Muslim friends of the professors and set out to find the mosque. Almir and Selma do not frequent these sort of “extra” prayer sessions and were also unfamiliar with this particular mosque, but where happy to share their insights and Selma was enthusiastic in answering my questions before and after.
Selma and I slipped off our shoes and stepped inside the warm, carpeted mosque, her head tightly wrapped in tidy polyester scarf, mine loosely and clumsily draped in sage-colored cotton, and ascended the stairs above to the women’s section of that holy place. A painted dome loomed above us as we sat on the colorfully woven carpet and songs of incomprehensible content danced through my veins. Peering through cedar-toned lattice I observed what little I could of the origin of that sweet sound in the men’s prayer area below. I relaxed into the soft carpet and my rain-wet jeans. I breathed deeply of the clean warm air and listened contentedly to the mesmerizing tones. Suddenly, a deep breath swept the crowd, a sigh almost, like one would have when suddenly waking from a nightmare; when finally emerging from the depths of a river; when nearly passing from this life to another and somehow awakening with a deep inhalation – a forced and vibrant ahhhhh laaa, haaaaa. My mind was swept clear of its seemingly endless clutter, my awkwardness in my foreign existence in that sanctuary of tradition and spirit erased, I fell into a silent trance as my body rocked slowly, methodically, of its own accord.
Afterwards, I waited by the garden outside the building with Selma, my head still wrapped, as she poured information on Islam out on me as if she had never before had the chance to talk about the religion she held so dear to her heart, as though she couldn’t conceive of the fact that I had experienced its basic tenants in numerous other world religions and had freely chosen my own path of charmed agnostic existence. She even went so far as to cite the Bogomils, an obscure Eastern European protestant sect who left their marks on Bosnian history nearly a thousand years ago (and whom I have grown rather obsessed with as of late) as connected with a popular Bosniak (Bosniak=Bosnian Muslim, by the way, a term which is still in the transitional period of international recognition) theory that the Bogomils were the first Bosnians to convert to Islam. This theory, of course, makes it much easier for the Bosniaks to justify their existence in this nation and to argue the common Serbo-Croation assumption that they were merely another product of the Ottoman occupation.
Selma and I waited outside for the men join us, drinking water from the ancient stone fountain with its Arabic inscription and cool, cool flow. As we stood there, her educating me on the Muslim lifestyle, me nodding and staring up at the stars and wondering what her face looked like without the tight frame of her scarf, one of the men came up and offered us each a pretzel-shaped loaf of bread wrapped in brown paper and a gentle smile. The grass was damp and the wind blew softly. The dudes ended up staying to drink tea with the Sheik, and me being preconditioned in the art of humble tolerance for sexism prompted me to chalk it up as an opportunity to be alone. I walked Selma downtown to catch a cab and divined my way back to our apartment on the hill, my little head full of everything and at once nothin t’all.
We’re off for another field trip tomorrow, this time to Banja Luka (check it out on the map) in the Republica Srpska. While it seems ominous in some ways after having been so thoroughly exposed to the vantage point predominantly of the victim of this sad conflict throughout the past week, I look forward to finally being able to ask some questions to those on the other side.
We spent a long weekend in Mostar (in the southeast of this gorgeously mountainous country) exploring the Ottoman Empire’s undeniable influence on BiH’s culture and history, and more specifically what exactly went down in that city over the course of the war in the 90’s. Mostar is a big tourist city, always was and likely always will be, mainly because of the apeal of their rich open-air markets, the cobblestone Turkish quarter that drapes across much of the downtown, the beautiful bright blue river Neretva that flows through the city – inspiring the youth of the active “diving club” to hustle tourists for cash bribes to jump off of the old Mostar bridge, the city’s undoubtably biggest attraction of all. The bridge was built in the 16th century and was forever prized by its community. When it was destroyed by Croat forces in 1993 and has since then been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site and thus had solicited significant attention from the international community, assisting greatly in its reconstruction.
So. Its been a busy week. After coming home from Mostar I rested and wandered around in a dizzy state of nauseousness, pained by the rollercoaster of a bus ride (just thinking of getting back into that death contraption tomorrow morning makes me sick already…). We visited the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Genocide Institute today and earlier this week the Islamic theological school, a center for mentally handicapped, the Center for Missing Persons and Mass Graves, and the Association for Concentration Camp Survivors.
Its all a bit of a blur, really. The days, information and emotions are running together like rain runs down an eroded hillside and into a dirty river. In my mind, the facts are finally fitting together enough for me to form a sort of timeline and develop some stronger opinions of my own.
Looking down from a minouret in Mostar at the famous old Mostar bridge that was destroyed during the war. UNESCO has recognized it as a world heritage site and helped considerably in reconstructing it with the original stonework, unfortunately such a vested interest has not been demonstrated throughout the rest of the city.
a perspective on the old part of the city from the Mostar bridge
me hanging out in an old Ottoman fortress. thinking about history, my sweetheart, or world domination?…
I’m sitting on the rooftop balcony of our comfortable apartment, looking out over the vast, lit expanse of the city of Sarajevo. I’ve had quite an adventure getting here and this city has proven to be the climax of my exciting little journey. I arrived via bus a few days ago after missing my connecting train in Zagreb, Croatia, an adventure in and of itself. We have spent the last few days becoming acquainted with this great city, exploring it, and going out on several field trips.
We spent yesterday visiting a high school that was displaced by the war and forced to meld with the existing elementary in cramped quarters. The school still functions today in this desperate manner, with different shifts of students throughout the day in order to accommodate them all despite the space deficiency because the school does not have adequate funding for renovation or rebuilding projects. This is quite unfortunate for the students as it is a challenge to learn in such an environment and the teaching materials are seriously lacking. We introduced ourselves to the classes that we were welcomed into and then split off into smaller groups to discuss our lives, experiences, and ultimately, the war. The older students were more receptive to conversation on this complex issue because they had actually lived it, but some of these students were really resistant to talking about it given the intimate and sensitive nature of the event. My group danced in and out of the subject and it was amazing to hear their personal accounts and opinions of their government and people.
After meeting with several classes we joined back with the original, older group of students for a sort of round-table discussion. Carefully, we guided the group into the issue, offering answers to their questions about us but essentially trying to get them to open up. One of the students suggested going around the circle and speaking about their experiences or opinions. We were enthusiastic, but I carefully pointed out that they absolutely did not have to speak if they didn’t want to. What happened next was a totally spontaneous manifestation of their emotions and experience of this immense issue, and it was profoundly moving. Students spoke on the death of their family members, aunts, uncles, fathers; they spoke of their memories; the future, their dreams, aspirations and hopes for their country; some spoke of utter hopelessness, of a fear that war would someday once again ravage their country of its rich culture and unity, one said that she would leave as soon as she was able because there was nothing here for her; they spoke of unity and organizing the masses; of fighting racism and discrimination and embracing diversity; they spoke of love.
I couldn’t believe that this divine expression had manifested before my eyes. Immensely grateful to these brave young people, I thanked them profusely, told them of my deep appreciation for them and their great and beautiful city, and left the rest of the group behind playing a game of kickball while I refined the salt lines down my cheeks on a distant cement step, notebook and pen in one hand, cigarette in the other, unable to see the clouds or sun through my spectacles of tears.
I find myself increasingly enjoying the numbness of watching the ol’ brain-rotting teevee, reading books, or loosing myself in the “old Turkish quarter” of this great city. But I don’t really know what it means to want to forget.
The mosque nearest our apartment has sounded one of its many daily calls to prayer, the megaphone echoing an ancient, sand and sun-encrusted chant off surrounding buildings and the steep hill that supports them, reminding me of distant memories of a certain Buddhist temple in Korea. Rain is beginning to fall, soaking into the fertile ground from which at least a million rose blossoms flourish in this exotic city. There are bullet holes in the plastered wall of the house next door and somewhere across the huge valley a dog is barking.
I believe in you.
A few of the wonderful high school students I met with –
The amazing Oslobodenje! Haji and stopped by to meet arrange for my research project – it was a huge sucess. I’ll be spending all of next Friday scouring their archives for political cartoons published during the siege.
The “Eternal Flame” in honor of Yugoslav partisans that fell during WWII
We visited an incredible museum that documented the hardships and survival of Sarajevan citizens during the war. These little stoves, fashioned out of cans and recycled aluminum, were donated by the individuals who invented/owned them during the war and are a great demonstration of their ingenuity.
Tito and I are tight. Psst, can I tell you a secret…?
Bosnian humor is fearless. This hilarious monument in honor of the International Community’s humantarian intervention during the war is in the shape of a giant can of shitty canned beef ration.