Ovo je život

Monday, November 12, 2018

Prologue

For me, fate, and its close cousin faith, are similar. Possibly wholly human constructs, they make us believe in something and galvanize us into actions that determine the arc of our lives. It may be written so in the books, but it ain’t gonna happen until we do it. Manar told me of an Arabic proverb attributed to the Prophet, “Tie your camel first and then pray.” I believe I was fated to visit Sarajevo, but I had to make it happen.

Thursday, Nov 8, 2:30 PM

Taxi to Sarajevo old town

My taxi driver’s name is Adnan. He is impressed that I can say 'Stari Grad' when he asks me where I want to go. I am confused by the sign marking the boundary of 'Republika Srpska.' Adnan explains the difference between the two entities, “The Federation of…” Adnan’s voice trails off as I realize this is very complicated. I roll down the car window and breathe in the Sarajevo air as Adnan rattles on…

Thursday, Nov 8, 6:30 PM

The sweetest desert (sic) in town

Nablus, the shop claiming to have “the sweetest desert (sic) in town” is empty except for the owner, Salahuddin, who he is originally from Palestine. I watch as he makes a kunafa for me from scratch. I have have it with Bosnian coffee. It is good, but I am not sure it is any better than the one I had on the sidewalk in Çarşamba in Istanbul. Salahuddin thinks I look like a Kuwaiti, and he also thinks Indians are very hardworking. I think he is trying to be politically correct with me but failing.

Friday, Nov 9, 11 AM

This morning Valida and I talked for three hours. By now I know quite a bit about her life, family, upbringing, the business, her views on a variety of aspects of life, how Mumo proposed to her on their fourth date and she said yes because she was drunk, and so on. She seems to be a strong-willed woman but also with a heart as soft as butter. She has an opinion on everything, especially the way the city of Sarajevo is run. She wants to help me find an apartment when I return to Sarajevo. Valida’s beauty magnified by her gentleness.

Friday, Nov 9, 12:30 PM

Sehidsko mezarje

The walk up Ulica Kovači, past the Sehidsko mezarje was a revelation. Mumo told me to check out the cemetery where Bosnia’s first president is buried. But I couldn’t really recover from the field of gravestones as far as the eye could see, each marked with a date between 1992 and 1995. The visual and emotional impact of that was a double whammy.

View from the Yellow Fortress

The view from Žuta Tabija helped me recover.

Friday, Nov 9, 10 PM

The house band at the Sarajevska Pivara

The house band at the Sarajevska Pivara is playing mainly pop songs. The crowd loves it and is singing along. The guy sitting next to me is Bosnian but lives in Holland now. In the time I have one non-alc. beer, he chugs down four. The band segues to folk music. My neighbor tells me he is gonna leave and go to the City Lounge to listen to “real rock music.” I leave soon after but only because my eyes are stinging from the cigarette smoke.

Saturday, Nov 10, 2 PM

Green, Green, Grass of Home by Maja Bajević

The old gentleman at the National Gallery can’t speak any English. For some reason, he chooses to talk to me in French with a few Bosnian words thrown in. “Da, l'exposition se poursuit au deuxième étage.” When I leave the gallery, my mind is stuck on the video by Maja Bajević describing from memory her grandmother’s apartment that she lost in the war.

Saturday, Nov 10, 3 PM

The chess men

Two guys are playing chess on a walk-around chess board painted on the ground at Trg Allie Izetbegovića. About 20 guys standing around are all giving their expert opinions on the best next move. It is hilarious to watch them. I manage to get what I think is one of my best photos, of some of the viewers, including the guy in the middle who is a dead ringer for Willie Nelson.

Saturday, Nov 10, 4 PM

I have been in Sarajevo for three days and have been to the Falafel Restoran three times. The owner and his daughters cook the food when ordered so it takes longer, but is worth the wait. Today his daughter was in-charge and she suggested I try the fried karfiol, which I did, with a bowl of foul moudamas. After that I had a cup full of fritulice from the woman with a stand on U. Ferhadija.

Saturday, Nov 10, 4:30 PM

I have been talking with Dženita with the help of Google Translate. I type in the sentence in English and then I read it in Bosnian. I am trying to pronounce each word correctly, enunciating each consonant. Dženita recited the full abeceda and I recorded it. I love the rhythmic and melodic sounds of Bosnian. I love the way the ‘j’ following the ‘l’ makes it swoop up, and the way the ’ts’ sound of ‘c’ makes for a plosive drama. I am pleased with myself that I can recognize so many words because of their Persian roots, and I really want to learn this language.

Saturday, Nov 10, 9:30 PM

Okovani Prometej

Just got out of Narodno Pozorište having seen the premiere of the ballet “Okovani Prometej.” Besides the super performance in the very lavish Austrian-designed theater, I am thinking, how wonderful that there is a talent pool in little Bosnia big enough to support a fully indigenous performance. Everyone from the dancers to the choral singers to the orchestra to the conductor, the arranger, everyone was Bosnian. Wonderful that kids in Bosnia can still pursue art, music and dancing without succumbing to the pressures of having to go into a more traditional profession.

Saturday, Nov 10, 10 PM

Pink Houdini

I am checking out the revolutionary posters in front of Pink Houdini when the young guy hanging out by the door invites me to go inside and check out the bar. His name is Adnan (there are many Adnans in Bosnia). He claims I will like the bar. I climb down the steps into the garishly decorated cave that looks like the set of a King Crimson concert. A video is playing on the tv screen, Chick Corea with Beka Gochiashvili, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade. It is fun to talk to Adnan and the bartender, a young woman originally from near Split in Croatia (there are only a couple of other customers). By the time Chick Corea finishes playing, my non-alcoholic beer is over and I am also ready to leave.

Saturday, Nov 10, 11 PM

Kiss Kiss Home Food is open. The young kid inside is eager to get me in and buy some food. I order ustipci sa kajmakom. It turns out to be a massive helping. I am sure I have put on two or three kilos already. I meet Manar and Emir who also come in for a late evening snack. Manar is from Montreal, daughter of Syrian and Lebanese parents, and Emir is from Tuzla. The kid doesn’t want me to pay with a credit card and tries to tell me the machine shuts down at 10 PM. He is full of it, because I try anyway and of course, it works. I jokingly tell him, “See, never lose hope.” He replies sardonically that this is Bosnia, this is not Amerika, there is no hope here. I still think he is full of it.

Sunday, Nov 11, 12:30 PM

Ministry of Ćejf

The young guy at the Ministry of Ćejf makes me a great Americano. Then he explains that ćejf means to make things “your way,” that is, the way the customer wants it. It is the Bosnianization of the Arabic term kaif. Later when I meet Manar, she confirms this.

Sunday, Nov 11, 1 PM

Ascending by Amira Medunjanin

The first time in my life I heard the sound of Sevdah was on Nov 7, the day before I left for Sarajevo. Since then, I’ve been listening to it almost non-stop. In four days I’ve gone from zero to learning about Divanhana, Amira Medunjanin, Mostar Sevdah Reunion, Zehra Deović, Arif Alajbegović, and Sofke Nikulović. Amira Medunjanin has a new album out called “Ascending” that was displayed in Magaza, the shop owned by Dino Merlin.

Sunday, Nov 11, 3 PM

Ran into Manar and Emir again, not far from Kiss Kiss Home Cooking. They were getting started on monstrous waffles, about 2000 calories of sugar overload each. Emir insisted I sit down and have çay with them. We talked of books to read, singers to discover, and how is it that we can recognize our own kind even in a crowd. Emir teaches me how to tell Bosnian names from Serbian names from Croatian names but I am not sure I get it. Manar recommends a book of poems by a Sudanese poet.

Sunday, Nov 11, 3:30 PM

One of those countless urchins begging at Baščaršija comes up to me. She is drinking from a cup of ayran while asking for money. I tell her “no” but I guess I am not firm enough. She sidles up to me, puts her arms around me, and gives me a kiss on my cheeks. I tell her I am not impressed so she bursts out laughing. She is barely six, perhaps one of those Roma children that everyone is telling are a part of a begging mafia. I wish I could take her with me. God knows she might grow up to be a famous ballet dancer or a Sevdah singer or a brilliant writer.

Sunday, Nov 11, 4:30 PM

Afternoon coffee with Dženita is becoming a ritual. I walk into the living room at around 4 PM everyday and she expectantly asks me if it is coffee time. Then she makes coffee while complaining that she doesn't really like Bosnian coffee, and then sits and drinks with me anyway. Her full name is Dženita Kurto. Coincidentally, there is a Restoran Dženita and a Cevabdžinica Kurto in Baščaršija. I gave her a small gift today and she was very happy.

Sunday, Nov 11, 7:50 PM

Buregdžinica Sač

My last evening out on the Kasima ef. Dobrače, the cold air slaps my face. The street is still torn up from the work that has been going on for days. (On Friday Mumo had told me with a knowing air that the city workers start at 8 AM and quit at 3 PM. He proclaims this work will never get done.) I have only 3.60 KM left to spend on dinner. I spend 2 KM on a small piece of spanać pite and a larger piece of krompir pite at Buregžinica Sač, and 1.50 KM on a small piece of baklava on the way back.

Monday, Nov 12, 11 AM

Berber

This trip is at its end, and getting a haircut and a shave by a local berber seems only fitting. I am at the brijačnica by the Baščaršija taxi stand. Luka, my barber, likes to stylishly flick the comb between his fingers in between each cut. It is done with great elan until, at one point, when the comb slips. He is like the cat that tries to the jump on the tall wall but can't make it. You can see its ears pulled back as if it is embarrassed and hoping no one saw it clip. The haircut and beard trim are brilliantly done.

Monday, Nov 12, 12:30 PM

Dženi brought me a gift, a box of Bosanski Lokum sa orahom. The inherent warmth of Bosnians goes straight to the heart. She can barely afford her rent, but she gets me a gift that I accept with happiness and humility. The emotional impact this trip has had on me is difficult to describe. I've been torn between focusing on the heartrending past of this country or on the youthful present of this ancient city. The reality is, the Sarajevo of today is built on the Sarajevo of yesterday. The short excerpt from Julie Zeh’s “Die Stille Ist Ein Geräusch” provided one picture of the country in 2001. Reading excerpts from Vehid Gunić’s brutally candid diary-like book “Shame on you Europe” made my eyes well up and tied my heart in a knot. I really don’t know what to think about the past. But I have fairly good idea about the future. Time to get into the taxi to the airport.

Epilogue

Sarajevo “skyline“

I came to Bosnia with no intention of judging anything, and I am leaving with a heavy heart. But it is not heavy with sorrow. It is heavy with the joy of having experienced the warmth of the people I met, heavy with the beauty of the city nestled in the green hills that look as beautiful as any in Switzerland, heavy with the melody of the language with its swoops and lilts, and heavy with sadness at leaving. I am not enthusiastic about going back to Vienna. I want to spend more time in Sarajevo, I want to come back here, I want to spend extended periods of time, to learn more about the music, to see more concerts, to walk in its nature. I want to get involved with the local people, perhaps open a community space where young (and not so young) people can do creative things. I am in love with this city.

Bosnia, at the crossroads of the past and the future

I am under no illusion that it will be easy. The jump from being able to pronounce a few words correctly or identify a few musicians to actually making my way into the culture and the lives of the people, that leap is pretty big. Maybe it is not love (yet). Perhaps I am smitten, overcome with infatuation. but there is nothing wrong with infatuation as it can lead to a lifelong love. Just like fate and faith, infatuation and love too are cousins. The former shows me what is possible, but then I have to make it happen through a lifelong of nurturing, driven probably by both fate and faith. I don’t know if I will succeed but I have to try. As Krishna said in Bhagvadgita, I have to stop worrying about the results and just do what I believe is required of me. All I can do is to make my friendship and love available. The rest is not my concern. Ovo je život. Čekam te na starom mjestu tamo gde prijateljstvo počinje.