A bloody account

I’m a sucker for a bargain and free is as good as it gets. But if my Kindle experience had taught me anything it’s that books are free for a reason. Unless the copyright has expired and they’re classics, I think I’m better off not even going to the trouble of downloading them. There is a lot of rubbish out there, pasted between two covers and sold in the name of fiction. That said, I’ve had a lot more luck with books in translation. I make a point of visiting bookshops when I travel and doing my best to get hold of local authors in translation. Read more

When the lights come on in Sarajevo

I doubt there’s a village, town, or city in the world that doesn’t look good when the lights come on. There’s something magical about dusk – that corridor of time between daylight and darkness, when street lamps come to light and buildings morph into man-made stars. Sarajevo is no exception.

From the terrace of the Park Princeva restaurant on Iza Hrida br., the view of the city is stunning. The synagogues, the mosques, the Catholic cathedral – the diverse culture clearly visible to the naked eye.The building you can see here, if memory serves me correctly, is the Academy of Arts – but I could be wrong.

The restaurant has been in operation since 2001, long enough for them to get the food and the atmosphere right. My veal fell apart as soon as my fork touched it. And the local wine? Superb.  Four musicians played a selection of Balkan ballads  and yet again, I witnessed the great regard in which musicians are held.

Wandering down the hill at closing time (our taxis had gotten lost), all was quiet. Sarajevo closes early and unlike Budapest or Belgrade, there are few places to go after midnight. Lights reflect off the Miljacka River. Very shallow in daylight, its waters takes on new depths once the sun has gone in and the moon is out.

As we walked across the Latin Bridge and stood where Archduke Ferdinand was shot, time stood still, just for second. It was on this very spot that World War I started. I wondered briefly how different life would have been had Gavrilo Princip not found his mark. What would Sarajevo look like today? I believe that everything happens for a reason. I also believe that I have no need to know the reasons behind all happenings. But on occasion, I’m given to flights of fancy and wonder where I might be now, if something or other hadn’t happened as it did in my life. It seems as if everything I have every done has led to me sitting here, writing this blog post. And if I had my life to live over, I doubt I’d live it any other way.

A grave difference

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.

This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers.  The cemetery is also a  Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.

The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?

There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this: There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality. There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.

Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.

In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as  nišan tombstones.

Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.

Converted to coffee

A mate of mine once told me that you know when you hit the Balkans: the coffee gets good. Finding myself in the old town market in Sarajevo last Sunday afternoon, I sat down beside this old woman at a table outside a café. I asked the lady of the house for a coffee with milk. She shook her head. I asked for a Nescafé – I knew I wasn’t in Serbia but I was close enough to hope that the Nescafé concept might have leaked over the border. She shook her head again. Wine? Shake. Beer? Shake. She said something and at a complete loss for something to say, I nodded. This was a one-item menu.

I got a traditional Turkish coffee served with two cubes of sugar and a square of Turkish Delight. The coffee looked like mud. Something that reminded me of pond scum floated on the top. It poured like treacle, and the word ‘oleaginous’  came to mind. I don’t take sugar – and I never have coffee without milk. But when in Rome – or Sarajevo – I did as the locals do. And, as years of conditioning condensed and melted away, I found myself enjoying the experience.

Perhaps it was the market though – the ambiance? But no. The next day and the day after, I tried it again both at the hotel and at the conference room. I was in danger of becoming addicted – not to the coffee, but to that rush I got when the caffeine hit my veins and shocked me awake. And to the leisurely pace at which each tiny cup is sipped. I could live this life…

A little piece of heaven on earth

Since I started to boycott products made in China, my shopping habits have been severely curtailed. I loathe high streets and shopping malls with a passion. The appearance of the same shops all over the world makes one city look just like the next. It is getting harder and harder to find locally made goods. I lucked out in Serbia last week in both finding a local designer (dress) and a local milliner (hat), neither of which could be termed as an extravagance considering designer prices in other parts of the world.

So a Sunday afternoon in Sarajevo wandering through the cobblestoned market streets was a joy in itself. The afternoon sun transformed the stalls into shining grottoes of gold and silver. Tin, copper, metals of all kinds had been fashioned into trinkets and utensils. Craftsmen worked in their stalls, oblivious to passers-by. The smells of Turkish coffee and kebabs hung heavily in the air.

It was all so very foreign. So very local. Not an H&M or a Zara in sight. The plastic sunglasses and the Turkish tat were housed up the road in the covered market – but this place, this open air heaven was for artisans. I felt brief stirrings of a move – a quick flash of wonder at what it would be like to buy and furnish a flat in Sarajevo. What a challenge it would be.  I found myself mentally discarding colours that wouldn’t fit and gradually piecing it all together. Perhaps if Mr Orban shows me my exit papers, I will head to the Balkans – to Bosnia – to Sarajevo.

Eating in one of Mrs Safija’s four rooms

Sunday night. Sarajevo. Dinner. The restaurant was already booked by our hosts – we had an address and a taxi and assurances that our table would have full view of the TV. Yes, our hosts were Italian and Euro2012 was being its usual pervasive self.  As we wound our way up the hill, the city fell behind us and the air became noticeably cooler. I had no idea what to expect – no concept of what posh restaurants might look like in Sarajevo or even what the menu might offer.

4 Sobe Gospode Safije is what’s called a fusion restaurant. Situated on three floors of an original 1910 Austro-Hungarian house set just outside the centre, the restaurant is based on a love-story between the Bosnian Safija and Johan, her Austrian lover during the transition from Turkish to Austro-Hungarian rule.

Safija, a woman of remarkable beauty, was only daughter of Ahmed-Bey Magbulija. She dressed to embolden her beauty and loved to walk the old streets of the city. Some approved; others didn’t. Safija understood that times were changing but many in the city were not ready to let go of the past.

She dreamed of a man with golden hair – an Austrian – who helped her to her feet when she fell. It was 1914. The city was agog with activity in preparation for the visit of the Archduke Ferdinand. Safija went to watch.

New carriages had appeared in the town, beautifully painted and carrying ladies in long light colored dresses and jeweled headbands garlanded with flowers … Safija had never seen anything like it in her life. The ladies were accompanied by gentlemen dressed in black, without belts or waistcoats. Their white shirts were fastened at the neck in a strange way and they had polished shoes. On their heads they wore a different kind of fez Safija knew that it was called a hat. She knew too that the ladies’ headbands were called tiaras.

And the she saw him. The man in her dream. Baron Von Herberstein. He later came to call on her parents, along with his two sisters. A friendship ensued and the Baron fell in love. But Safija ignored his entreaties. They came from two different worlds and she couldn’t  cross that divide. He arranged with his sisters to invite Safija on a walk to the Old Town and to wait for him to join them. It all went to plan. One minute the sisters were there, the next they’d been replaced by the Baron. He professed his love and asked her to run away with him.

I have been looking at you for a month; I have followed your shadow; you have burned my heart more deeply than the sun. I have called to you in my dreams; I have called you my own. You are not destined to live or die here. We will run away … far away from everything. I will give my life if need be to fulfill your desires. I will build you a paradise … a house with four rooms and each one of I will sprinkle with silver and gold. Everyone will know that you are my queen … a bird of paradise.But Safija didn’t know what to do. How could she tell her parents that she was in love with a Christian. If her father knew they were alone, he would have them killed. But when the Baron took her in his arms and kissed her, she knew that she was prepared to  shame her religion, lose her reputation, destroy her father; she was prepared to die. She knew she was guilty, and yet not guilty. She loved … not an Omer-Bey or an Adem-Bey or anyone she had been meant to marry. She knew she loved Johan Von Herberstein.

She asked him to dig their graves. She said she would rather have him hang her than her father.

It was a story that passed among imams and among travelers and among the people of the town. Before God and the whole world the foreigner and the Bey’s young daughter had become one and then taken shelter in the otherworld. And those who heard the story did not know whether to cry or to pray. .. Twenty generations have passed since then. Sarajevo has suffered much and changed much … But there on the corner, in all its beauty stood the house of gold. It had four rooms, rooms that still glisten, rooms that are still talked about … Stories about Miss Safija are still being told … [Read the full story]

As we sat in the garden of the restaurant, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the love story. The menus showed old photos of Safija and Johan. The food was excellent. The wine superb. A beautiful atmosphere. If you’re ever in Sarajevo, make sure you drop by.  Čekaluša 61, 71000 Sarajevo, BiH. It’s open from 9am to midnight.

No Bosnians in Bosnia

I met a woman once who had survived the concentration camps. I was in awe of her. She was old and frail, but feisty. It was hard for me to imagine such atrocities, just as it is hard for me to imagine what it was like living in Belgrade during the NATO bombings or in Sarajevo during the siege. And yet I now know people who did live in these places and they’re my age, give or take a few years.They talk of playing basketball while the bombs fell. They talk of making sure their families we safe in the shelters and then going to sit with friends in a café, determined not to give in. They talk of doing their damnedest to continue to live life as usual.

And while all this was going on, I was in Ireland, or America, living in blissful ignorance. TEM went to Bosnia with the UN so the war touched me briefly. He is remarkably reticent about his time there yet I know the friendships he formed are deeper than most. A shared experience will do that for you. He tells a story about the Irish lads being particular about how their meat was cut. One of them, the son of a butcher, showed one of the locals how to cut steaks to satisfy the Irish and their peculiarities. A friendship of sorts ensued and some time later, when their barracks was blown up, the Irish boys had been forewarned.

I didn’t know what to expect in Sarajevo and yet somehow all those unspoken expectations were met. The road into town from the airport, known to many back in the day as Sniper Alley, is bordered by tall block towers showing the scars of war. It was sobering. I don’t for one minute pretend to understand what went on or why it all had to happen. Much as I love the Balkans and enjoy the people, they remain unfathomable and all the more wonderful for that. I was in Sarajevo for a workshop where the concept of all-inclusiveness is something yet to be realised. The Balkans might be a region, but the players in the region still find it hard to sit at the same table. Growing up in Ireland, in a predominantly white, Catholic environment, I can’t begin to understand it all. Somehow, the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland seem quite different.

In the centre of the city, there are visible sides of the efforts being made to put the past behind. Buildings are being renovated. Bullet holes are filled in and plastered over, waiting for a new coat of paint. If only it were as easy to renovate people and their attitudes. There are large numbers of Muslim Turks studying at the three universities, opting to live in a country where as women they can openly wear signs of their religion. There is a Serbian quarter, too, complete with cyrillic signs. But there are no Bosnians.  ‘Under the post-war Constitution, constituent people citizens are identified as Bosniaks (known during the war as Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. There is no space for Bosnia’s minorities’, or so says a Refworld report published in April this year.

On another forage through the web in a vain attempt to sort out the mess that Sarajevo has left in my mind, I came across this quote by an American painter LG Hornby (Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153) who arrived in Sarajevo in 1925.

Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot. Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.

And again I wonder at the price of progress.

There is a beauty to Sarajevo that is found in the mix of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Despite its scars, it is has an innate beauty  that speaks of tenacity and perseverance. In just two days, it burrowed its way into my heart and left a lasting impression on my soul. I’ll be going back – this time for longer.