Where to begin? It is now our last night here (though, as with Belgrade, fortunately we will be passing through again once C and K get here). I have never actually been to Sarajevo before and truly didn’t know what to expect. But what we initially found defied expectations and then continued to toss us back and forth, forth and back.
I was prepared to find a city pretty much still in shambles. After all, much of the Berlin I had seen (especially in the East) when I lived there 30 years after WWII was still a mess. I had seen footage of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990’s — it had been under siege for 1,424 days, from April 1992 till February 1996 — the longest siege of a major European city in recent history; three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad during WWII. “Why do you want to go there?” a friend of mine in Miami asked me, “it will be so depressing.”
But our initial impressions were anything but depressing. During the drive from the airport we saw many new buildings (wars have a way of speeding up urban renewal…), and when we arrived at our airbnb apartment (via extreme San Fransisco-eque streets, unbelievably narrow to boot — I now declare myself having moved from the novice to the intermediate category of foreigner-driving-in-Europe!), we were warmly greeted by the father of the apartment’s owner who not only carried my suitcase up the two flights of stairs, but also gave us fresh fruit (and there is no fresh fruit that can compare to that in this part of the world, bar none!) and showed us the semi-stocked refrigerator. As a sign of respect, we removed our shoes on entering the apartment and have continued to be vigilant about not wearing them inside. On our third morning, S (the owner’s dad) knocked on our door with a plate of amazing pastries, baklava and such, explaining that it was in celebration of Bajram (or Eid), the day after Ramadan ended.
After we settled into the apartment, we ventured forth into the old part of town, “Bascarsija,” (“Bash-char-sheeya”) which is a pedestrian zone teeming with life — restaurants, coffee shops, an indoor bazaar which reminded me of the sukh in the old part of Jerusalem — and so much more. This part of town contains both the historic Gazi Husrev-begova džamija (mosque), the old Orthodox church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel , the Sarajevo Synagoge, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Sacred Heart — all within a few hundred meters of each other. The city, and especially the old city (“Stari Grad”) still maintains some echoes of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural microcosm it once was. I had hoped to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, memorialized in Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book, but sadly the National Museum in which it is housed has been closed since 2012 due to on-going disputes about funding. Ironically, this museum remained open during the war, surviving without major damage. Hopefully the issues will be resolved so that this historical treasure will once again be available to the world.
During our four days here we continue to be gob-smacked by the food — the single disappointment was succumbing to our hunger that first evening and settling for pasta. “It tastes like they opened a can of Chef Boyardee,” S. observed. Note to self: wait until we get to Italy at the end of this journey to order pasta again…!
Strolling through Bascarsija that first night (as we actually ended up doing every night thereafter) was a feast for all the senses — sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch (just had to touch many of the wares in the various stalls of the indoor bazaar). As we topped off the evening with a rice pudding style dessert, washed down with tea and the local Bosnian mineral water we even got to witness a very lively alteration between an older man and several feisty adolescents. As much as I could figure out it was something about the kids’ being on his roof and doing something untoward (drinking? smoking? throwing things?). The police were ultimately summoned and finally some parents came and took the young offenders home. Kids’ shenanigans are kids’ shenanigans pretty much all over the world.
On our second day we visited with representatives of two different peace-making/reconciliation groups and yesterday we went to Srebrenica and the Potocari cemetery and memorial. I will write about those shortly, but first I wanted to share initial impressions of a city which seems to have risen from some pretty horrendous ashes.