Archive for the ‘ Co-existing Ethnic Groups ’ Category

Touring Croatia


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Croatia is the new playland of our world. Currents wash up on its shoreline at the Adriatic Sea, carrying the pollution on down the loop to the Italian side. The youth go to Croatia’s incomparable coast to plunge in its waters, soak its sun, and to party. But Croatia is more. It is historic. Split evokes Roman glory and the struggles of the nascent Christian church. Dubrovnik rivaled Venice in importance before the Renaissance. Tito hailed from Zagria. Later, Zagreb led in the dismantling of his unique experiment in multi-ethnic governance. Ever remaking itself, as a new State since 1991 Croatia seems to be searching for a national purpose. I went there for a glimpse of what it was all about. This is my report.


                        keywords: Croatia* Dubrovnik* Split* Zagreb*Tito


Dubrovnik in the Rain

            On the day I was in Dubrovnik it rained. Sunshine was supposed to be this place’s promise. Without it the water would not be that famous azure, and one could not bask on its magnificent beaches. “This weather is not that unusual in early October,” the hotel receptionist told me, “it is sort of off-season.” To be sure the guests in this resort establishment were not the tourist type you read about. Instead of eager youth, most were middle age. Instead of the Germans, Italians, and Slovenians, most were from the United States and Australia. Ironically, this weather held the unexpected promise of the unusual –a mild adventure– which they did not mind. Besides, there were occasional breaks in the storm. I had walked down to the nearby Copacabana Beach during one of those breaks the evening before when we first arrived and saw the reluctant sunset. The beauty of nature was blended with the melancholy of the summer’s end.

            We stepped into the drizzle of the morning and drove on the hilly road down to the Old Town of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In our first sighting it looked subdued, engulfed in grey. The boats were moored. A riot of colors – red, yellow, white, and blue- they pulled at their restraints.  Undaunted, our tour guide took us on a walk, umbrellas ready.  He was a member of the committee supervising the restorative preservation of Dubrovnik. His personal proclivity combined with the uncommon weather made for a special tour.  The first monument, the Onofrio Fountain, was about water shortage -ironically, the fundamental constraint of this rocky islet which was settled in the 7th century by refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum when their enemies destroyed it. The Fountain is part of a supply system that brings water from a well more than seven miles away.

            In the many centuries hence, Dubrovnik has proved spunky. The original settlement, called Ragusa -derived from the Greek word for Rock- expanded by merging in the 12th century with a settlement arising across the channel called Dubrovnik -from the local word for the native plant holm oak. The channel was paved over to become the main street of the town, Placa, where we were now standing. The resulting “County” kept the name Ragusa. Its government pursued a singular goal: securing the place for the residents so that they could engage in lucrative maritime commerce. To that end it became a protectorate of successive foreign powers: the Byzantine Empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries, Venice from 1205 to 1358, the Croatian-Hungarian monarchs thereafter until the 16th century when it began to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The last centuries of this period, which ended by the devastating earthquake of 1667, were the “golden era” of Dubrovnik that our guide was now highlighting inside a rare vintage building still standing, the Rector’s Palace

            He talked about the substantial cultural legacy of Dubrovnik, in literature and science, and its claim to the oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe dating from 1391. He showed us the impressive collection of paintings by Italian masters in the Palace Assembly Room. “Notice that there is no painting by any Venetians. We loved the Italians but hated the Venetians. They were our major rival. We had about 800 merchant ships (argosy); they had over 1000. We sent our people to study in Italy. We still use many Italian slang words. We even call Placa the Stradun like the Italians.”

            Our guide then told us about old Dubrovnik’s government. “The Rector who was our ruler was elected by the Senate for the term of one month. The voting was just like in the Vatican, using red and blue bowls. During his tenure the Rector could not leave this Palace without permission from the Senate. Therefore, the job was looked at more as an obligation than a privilege.” He pointed out the inscription on the portal of the inner sanctum of the Palace which read: “OBLITI PRIVATORUM PUBLICA CURATE” (forget all private interests and tend to public concerns).  “This epitomized Ragusan political ideals” the guide said. In fact, this was a variation of Cicero’s paraphrase of Plato’s ideals.

            Next to the Palace, we stopped at a painter’s house, damaged in 1991 and 1992 by the Serbian shelling in the war that led to Croatia’s separation from Yugoslavia. Enlarged pictures nailed on its exterior walls showcased destruction elsewhere in the town. “Nearly 70% of the buildings were hit and 75% of the tiled roofs were damaged,” our guide said. “The cost of repair was more than $10 million.” I asked how much was contributed by UNESCO. “Only $50,000” he said disdainfully, “we have funded it all.”

            The guide continued, “We are now also focusing on the problems of earthquakes,” as he recalled the damages caused by the latest in 1995. He showed us a contraption installed in the cloisters of the Franciscan Monastery to monitor the tremors and their effects. “Bringing such instruments into the Old Town is difficult. We had to use cranes and high tech devices.” This he said ruefully as he had begun the tour boasting that he was the sole guide to introduce a “high tech” way of communicating with his tour group. He had distributed receivers which enabled us to hear him without being very close to him. Alas, his transmitter had failed only a few minutes later.

            “We decided to use original materials and traditional methods in restoration,” our guide said. The factory near Dubrovnik that had supplied the original tiles for the roofs, however, had long since closed down. We could see the difference between the ochre and red colors of the new tiles and the faded hues of the old tiles from the top of the walls that enclose Dubrovnik.

            Walking on these walls might be the best way to view the Old Town.  When built between the 13th and 16th centuries, however, their purpose was to defend the enclave. They are more than a mile in length and rise up to about seventy five feet. They are from five to twenty feet thick.  When I started on the walk, the sky was only overcast. It cast its steely dark color on the waters of the Adriatic.  The pearly color of the wet marble of Dubrovnik’s street looked muted.

            The rain had earlier chased away a newly-wed couple in haste; they left their bag behind on the wall. The writing on it said: “Personal Computing & Communications- Just Married”.  Now the rain began again lightly. Two painters who had hung their watercolors on the wall retreated slowly; when the rain became a downpour, they went inside one of the 15 forts on the wall that was nearby. I followed them. There a woman was on her cell phone, while her young son stuck an umbrella out of the narrow panes of the single window. Two young men now joined us. Their black T-shirts were soaked. On one was printed Counter Culture; the letters of Culture were upside down.

            When the rain relented, I saw the tiles of another part of Dubrovnik’s roofs, brighter after the wash. A television dish clashed with the scenery, but the garments left on the clothes line -pink, fuchsia, and white- were harmonious.  School boys were now playing soccer down below. “We meet our wives and divorce them on these streets,” our guide had said; “this is a real community. I grew up here. My uncle still lives here.” The locals are, however, selling their homes to foreigners in today’s temptingly hot market. “The County Government has said when the population declines to 2,500 they will consider the matter,” the guide said, “but they have not explained what would they ‘consider’ doing, and why they chose the number 2,500. Maybe they are referring to when that was the number of residents in the high days of Ragusa. In the meantime, when the tourists are gone, we come here as we have the Stradun all to ourselves to stroll up and down.”

            That evening I met some of the locals who had moved out of the Old Town in a Pizza parlor run by an American in the suburb near our hotel. A group of about eight teenage girls came first. Five minutes later another group of boys of the same age came in. At first they sat apart.

            As we drove away from Dubrovnik the next day, we passed through the delta of the River Neretea. Our tour guide told us: “This is a very fertile land.  Agriculture was the main source of income in these areas before tourism began in the 1950s. They also have very good wines here, especially Rakija which is the traditional spirit of Croatia. It is produced from local fruits at home in hand-made distilleries. It is very strong.  The farmers dilute it with water when drinking at work. The measurements are one finger wine and one finger water. Those who want to cheat hold their finger horizontally when measuring the water.” When we next stopped to look at the splendid vista from a hill, a roadside vendor sold me a small bottle of spirit with no label. “My mother made it from tangerine; it is her favorite,” she said.

Paradise North

            “Split is different from Dubrovnik,” our tour guide announced as we approached Croatia’s second largest city. “People visit it for culture and stay only for the day, so it does not have many good hotels.” She was right, our “4 star” hotel was quaint with a spiral staircase and dark wood-paneled rooms, but my room had the thinnest bar of soap and only about 20 sheets of bathroom tissues. When I asked for more, the operator-cum- receptionist brought them up herself in her additional capacity as the room service clerk. Alas, due to poor communications, I just received more shampoo. 

            The prime symbol of high culture in Split, as we were told, is the annual performance of Verdi’s opera Nabucco. This was a part of the summer festival which took place two months before our visit. Instead, we got to see its historically apt venue: the palace that the Roman emperor Diocletian, the tormenter of early Christians, had built for his retirement at the end of the 3rd century. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace is mostly in ruins, except for the Emperor’s mausoleum, which is held up by columns he had expropriated whole from Egypt along with the Sphinxes that guard it.  These stone lions, however, could not prevent the looting in the 7th century by the Christian refugees from the nearby town of Salona. “They threw the emperor’s sarcophagus out into the sea,” our guide said, and completing the belated revenge, “turned the mausoleum into a church.”  Ever since, generations of their descendants have been occupying the huge imperial residence and the quarters that housed the soldiers and servants — building over and atop them a fungus of apartments.  The bizarre architectural ensemble curiously works, surrounded by the remnants of a wall built by Venetians in the 17th century to defend against the Ottomans.

            I had a glimpse of the exuberance of the residents later in the evening. As I strolled down the cozy back alleys the sound of a mandolin pulled me to an outdoors café where an old couple was dancing. The mood fit well with the bright colors of the 19th century public buildings in the square nearby which were the southernmost left by the Austria-Hungarian Empire in Croatia.

            These were more than matched in charm by the smaller Romanesque and Renaissance buildings of Trogir’s old walled town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, just a few miles further north. I greeted a guitar player in front of the Cathedral and climbed the many steps to its top where I resisted pulling the rope that would ring the rusty bell.  The cobblestone streets  below ushered a market place  and then houses, shops, and offices before leading to a Palm-lined harbor boulevard. The house that offered rooms to the tourists in four languages was closed , but there were signs that people lived here all year around. Three women were gossiping in an alley [26], a watchmaker was working on a customer’s time piece , and a man had settled himself at a café table.

            We left the Adriatic Sea for the Plitvice Lakes inland. Still another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this marvelous creation of water, limestone rock, and plants looked glorious in autumn colors.   We walked on wooden paths and footbridges to see the many waterfalls that connect sixteen mountain lakes as their purest water reflected the surrounding gentle hills.  Our guide said “this place is Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction.” The multiplicity of different languages of the crowd in the lobby of our hotel attested to that.

            There was only one computer with intermittent access to the internet for this crowd. As I stood in line, an Italian woman joined us. She pulled an ashtray to our nearly enclosed corner and lit a cigarette as she sat down on the chair. The expression on the face of an American showed his displeasure. “Does this bother you,” the Italian asked. “Well, yes,” he replied. In a huff, she got up and while pushing the ashtray back protested loudly “it is not forbidden!” The American mumbled, “farting is not forbidden either, but I don’t fart here.”

            This disagreement was nothing compared to what had happened in this area in 1991. The Plitvice Lakes Park was seized by the local Serb allies of the Yugoslav Army at the very beginning of Croatia’s “homeland war” and was not freed until 1995. Not far from the park, as we drove away, our guide pointed to the fields on the sides of the road: “there are still land mines there.”

            We were now snaking down the mountain. “These roads were built during the Austrian rule. The Austrians were very good with roads and railroads,” the guide said. “The roads built today do not last long. They crumble within a year. Some blame corruption for this.”

            Back at the Adriatic, we were presented with another gift of the Austria-Hungarian times, the resort town of Opatija.  This northernmost port is shielded by the coastal range from the cold wind of the Julian Alps.  As a result, its sloping narrow strip of the land is almost sub-tropical. “That is villa Angiolina,” our guide pointed to a colonnaded pretty pink building. “That is where it all started. A wealthy merchant saw this little fishing village with a church which had been built on the foundations of an abbey. Opatija means abbey in Croatian. The merchant liked the place and in 1844 built this villa which he named after his wife. They planted the flower garden and the exotic trees around the villa. They then invited guests. Many from the Austrian aristocracy came.” Soon, a grand hotel, now called Hotel Kvarner, was added. “Doctors declared that the climate was good for sea therapy and established clinics,” the guide said.

            By the turn of the century Opatija became the most fashionable resort in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the demise of that power Opatija lost its fame, but much of its allure remains. The Kvarner still stands grand.  The narrow main street is now crowded with other hotels which are full in the season. I walked on the coastal promenade that fronts the town for 7.5 miles. Two lovers were snuggling on a bench.  The breeze was soft. The vista was sublime.  I thought to myself, “I could live here.” Presently I had to return to our bus. Back on the street, I saw a man in shabby clothes collecting empty bottles from a trash can.  Life could be hard even in paradise.


            The famed Orient Express stopped in Zagreb and to accommodate its pampered passengers, Hotel Esplanade was constructed in 1925 across the plaza next to the train station.  Now calling itself the Regent Esplanade Zagreb, it promised to pamper me: “Tabari Mr. Keyvan,” as its welcoming TV promotional addressed me. That, more or less, set the tone of the mélange, old time charm and clumsy stiffness. The public rooms were plush but smoke-filled, the doorman greeted you warmly but the concierge postured as the “director general” of some bygone bureaucracy dispensing favors, if he pleased, to guests he treated as supplicants. Wearing an imitation of the original cravat, he sat behind an ornate desk rather than stand at a functional lectern.

            When my friend called from the U.S. the next day, the operator gently chastised her in order to protect my sleep: “It is 5:30 in the morning, Madam!” He was wrong. “No. It is 6:30, your time. And it is Ok. Mr. Tabari is expecting my call.” Thus awakened, I took an early morning walk through the Austro-Hungarian part of Zagreb toward its Old Town. Three flat rectangular parks were lined with prized 100 year old oak trees.  The buildings were stately. “Why are only some bright yellow?” I asked. “To distinguish them as built by the Hungarians,” I was told.

            In the main square of the Old Town, the Parliament building faced the Presidential Palace which still showed the scars of the two missiles the Serbs had fired in the failed alleged attempt to kill President Franjo Tudjman during the 1990s war. “One of the missiles was American, and the other Russian,” we were told portentously.  “Notice that there are no people here,” our guide rattled, disregarding the busload of Japanese and our group. The locals, whom she meant, were down at the foothills.

            We visited the Museum of “naive paintings” from the Hlebine School – named after the village where the original two painters, Ivan Generalic and Franjo Mraz, were discovered in 1929. I went through six small rooms of works which refreshingly framed unadorned imagination.

            In a narrow public passageway, we observed the believers light candles in a make-shift shrine next to a painting of Virgin Mary.  According to legends, it had miraculously escaped damage in the fire of 1731 which engulfed the Stone Gate to the Old Town. We moved toward the imposing Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is the Catholic center of Croatia. The remains of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac have been transferred here since Independence. He had died under house arrest imposed by Tito on charge of collaborating with the Nazis. Around the Cathedral, we saw a part of a wall built in the 15th Century to protect this furthest outpost of Christianity “against the threatening Muslim Turks,” our guide said. The Turks “were stopped in Sisak, some 30 Kilometers south of here in 1593.”

            One whole wall in the Cathedral was covered with inscriptions in Glagolithic, the early Slavic alphabet. “This script is taught at schools as a part of our heritage,” the guide said. She explained that the script was invented “by two Greek brothers who came to Croatia in the 9th Century. It is also the source of the Cyrillic script.” These brothers had been sent by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to preach Christianity to the Slavs in their own language. They spoke this language as their mother was a Slav from Thessalonica. The Slavic scripts were created for their translation of the Bible.

            We went for coffee in the shady front yard of a restaurant facing the Cathedral. The well-dressed owner, who was issuing instructions to waiters preparing for the lunch crowd, greeted us and managed to complain that when the “Socialists” were in power, they ruined her business. Shortly thereafter, in the back of the flower market around the corner, we met a surprising remnant of the Socialist times. As we shopped for souvenirs, we struck up a conversation with the owners of three small stalls who were friends. The man was Croatian, one of the women was from Slovenia and the other was a Bosnian Muslim.  The big Muslim mosque in the center of town has been converted to an art gallery. “There is another mosque elsewhere in the city,” our guide said, “and there is also a synagogue and one Orthodox Church.”         

            On Sunday, the main square of town took the appearance of an athletic meet.  “The Zagreb Marathon” was taking place. I chatted with two lanky school boys who explained that this was just a few miles run.  Tardy participants rushed through traffic lights to reach the starting line. We ran into a man who was oddly dressed in a suit and tie and a baseball cap that said Montana. I said hello and we eventually ended up in a restaurant for a lengthy conversation.

            Slim and calm, he was an intellectual Croatian who had left Bosnia because of the war. He believed that the roots of ethnic conflict were in childhood. “Transactional analysis in military studies shows that we suppress the real target of our anger and direct it to safe targets.” He said that Tito kept inter-ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia in check by force. He added, however, that Tito was also very popular. The huge foreign debts Tito incurred contributed to the economic problems that the country faced after his death. “The break up was due to the fact that Slovenian and Croatians who were more productive refused to continue subsidizing the less productive republics of the Yugoslav federation. Nationalism and religious conflicts also flamed the fire.” He spoke warmly of the late President Franjo Tudjman, “the youngest general in Tito’s army, but forced out because of his espousal of Croatian nationalism. Tudjman then engaged in solid research on Croatian history before the time he was able to lead Croatia to independence.”

            My interlocutor, however, was highly critical of independent Croatia. “Politicians of all parties are corrupt. They are selling the country for private gains. Many islands have been sold to the Germans and Italians, against the law. They ignore the law. The pensioners have not been paid for seven months despite the Supreme Court ruling. I cannot predict the future, but in the past people were better off economically although they did not enjoy much political freedom, now it is the reverse.”

Night at the Opera

            That evening I went to an entertainment venue for those who were better off. The Zagreb Filharmonija was playing Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, in a concert performance of the opera. In business suits and evening dresses most in the audience were “respected citizens.”  There were, however, also a large number of teenagers. The tickets were discounted for “children and old people,” the cashier told me. The house was full. The stage was also full with a large chorus and a complete orchestra of musicians. They tuned their instruments just a few minutes before the conductor joined them.

            The performance was serious. The stage was bare except for two platforms and two windows carved into the walls. The playbill matched the performers with the voices -not the roles. They wore plain black.  There was no break in the 2 hours and 20 minutes it took them to finish the job. The teenagers did not fidget. The woman next to me followed the libretto which you could buy in the lobby.

            The closest eating facility to the Vatrolav Lisinski Concert Hall was a McDonald’s. Twenty-somethings were its customers. I ordered a milk shake which tasted almost the same as at home and at almost the same price.

            Farms are not far beyond Zagreb’s city limit. Zagria to the northwest is a rural landscape of exceptional beauty.  There the village of Kumrovec is maintained as an “open door museum” to illustrate how life was around the turn of the 20th Century when Tito was born.  Next to his house is the only statue of him I saw in all of Croatia. “How many of these are there in all of former Yugoslavia?” I asked my guide. He conferred with a woman who was standing outside the house. She pondered and they discussed. “There are four,” they said. The woman was in charge of a collection of Tito memorabilia in the neighboring cottage. These are mostly pictures from the Tito era. The biggest one was familiar; it showed Tito standing between two other leaders of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War, Nehru and Nasser -all three beaming broadly.

            I bought a T shirt from the souvenir shop. On it was emblazoned, “Tito: The Man of Peace.” My guide said “When Tito died his blue train went slowly the length of Yugoslavia. Everywhere people poured out to pay emotional respect to him.” The woman from the museum joined in. “Tito’s funeral was the last time all people in Yugoslavia showed unity,” she said wistfully, “we miss him.” The guide said: “Tito is best remembered for leading the fight against the Nazis in the Second World War and for standing up to Stalin during the Cold War.” The woman said “Now in Croatia we are searching for an alternative sense of purpose. The politicians want to join the European Union. Not everybody is in favor of it. But we don’t have any choice. We are too small to survive on our own.”


This article was published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc. in 2008, with the related pictures.


Slovenia is the “New Europe”

Slovenia is the “New Europe”  


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: The number of tourists who come to Slovenia in a year exceeds its total population.  Geology has shaped this land into a marvel of mountains, green plains, lakes, rivers, and sea shores. Slovenia might well have been called the proverbial Switzerland of its region if the original was not itself in the neighborhood. For centuries, its inhabitants -barely two million- have tenaciously held on to an identity as Slovenes largely based on a distinct Slavic tongue. Their small size was also conducive to the politics of participation. Slovenia was the first to pull away from the failing Communist Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. It lost no time in joining regional institutions of Western Europe, NATO as well as the European Union. Cultural integration has proven more challenging as it threatens the very Slovene essence that has survived multi-ethnic groupings in the Austrian and Yugoslav eras. This background framed my observations during a recent trip to Slovenia, reported here.                        


            keywords: Slovenia* Ljubljana* Plecnik* Tito* Bled* Postojna                 





            As travelers coming from Croatia in early October 2007, we were subjected to strict passport control at the border of Slovenia. This was also the border of the European Union. Slovenia had recently become a full member of the EU; it was preparing to hold the EU’s rotating presidency next year.

            Slovenia’s separation from Croatia and the rest of the old Yugoslavia was largely motivated by economics; with only one-thirteenth of Yugoslavia’s population, Slovenia was the source of one-third of its gross domestic product. That level of productivity was an effective platform for the independent Slovenia’s economy to grow rapidly: its per capita income is now two-thirds that of the EU average. Slovenia is often mentioned as an example of a successful European “transition” (to free market) country. As a member of NATO since 2004 and a contributor to American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also a model of the “new Europe” in the parlance of Washington.

            That Slovenia is now considered a “developed” country meant that it would be more expensive for us tourists. “Prices are much higher here than Croatia, and the currency is Euro,” our guide, Irena, said. She counted education as a main reason for the high productivity of the Slovenes. “The high schools are for nine years, instead of eight in Croatia.” More than 96.5% of those eligible are attending “upper secondary school.” Equally impressive, women constitute nearly 40% of the labor force. Women are provided with a generous maternity leave, as Irena related in the story of her sister, a civil engineer, who had given birth to a child this year. “She could have even had an extension of the paid leave, but she was bored. So she went back to work and her husband stayed home to take care of the baby. There is no comparable compensation for such husbands, yet; his job was such that he could work from home.”

            We left modern times to go into a cave in Postojna which has been receiving visitors since 1819. This was in the southwestern plateau of Kars -which has given its name to the Karst phenomenon-, a limestone region of underground rivers, gorges, and caves. There are more than 80,000 caves in Slovenia. The one in Postojna is the largest and most visited. A train took us to its well-maintained galleries. At its widest, the cave expands to a vast area framed with thousand-year-old stalactites. “This is the concert hall,” our guide said, “on special occasions we are allowed to have music here. Ten thousand people could fit in this area.” Imagine the disturbance that this might cause for the natives of the cave, including the most famous, the rare light salamander (Proteus anguinus) in the exhibit pool which was lighted just for a few minutes as our tour group passed by. There are 130 uncommon species in this cave. They are the subjects of “speleobiology,” a field of study that originated in Slovenia.

            Not far from the Postojna cave we saw another reason for Slovenia’s old claim to fame: two Lipizzaners, horses from the nearby village of Lepic which have long been admired for their elegance, spirit, and friendliness. Still a further reminder of Slovenia’s renown in the bygone days were the vineyards of Dolenjska which we were now crossing. “The wines from here were prized by the Romans,” Irena said.

            She then told us a local joke that described the people as well as the geography of three important regions of this country. “We are going toward Gornjska, whose inhabitants are teased as being stingy. Once, a man from Dolenjska, and one from Stajerska invited their friend from Gorenjska to a picnic. The first said he would bring wine, the one from Stajerska said he would bring food. The man from Gornjska said: ‘OK, I will bring my brother.’” Like their fellow Slovenes, we chuckled at the expense of the Gorenjskans.

Virtuous Small

            Soon, however, we had occasions to delight in Gorenjska’s own culinary contributions, the Bled cream cakes and the buckwheat soup with wild mushrooms picked in the woods around the lodge at Lake Bohinj. At the foot of Triglav, the country’s highest mountain, Bled is a tourist complex of hotels, villas, and restaurants built in the last hundred years around a pristine lake, complete with an island in the middle and a castle perched atop the cliff on its shore.

            The morning mist notwithstanding, the best panoramic view of Bled was from the castle. At the entrance to the castle, a man was raking the fallen autumn leaves, the way it had been done for centuries. Alas, commercialism intruded in the front yard, in the form of a shop purveying “sealed personal certificates” made by a printing press advertised as being from Gutenberg’s time.

            We took the touted pletna -a wooden boat rowed by one person from the back- to the island in the lake . “This is Bled’s answer to the gondola of Venice,” our oarsman said. The scenery that surrounded us, however, accepted no comparison. The mountains rose high, shielding closer hills that were ablaze in autumn colors . The water shimmered as it turned the whole lake into a reflecting mirror of nature in glory .The fog did not obfuscate but intensified . The ducks that swam around us surely knew that this was bliss .

            The ubiquitous “mobile” phone interrupted our peace. When the oarsman finished the call that he had just received , he mumbled an apology, “business,” as he shook his head. He was a chatty type. He was closing for the season soon. Now, I am going on vacation.” When I asked where he would go, he said “Cuba!” He had already been there once. “That is a beautiful country. Not so much Havana, but out on the Island.” He especially liked Trinidad which, as I told him, I also had visited some time ago. The Cubans had built special hotels there for guests from the Communist bloc. We talked about the exceptional sunset of the Caribbean. Perhaps afraid that this incongruous conversation might distract me from the present environment I reached to touch the water of the lake.

            When he deposited us at the foot of the steep stairs to the church on the high point of the island, my new friend, the oarsman told me about a local tradition. “On the wedding day, the groom has to carry his bride up those 99 steps.”

            In the elevator of our hotel, I tried my Slovene: Dubro Yurta. I did not get any reply from the three stout ladies riding with me. When I said Gutten Morgen they beamed and responded in unison. Austria was just on the other side of the mountains and that evening German-speaking tourists curtained off half of the restaurant for their private waltzing party. This was the frontier for the Slavs in Europe; the Julian Alps had trapped them. From the 14th century until 1918, the Hapsburgs ruled Slovenia. The Slovenes, to preserve their identity and culture, successfully clung to their Slavic language.

            Language also helped them in resisting the Serbs in their 10 day War of Independence in 1991. “Our language is a bit different from the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian spoken in the rest of the former Yugoslavia,” Irena said. This difference enabled clandestine communications which mobilized the Slovenian Territorial Troops. The Serbian Federal Army of Yugoslavia could disarm only forty percent of them. The Army chose not to fight. Only a few shots were fired.

            Today this small nation of two million people prides itself on resisting “Americanization” of its culture. To that end, it manifests loyalty to “national” products.  Symbolically, there is no Starbucks in Slovenia, since every local café is believed to serve “a good cup of coffee.” But this is a losing battle. “I guess it’s just a question of time for Starbucks,” a Slovene blogger recently wrote. There are already seven McDonalds in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s biggest city.

            When I went shopping for local souvenirs, as folk art I was offered replicas of old primitive paintings -scenes of peasant family gatherings, or historical and religious events- done on small pieces of beehive box panels. Beekeeping has more than half a millennium of history in Slovenia. Colorful beehive boxes still dotted the countryside as we drove toward the medieval town of Raduoljica. There were also many “double haystacks,” distinct structures which are another element in the Slovene folk architecture.

            Old castles, manors, and churches were common in this landscape.  Buildings reflected nature as in decorations of the church we saw in Bohinj that imitated the azure and emerald colors of the Sava river running by it. Footpaths were everywhere -maps showed them traversing the country from the northeast to the southwest and crisscrossing it all in between.  Houses were two-story structures adorned with red geraniums in window boxes. The houses appeared to be all of almost equal size. They evoked a sense that an egalitarian community should exist here, helped by the contentment induced in an environment of pastoral beauty in the rolling green hills.

            Indeed, the ancestors of the people who lived in these homes inspired no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson. The American Declaration of Independence was influenced by Jefferson’s reading the account of how Slovene farmers contractually consented to be governed by their Duke -written by the French political philosopher John Bodin. The democratic tradition has been nurtured in the culture of accessibility of this nation. The local owner of our restaurant in Raduoljica “recently ran for President of the Republic,” Irena told me.

            I was disappointed when Irena said: “We don’t have any public performance of folkloric dances or music; these arts are preserved only by volunteers groups.” Instead, she took us to a ginger-bread making bakery, Lectar.This is also a restaurant that has been serving guests since 1822, in a country inn which is five hundred years old. We dined on a dish called “peasant’s feast,” while two men played the polka on accordions . Heavy, the meal showed its peasant roots.


            In Slovenia, it is Ljubljana, the capital city, that is considered cosmopolitan. Although its population is only 265,000, Ljubljana boasts a most venerable philharmonic hall. Dating back to 1701, its stage has seen performances by Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana, and Dvorak. More recently, Gustav Mahler conducted here.

            Ljubljana was settled more than 2,500 years ago, but its “old town” is mostly Baroque, with some Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings . The early 20th century architect and urban planner Jozef Plecnik is credited with many of Ljubljana’s structures. Plecnik has enjoyed a curious reputation in Europe since the 1980s. His “spiritual touch” is said to have created a “cosmopolitan feng shui” by “tweaking the delicate interlacing of Ljubljana’s different eras.”

            Plecnik’ most famous legacy is the Tromostovje, a triple-span bridge over the river Ljubljana not far from the city hall square. On this day I saw a beggar commandeering the main pedestrian wing of the bridge; but the city’s street of fashionable shops extends from that square . Its best restaurants and cafes line the banks of the river . “Ljubljana is a small town. We often run into high government officials on this street and in those restaurants,” Irena said. I asked for a fish restaurant where the working people ate. Ribca was something of an institution with plain good food but Formica tables, situated by the river one level below, under the arcaded open market.

            The most interesting landmark of Ljubljana is a few blocks away, and it illustrates the hazards of small town politics. This is the Slovene parliament building constructed in the 1950s. Originally, Plecnik had submitted a design but that was rejected out of concern that the Yugoslav federal leader Tito would consider it too grandiose. The more modest substitute by another architect is grandiose in its explicit socialist realism: its portals celebrate all types of workers equally in nude sculptures.

            Politics has played a role in the fate of another famous sculpture nearby, that of Edvard Kardelj. This native son of Ljubljana was the chief ideological theoretician of the Yugoslav Communist Party and the principle drafter of its 1974 Constitution. “For that reason, since independence many people have campaigned for the removal of his statue,” Irena told me, “but he has his supporters and that is why the statute is still standing.”

            Josip Broz, alias Tito, whose mother was Slovene, also has many supporters in Slovenia. “No matter what else could be said about him,” Irena said, “he was a great man. He was very popular until the end. He was especially admired for his leadership of the Partisans in defeating the Nazis during World War II. There are some memorials to him in other towns.” At the entrance to the lodge in Lake Bohinj I saw a display case publicizing its famous guests. The fading pictures showed only two dignitaries: Tito and Willy Brandt. “There is no nostalgia for the communist times. There is no desire to return to those days,” Irena assured us, her American guests. In Ljubljana they have changed the name of the street that used to be called Tito. 

            I recalled a commentary on the website of the U.S. State Department about contemporary politics in Slovenia:

“For all the apparent bitterness that divides left and right wings, there are few fundamental philosophical differences between them in the area of public policy. Slovenian society is built on consensus, which has converged on a social-democrat model. Political differences tend to have their roots in the roles that groups and individuals played during the years of communist rule and the struggle for independence.”

            The legacy of Tito’s socialism, however, persists. Western critics blame practices based on concepts of “socially owned,” and “worker management” as impeding needed reform of the Slovene economy. As Slovenia’s economic growth came to depend on trade with Western Europe, its industry was successfully adjusted to the new trade partners’ needs for middle to high tech manufactured products. The recent slump in the economy of those partners, however, called for a new source of capital infusion into Slovenia’s economy. Experts have advised foreign investment. This requires privatizing the still public-owned companies, especially in the service sector. The Slovenian government has been “cautious” in deference to the public’s fear of the economy being “bought out” by foreigners. The state continues to own Slovenia’s largest bank (NKBM) as well as the company (Triglav) that controls more than fifty percent of the insurance market.

            In the imposing new door of Ljubljana’s Cathedral I saw a symbol of efforts by religion to come back from the communist times. The scenes on the massive iron door which was installed in 1997, depict the history of the Catholic Church in Slovenia, under the paternal gaze of John Paul II . Some 58% of Slovens declare themselves Roman Catholic. “We are not really observing Christians,” Irena told us, however. “We go to Church only on holidays like Christmas.” Indeed, according to a recent poll, 10% of the population still identify themselves as atheist, and another 15% decline affiliation with any religion.

            The history of religion in Slovenia shows greater allegiance to “Sloveneness.” As Irena told us “Christianity was brought here by two Greek monks. The Slovenes who became Roman Catholic changed to Protestantism as a result of the Reformation in the 16th Century, then reverted to Catholicism after the Counter-Reformation some 150 years later.”

            The “Greek monks” she was referring to were Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who were sent by the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century to minister to Christian Slavs in their own language. The brothers could speak the local Slavonic vernacular. While Methodius was an abbot, Cyril is better known as a Constantinople theologian. He had a good command of Arabic which qualified him as a Byzantine emissary dispatched to discuss religion with Arab theologians and to strengthen diplomatic relations with the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.

Transition to Now

            The right corner of the door at the Ljubljana Cathedral alludes to the threat from the Muslim Ottomans which emerged after the 15th century. Religion, however, did not play a significant role in Slovenia’s break from its Yugoslav compatriots, many of whom were Muslim. Indeed, Slovenia’s main lingering conflict is with its co-religionist, Catholic Croatia. In this, characteristically, both the primacy of economics and Slovenia’s adjustment to new realities are on exhibit.

            The nuclear power plant in Krsko is the prime example. Irena pointed it out as we drove by. “That power plant was built with Croatian money in the early 1980s. Its output is shared between Croatia and Slovenia.”  The plant provides one-fourth of Slovenia’s power requirements. Slovenia’s contribution is to furnish storage for its spent fuel waste. The original agreement called for another joint nuclear power plant to be built in Croatia, but after independence Slovenia has declined to accept storage responsibility for its additional waste.

This article entitled Slovenia is the “New Europewas published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc. in 2007, with the related pictures: 


Bosnia’s Burden: Fractured Unity


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Sarajevo is an evocative name. It conjures up the happy days when that city hosted the 1984 Olympics, but it also recalls the long years in the 1990s when the Serbs held it hostage as the world stood aghast. The most European of Muslim cities, Sarajevo was founded by the Ottomans and embellished by the Austro-Hungarian rulers. Their joint legacy is not just symbiotically diverse architecture; it is more the fault line of potential religious conflicts created by the mix of its Muslim and Christian residents. The Orthodox Serbs have now mostly retreated to Sarajevo’s suburbs. The Catholic Croatians seem to live in harmony with the large majority that is Muslim. They have even formed a nation-wide federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even their unity, however, is belied by the river Neretva that still segregates these two groups under the reconstructed fabled bridge in Mostar. Despair persists in Bosnia; it lends poignancy to the occasional sounds of hopeful joy one hears as in the music of the coastal town of Neum.


            keywords: Sarajevo*Bosnia*Mostar Bridge*


The Palace Garden of Empires 

            In Sarajevo, I walked to the Old Town from my hotel, the Holiday Inn. The bright yellow hotel had been familiar to me from the days of the 1990s inter-ethnic war. “This is where the war began, when snipers from the rooftop shot two deputies in the Parliament building across the street.” I was now so reminded by a designer who sold her fine wool sweaters from a table set up in the dim corridor connecting the hotel lobby to its restaurant.

            Sarajevo is a walking city. Located in a narrow valley around the river Milyaka , it was established by the Ottomans in 1461 on the site of an existing Slavic settlement “by agreement with the Bosnian king,” our guide said. “It means the garden of the palace in Turkish.” We passed through the post-Ottoman buildings erected by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that conquered the city in 1878. “In the short period of 40 years, a complex of structures, each a replica of a famous building of a city in Europe was built here,” the guide said. This was at the western boundaries of the Ottoman town. The integrity of the Old Town was thus retained; and the new shopping street, being closed to traffic, connects smoothly to the old bazaar .

            The bazaar is mostly open air, but it includes a small covered area built by Gazi Husrev Bey, the Ottoman governor appointed in 1521. Through a religious trust (waqf), he also endowed the construction of many other important institutions of the Old Town which bear his name: the Mosque, Madressa (School), library, and the clock tower. “His father was Bosnian but his mother was the daughter of the Ottoman Sultan,” our local guide said. To him, Husrev was a source of great pride. “He established an extensive water and sewer system reaching every room in Sarajevo. This was 150 years before London and other major European cities.” Historians, however, have given credit for this feat to an even earlier Ottoman governor, Isa Bey.

            It was Ramadan and we saw men and women praying separately in the two open wings of the Gazi Huserv Bey Mosque, “the most important Ottoman structure in Bosnia . Its architect was a Persian,” our guide said. He was referring to Ajem Esir Ali from Tabriz who, taken prisoner during an Ottoman incursions into rival Persia in early 16th century, had eventually become the principal architect in Istanbul.

            Damaged extensively by the Serbian shelling earlier in the early 1990s, the mosque was repaired with funds from the Saudi government when that war ended. In the process the neo-classic decorations that had been added to the interior of the mosque in the Austro-Hungarian period were stripped in accordance with the Saudi Wahabi ideals of Islam. The ensuing international outcry, however, resulted in their restoration. I saw the other, unharmed calligraphic decorations in various Arabic scripts on the courtyard’s ablution fountain. “The fountain was a gift of the Christian monks,” our guide said, “in gratitude for the Ottoman tolerance.”

            Two blocks away, the Ottoman respect for the rights of different religious nationalities (milet) was on evidence in the Sephardic synagogue which had been built in 1581 for the Jews expelled from Spain. It is now the Jewish Museum, the active synagogue being the 20th century Ashkenazi one across the river. The ecumenical face of the Old Town continued around the corner in the 16th Century Old Orthodox Church and the Catholic Cathedral dating from 1889.

            Unlike its Jewish and Orthodox counterparts which were quiet on the outside, the Cathedral was a gathering place. I asked the young men lounging on its steps directions to the nearby produce market in the Old Town which had been the scene of a widely reported “massacre” of 61 people, mostly Muslims and Croatians, caused by a Serb mortar in 1994. It looked peaceful and serene now. There were some fifty open stalls selling apples, grapes, walnuts and vegetables.

            We strolled in the neighborhood alleys to look at the outdoor cafes where the Sarajevons came during the war to have coffee and smoke, famously undeterred by the shelling . “We are all scarred from the war but we hide it,” a young woman told me as she continued to sip her cappuccino.

            From a street vendor I bought a CD of Najljepse Sevdalinke. Derived from the Arabic word sawda (black gall), Sevdalinke is Sarajevo’s distinct music. In other cultures it might be called “the blues,” but a Bosnian would describe it in these appropriately flowery terms: “(sic) our sevdah is both, the passionate and painful longing for love, as well as the melancholic and sweet one, the feeling when you are incapable of enduring the pain caused by love, and the pain transforms into the ecstasy of the intoxication of love that compares to the slow process of dying.”


            Ali told me that he loved Sarajevo because its people were “happy despite all the suffering”. Flamboyant, Ali wore the colorful hat of his native Macedonia. In a city where not many spoke English, he was an asset recognized by a prominent singer who owned a restaurant popular with the tourists. Ali was the manager of the restaurant. “As the best student in my class, I was sent to Cambridge. I am keeping a diary of everyone I meet, and I interview. I now have 2,000 pages. I will win the noble prize.” He did not mean that prediction in jest .

            Not far from Ali, I met another satisfied newcomer. Bahram was from Iran and owned a souvenir shop . He had to drop out of the last year of medical school in Belgrade when his money ran out, but he said that all the other ten men from his country living in Sarajevo were physicians. “It is now harder to come here because of visa problems,” he told me, “but Iran is fondly regarded because of its assistance during the war.” Early in their struggle, the leader of the Muslims, Alija Izetbegović, had traveled to Vienna for a meeting with Iran’s Ambassador to seek that country’s support. 

            The desire for self-determination was not new in this land. A sign on the wall of the museum that used to be Moritz Schiller’s café memorializes the spot from which Gavrilo Princip, a member of the nationalist group “Young Bosnia,” on June 28, 1914, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungarian Empire. As a fateful event, this is perhaps without parallel in history. Incredibly, it precipitated World War One and the demise of two dominant polyglot empires -the Ottoman as well as the Austro-Hungarian. Furthermore, it was itself more an accident than the result of planning.

            As our guide retold the bizarre story, the Archduke was on his way to the hospital to visit the victims of another attempt on his life just a few hours earlier. Principe, who had failed to be a factor in that earlier attempt, had dejectedly retired for a drink to the café. The driver of the Archduke’s car now took a wrong turn at this corner. Realizing his mistake, he began to back up. The car’s engine stalled. This gave Princip his chance. He came out of the café and fired and killed both the Archduke and his wife. This day, coincidentally, was also the couple’s 14th wedding anniversary.  

            Pictures in the window of the museum showed Fehim Curcic, the Muslim mayor of Sarajevo welcoming the Archduke. The City Hall was a block away. Its Moorish style was a token of the sensitivity of the Austro-Hungarian builders to their notion of the background of the city’s Muslim population. This huge building later became the town library. It was fire- bombed by the Serbs during the war. “The biggest book burning in recent times,” our guide said with emotion.


            Today there was a book fair in the Gazi Husrev Bey Madressa. The books were not in a language I could understand. My guide, however, was surprised that I could read the name of the Madressa’s benefactor on the portal as it was in a discursive Arabic script . We pondered how many of the burned old manuscripts would today’s Bosnians have been able to read.

            The continuity of traditional art is claimed in the coppersmith alley of the old bazaar which dates to 1528. Several of its stores which sell copper handicraft as souvenirs “have been owned by the same family for generations,” our guide said.

            It is in the cafes lining the Mejan (field) in front of the Sebilj (a fountain dedicated in the path of God) that one could truly observe the pulse of the old culture beating in the Old Town. I sipped yoghourt as I viewed what was the furthest European outpost of the Muslim Middle East. Red-tiled roofs, domes, and minarets framed the cobblestoned space. I heard the call to prayer from a mosque. On the lamp posts there were obituaries headlining in Arabic the deceased’s “return to the eternal world (ertehal-e dar-e baqa).”  I ordered the local kebab (cevapi). The Bosnians claim that this is their unique version of the ubiquitous dish of the vast region that extends to Central Asia. It consists of about 6 finger-length grilled links made from ground veal, mixed with garlic, onion and spices. It is served in pita bread, with chopped white onion on the side as a vegetable. 

            To see the rest of the city I asked a passerby the location of the station for the double-decker “City Bus.” Frustrated with struggling in English, he was relieved to introduce me to an incoming friend who was both more eager and able to help me. She took me to the ticket office, on the way pointing out her uncle’s watch store. She also bought a present for the Canadians she was going to baby sit for that evening. “Do you think they will like it?” she asked me as she showed the little traditional decorated purse. She declined to have lunch with us, “for two reasons: I have to go to work and I am fasting.” She could meet us the next evening after eftar (breaking her fast). She stuck her hand out for me to shake: “call me Naqshedel.”


            I was advised to skip the next service of the City Bus as there was no English speaking guide until the bus two hours hence. When I boarded the latter, the guide confirmed that she would describe the places in English. Alas, there were not enough of us compared to the disproportionate number of Bosnian passengers. The guide was intent on finishing the copious text from which she was reading her commentary. She was annoyed at my interruptions, asking for translation in English which proved futile. She just promised to return my money. Consequently, I spent the next two hours listening to a tongue which I did not understand, talking about the scenic eastern and southern parts of Sarajevo which I thoroughly enjoyed.

            We went on a proper tour the next day. It was foggy and early and our guide oozed melancholic ennui. Thin, wearing black, and with a backpack slung over one shoulder, he droned on. “This is the sniper alley.” He pointed to the famous boulevard we took west from the Holiday Inn which during “the war of liberation” was the special target of the Serbs on the surrounding hills, determined to cut off Sarajevo. “The siege of Sarajevo was the longest in modern wars; it lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. Seventy percent of Sarajevo’s buildings received war damages of higher than fifty percent.”

            The guide showed us the few structures left from the 1984 Winter Olympics which had made Sarajevo a global household word. Nearby were Muslim cemeteries, Christian cemeteries, and mixed Muslim and Christian cemeteries. We soon entered the territory of the Serb Republic, an entity which shares the country with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is comprised of the Muslims and Croatians. (Herzegovina -the estate of a past Bosnian Duke- is the southern region with ten percent of the 4 million population of the country.)

            Republika Srpska welcomed us by a sign in Cyrillic. It was rural and looked poorer than Sarajevo. “The Federation is economically better off because it has been able to attract international investments,” our guide explained.

            He was more interested in the “Tunnel Museum,” to which he took us now. This was a single basement room. We sat on damp and dark benches as the guide turned on a video that projected the story of the tunnel. It was built during the 1990s war under the runway of the Sarajevo airport, in order to connect Sarajevo with the “Free Bosnian Territory.” The tunnel was about 800 meters long. It was dug by volunteers using picks and shovels. Only 20 meters of the leaky tunnel has survived, the rest has since collapsed. I went in. The tunnel was just over five feet high, with an oil pipeline running on one side and an electric cable on the other. This was the conduit for supplies into Sarajevo, a vital lifeline during the years of the siege of Sarajevo. “Fuel, weapons, and food came from the other side and people who had to leave went from this side,” our guide said. “The Serbs who had overwhelming firepower knew about the tunnel,” he continued. “They did not attempt to destroy it because they were afraid of our numerical superiority. There were seven of us for each one of them.” 

            As we drove back, we saw what rose in Sarajevo after the war. “Here is the newest and best hotel. It is called Avaz which means voice. It was built by the people who continued to publish a newspaper throughout the war years,” the guide said. “That group is behind almost all the big new buildings in Sarajevo.” He pointed out a tower under construction. “This is going to be the tallest building in south eastern Europe.” On the opposite side of the street there was a mosque. “That is the gift of the government of Indonesia. It is the biggest mosque in Europe.” He added that Saudi Arabia and several other Islamic countries had built mosques in Sarajevo after the war.


Ornament of the Heart

            “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke,” Naqshedel said when she joined us in the Holiday Inn lobby that evening. The invited guests of the Saudi Ambassador’s Ramadan reception for his counterparts had just filed through to the adjacent ballroom.

            “Do you Salsa,” my friend asked. “Yes. I have taken dance lessons. I know how to move,” Naqshedel replied, sounding annoyed. “Do you know who Naqshedel was?” she asked me. This was rhetorical because she proceeded to tell me. “Naqshedel was a French woman who married the Ottoman Sultan centuries ago. He gave her that name. It means ornament of the heart.”

            Our Naqshedel had a boyfriend. But she said, “my friends sometimes tell me that I am strange.” She went on to announce that today was her 24th birthday. “But I don’t celebrate my birthdays.” Seeing my puzzled look, she told me that the reason was the sad memory of a pact she had made with her best friend to celebrate their 18th birthdays together. “She then died a few weeks before that date.”

            I told her about my visit to the tunnel. She became reflective. “They held a knife at my throat and threatened to kill me. I was only 9,” she told me about the war and the Serbs. This had happened in her own house. “We moved. An Orthodox friend of my mother took us in. We had to move nine times after that because we did not have the necessary papers which you needed to stay in a place.” She spoke only of her mother. I asked about her father. “He is in New York.” She was reluctant to talk about him. “I don’t know what kind of work he does. We are not in contact.” Her cell phone rang. It was her mother. “She is checking to make sure I am alright,” she smiled faintly.

            Naqshedel was smart and ambitious to learn. She said she spoke several languages. She had finished college but wanted to get her Masters degree. She wanted to become “the head of the department of physiotherapy in a hospital.”

She had been to Spain and some other countries in Europe, but she was staying in Sarajevo. I wanted to know who her Bosnian heroes were. She mentioned “our President Izetbegović.”  I asked if he was still popular. “Yes!” she said emphatically, but then added “of course, it depends on who you ask.” This response was amplified by her views about the politics of Bosnia. “As you know we have three Presidents in the so called council of Presidency that governs in a most complex system established by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The Presidency is under the ultimate authority of the High Representative appointed by the foreign Powers who sponsored the Accords.  Each President just wants to serve the interests of his own community -the Muslims, the Croatians, and the Serbs -not the country. This does not make for a stable future.” She looked sad but resigned.


            After Izetbegović’s death in 2003, his followers campaigned to rename the main street of Sarajevo in his memory. The Serbs objected and the street is still called the Marshall Tito Boulevard. There were no other visible memorials in Sarajevo to Tito, who when he died in office as President of Yugoslavia in 1980, was still very popular. They did not erect many statutes honoring him even while he was alive. I found one memorial to him, however, more compelling. It was the destroyed bridge in Jablanica, a hamlet on the winding canyon road from Sarajevo to Mostar . Graphically, it spoke of Tito’s legendary charismatic leadership.

            Tito headed the partisans who fought the occupying Nazis during World War II. “There were many partisans who had been wounded in a recent battle on this side,” our guide told us near a broken iron bridge over the gorge through which rushed the river Neretva. “This was the only bridge that could be used to rescue them to safety. Tito ordered that it be destroyed. He did this as a trick so that the enemy would be fooled into thinking that he had abandoned the wounded.  As the Nazis left the area, Tito had a new temporary bridge quickly built at night and soon moved the sick and wounded to the other side. This event is remembered by everyone as the measure of Tito’s leadership. It is called the Battle of the Wounded.” A nearby museum commemorated this feat that in 1943 saved the lives of about 4,000 wounded partisans. Today it was closed and looked in a state of disrepair.

            I remembered the destruction of the next bridge over the same river which we visited as a symbol of an entirely different kind. The 16th Century Ottoman bridge in the town of Mostar was blown up in 1993 by the Croatians in their local war with the Muslims. Its rebuilding in 2000 was a significant step in the healing process after the two groups reconciled and were reunited. The story of this bridge was made more poignant as I listened to our guide telling us about Ivo Anric, the Bosnian 1961 Noble laureate for literature. “His most famous novel was The Bridge on the Drina which described the friendly inter-ethnic relationship between the Christians and Muslims.” Their camaraderie was especially shown “in socializing on the bridge,” as is typical in Bosnia even today. The Drina Bridge plays an important a role in unifying the narrative of Anric’s historical novel. It becomes a metaphor: the invading Austrians who incite ethnic conflict among the local inhabitants in the story eventually blow up that bridge.

            In Mostar, the largest city in Herzegovina, many other structures were damaged in the 1990s inter-religious war. After peace was established, “religious buildings were rebuilt first for symbolic reasons,” our guide said. We ate at a courtyard overlooking the river on the Croatian base of the Mostar Bridge -now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We crossed the bridge to the Muslim side and visited Ramiz Pandur, “the copperwork artist” in his “atelier for artistic treatment of metals,” as his brochure described it. Mostar is famous for its copper craft work. From a woman artist in the atelier, I bought a small silver-plated container for sugar which was a part of the traditional copper Turkish coffee set.




The Coast

            Bosnia is landlocked except for a 13 mile coastline on the Adriatic Sea. This area was sold to the Ottoman Empire by the Dubrovnik Republic in the latter half the 17th Century, to create a protective corridor buffering it against the feared Venetians who controlled the Dalmatian coast to the north. The town of Neum here has several large tourist hotels. It is also popular with shoppers from neighboring Croatia because prices are lower due to “lower taxes,” our guide said. She helped me select two CDs of the music that filled the air during our short stay. One was by Tereza Kesovija -“the Croatian Edith Piaf”. The other was a pop recording, Colonia Do kraja. On the jacket of this one, I read the following sample of the lyrics: “let’s party on around the globe and back come feel the vibes follow the disco light….” My guide laughed and said that this was the tune she was then humming.


This article was published under the title  Fractured Unity on the Website of on December 4, 2007, which has the related pictures.