Archive for the ‘ Bosnia ’ Category

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The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.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