Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whereas I make an attempt at long-form writing and, quite literally, come up short

1,500 words. None of them too great. This is my first time writing something remotely creative since, oh, high school, so any criticism is very very much so welcome. Let it be known that I haven't even edited this sucker.

I should start my Sarajevo story with how it ended. On the flight back to Istanbul when 7:53 Sarajevo time hits. I smell Bosnak Borek. Not the timid, limpid kind you get at Simit Sarayi that needs a few healthy lacings of sumac, but the spicy, snappy Sarajevski variety. Ripe with fennel and pepper, tasting more like Italian sausage than kiyma. It’s Iftar time at ~10,000 meters. Come ye brothers and enjoy our meat.
I spend a lot of time in Istanbul mocking the “East v. West” tropes. The same trope exists in Sarajevo, sure, and it’s just as tired. It’s like Samuel Huntington somehow mindwormed into all of us and convinced the world of its own polarity. The world is shades of grey, and all the more wonderful for it. When I was fresh out of high-school, I remember running into a man who, looking back on it, couldn’t be much older than my current twenty-three. He was out hiking where I was hiking, taking some time to cool his mind after a friend committed suicide. He wasn’t there to lecture, of course, but he said something that stuck in my mind. The guy warned me off of any form of extremism. Apparently nobody told Doc Huntington. And I don’t mean this to be wistful and preachy, I mean this to say that describing Sarajevo as any sort of dichotomy gets you wrong from the start. There’s more to these places then who has planted their flag there. There’s more to Sarajevo them bombs, tunnels, and roses.
There is Ottoman stuff. The stuff I can’t live without. Learn about Gazi Husrev Bey by wandering his mosque and medrese. The mosque is a ways away from the imperial masonry of Istanbul, Edirne, or Bursa. There is as much woodwork as stonecutting and as much enamel as pearl. There are a few mosques and other such religious buildings in and around the old city, Bascarcija. The scale is far more human and there is certainly a vernacular touch to all of it. And unlike some of the bigger Turkish sites, the Ottomanica in Bosnia is a bit more alive. The old houses have laundry hanging from them, not menus. The mosques are inhabited by old dudes with beards, not young blondes with Leicas. A tremendous amount of money has come from the Gulf and from Turkey to rehabilitate the Ottoman buildings and create a more vibrant Islamic life in Sarajevo. A lot of this could be construed a bit suspiciously, and I will say that I was a bit stranged out by the green flags and Shahadah on a black flag. The latter is typically used to symbolize an Islamic outpost in the Dar al-Harb. Seeing it in a tourist mosque in Muslim Sarajevo was a bit strong. But the newly-minted medrese within the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Bay Medrese compound was tastefully executed and shiny as all-get out. They even humored me with Turkish. And it should go without saying (but it won’t) that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish buildings were all well-maintained and well-mapped. The New Synagogue, from c. 1904, was as loud-and-proud as I’ve seen a synagogue outside Israel. The new Orthodox Church was right on the main square and flanked by a group of men commenting on two of their kind’s match on one of those comically-oversized chessboards. You couldn’t ask for a more heavy-handed picturesque of Eastern Europe.
There is food and drink. I could detect hops in the beer, a far cry from the Natural Light masquerading as Efes in Turkey. There’s widespread and cheap espresso. I’m no coffee drinker, but I was informed by my Bosnian agent that what one does in Sarajevo is sit in a café on Ferhadija and drink espresso. So I did. It was better than it sounds, and just as pretentious. The food was meat-and-dairy, but I’m young and brash enough to have no problems with that. Zeljo in Bascarsija was the place to go for cevapi – sizzling kofte in oven-fresh bread, covered with kajmak (not kaymak) and served with a side of “hell yes!” Simple grills, done well, will never steer you wrong. There are a few variations on the meat-and-bread sort of thing, and I suppose one could get sick of it on a longer stay. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sopska salata when I had it. It’s your standard cucumber-tomato-onion-pepper sort of salad, but occasionally topped with an absurdist dollop of sour cream. It’s as good as the ingredients are fresh, and they were plenty so in my case. I’ve already discussed the burek and don’t need to go further. Cevapi, though, is really the start of the show. I like to assume that it comes from the Turkish cevap, or answer. As in, if someone asks you a tough question, you just answer by handing them cevapi. I wrote a thesis-y thing on Balkan foods, and I think cevapi was the answer to that, too.
There’s nature. The Miljacka really isn’t it, it’s too wimpy to be considered much of anything. But if you wander to the far side of town from Basarcija, you get to Vrelo Bosne, the spring of the Bosne river. It’s kinda bucolic vernal paradise. Also highly recommended, particularly in the summer, when the weather is cold and the patio restaurant serves a mean desert that’s basically just apple pie filling covered with ice cream. Once you get past the children playing and the dogs chasing frenetically after ducks, Vrelo Bosne is quite peaceful. I caught a nice hour-long catnap in the shade of a linden, and if anyone thought I was a drifter, they were at least nice enough to keep it to themselves.
There is history. I won’t bore you with the Ottoman stuff, and honestly, the museums won’t either. The whole Ottoman thing is treated more as an occupying force than 300 years of history. But the modern history museum confronts the Balkan wars unflinchingly and evocatively. What struck me the most was a sign marking “Uniform of a Sarajevan Militia Member” to a vest, jeans, and a pair of Adidas. If Mladic tried to argue that there were no innocents in Sarajevo, there were certainly no professionals, either. The fighters – on both sides, it should be mentioned – were far more “dudes with guns” than anything resembling the Yugoslav Army of 5 years prior. There’s not as much Tito worship as I expected, I regret to say. There is, however, a Tito Café that has “SMRT FACIZMU” banners. And another museum that was a bit negative on the whole Cetniks thing. So it’s not as if the Time of Josip Broz was entirely forgotten. Just lost in its own aftermath, I suppose. But the museums are cool. As long as you don’t have your heart set on looking at the actual Sarajevo Haggadah, not just an interactive computer demonstration of the Sarajevo Haggadah, because the real thing cannot be sullied by non-diplomatsonphotoops eyes. But at the same museum, there’s awesome natural history on display, including raging taxedermied otters.
There are mountains. I mean, people from Colorado would probably call them hills, but I was duly impressed. Sarajevo is, compared to my expectations, pretty small; only ~300,000 or so people live in a valley carved by the sputtering Miljacka. And above the valley are steep-enough rises that give a view of the whole settlement. The guide books warn sternly that irregulars of the Republika Srpska used these hills to rain down mortar fire on the town, writing about it half-gawking and half-tutting. But the pines are odiferous and the views are spectacular, even if the steadily eroding gun emplacements are more than a bit unsettling. I was convinced I would hike to the top of one of the mountains before realizing that, my God, I have a flight to catch. I was still able to grab lunch at some chalet about 2/3 the way up. There are hiking paths and guest houses abound up there, I’m optimistic I’ll return and conquer.
And if I conquered, well, I’d hardly be the first. Calling Bosnia a “Crossroads of Empires” is probably not as accurate as “a relatively low-lying place that stands between geographical chokeholds (hi, Poland!), but it still gets said anyways. Bosnia’s got its own thing going on, for sure. There’s certainly lots of influences from all sorts of places, but it’s still…Bosnia. And Herzegovina. They even have their own coat of arms and anything.
It’s a real place, not just the projection of Huntingtonists and their ilk. Real people live there, and they’re more interested, I would imagine, in hanging out with friends and falling in love and that sort of thing then serving some sort of post-imperialist vision. Let it go, learn about the place for what it is, not for how it may or may not represent your views of what you want it to be. I’m not a Balkanologist. I’m no Mazower. But I’m no Robert D. Kaplan either. Sarajevo isn’t the epicenter of this Medievalized European concept. It’s just a place. A pretty place, if I may say so myself. One worth checking out sometime.


  1. I'll jump in and comment:

    - The good. Most people don't get imagery. You do. Very evocative. Every word snaps with detail and life.

    I also love the details. Too much stuff I read these days explains everything. You let your words explain what "Bosnak Borek" is. I like that. Very mature.

    - The Bad: always edit your work. Just my opinion. Second, there is no narrative through line, but then again, I'm not sure there was supposed to be. But at 1,500 words--with no narrative push--I'd divide it up into 3 or 4 smaller chunks.

    That said, I liked it much more than I expected to after the self-deprecating intro. Good work.

  2. Hey Eric,

    Thanks for the criticism, much appreciated.

    Sometime, someday, I'd like to be able to write about the Balkans or other such cool places the way Spencer Hall writes about college football:


    So I'm just trying to get there. But man, long-form writing is tough.

    Always appreciate your comments, though, I have to say. As well as OnV, but, well, you knew that already.

  3. Practice, practice, practice.

    You've got crazy valuable experience and a rich knowledge base to draw from. It's good stuff. If you ever want to guest post for us, write something like the above 500-700. It is really interesting stuff, a fresh perspective.

  4. You know I'm a big OnV fan, thanks for the invite to guest post. I've considered it before, I've just never thought of anything particularly on-point to talk about. When I do, I'll be sure to nag you.