Muddling through in Bosnia

Article excerpt

Sarajevo is not one of the great European capitals. Its population stood at no more than 600,000 before the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the effects of the long siege left it with half that. Peace has restored its population by a third, to 400,000, but it is a provincial center where the streets seem empty half the time--a De Chirico painting with mosques, perhaps --and where everybody seems to know one another.

But old Sarajevans, or Sarajlije, as they are known (the term is of Turkish origin), complain that today they do not recognize their neighbors. Too many real Sarajevo folk, they insist, fled to Germany, the U.S., and other places of refuge, leaving the city to a different set of refugees: Muslim peasants expelled from the towns of eastern Bosnia that remain within the so-called "Serb Republic" (Republika Srpska or R.S.) The Sarajlije sneer at these unfortunates, calling them papci or hillbillies.

The film director Ademir Kenovic, whose work includes the first postwar Bosnian feature, Perfect Circle (1997), grimaces when he hears such comments. He considers the urban dislike for the rural immigrants a form of racism. But Kenovic (himself a native of the city) is a man of great generosity who cannot speak ill of anybody, while other Sarajlije sneer at many. Their sensibility, which seems borrowed in some part from the Vienna of a century past, when the Habsburgs ruled here as well, is generally cynical, impossible to please. This attitude long predated the privations of the recent war.

The hard-shelled mentality of Sarajevo's elite, intellectual as well as political, has a classic depiction in the magnificent novel of the Bosnian author Mesa Selimovic, Tvrdava ("The Fortress"), which has just come out in an English translation (Northwestern, 1999). One must note that the translation contains inexcusable gaffes, but the power of the narrative is such as to make it nonetheless worth reading. Set in the 1770s, The Fortress portrays a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars, the poor clerk and poet Ahmet Sabo, who having come back to his native Sarajevo finds his family dead of plague. Invited to a dinner of city swells, supposedly to honor military veterans, he gets moderately drunk and mildly bemoans the fate of war heroes who do not enjoy such hospitality. As a reward, he is assaulted, nearly killed, and, while unconscious, unknown thugs defecate and urinate on him. He even looses his miserable position as an assistant scribe. Many Sarajlije today would identify themselves with him. In such an environment, throwing a party can be dangerous. The first half-hour may feature an unpromising silence as individuals who loathe one another wait to see who will embarrass him- or herself by speaking first.

But most foreigners don't have parties with many Bosnian guests. The two worlds --international and local, to use the common vocabulary--do not merge. Europeans and Americans spend most of their free time with other expatriates, at places like The Bar, formerly the Internet Caffe. Newcomers may sometimes be found in the famous, or infamous, Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. The squat yellow box, one of the ugliest hotels in the history of hostelry, was a convenient target for Serbian snipers during the war. It has been completely refurbished, and is as depressing to behold as ever. It is no longer owned by the original chain, but its prices remain American, i.e., very high, and the bathrooms still feature paper sanitary strips over the toilet seats. One might be in Pocatello, except that they don't take credit cards. Most of the clientele are foreign experts on per diem.

When members of the international community do hold a bash, Bosnian guests are usually limited to a few members of the office staff who sit stiffly in a corner, saying nothing. For what, after all, is there to say? Local staffare paid about 10 percent of what the internationals make, so that a Bosnian university professor working as a translator in a foreign agency may take home about $600 per month, while his or her (foreign) boss is making $6,000, plus a housing allowance. …