Letters from Sarajevo| August 2015-June 2016
AUGUST 22ND 2015
“Even if I did speak [----] I’d always be an outsider here… I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me”.
Brian Friel, Translations
I come to Viennese café in Hotel Europe for the fast wifi. When my grandfather was young he studied here, back when he hid his copies of Marx in the toilet and the Communist Party was outlawed. He was a bourgeois kid and an atheist, covertly reading banned literature in the fancy hotel owned by his aunt. His little brother was more radical and ran away to join the party in the late 30s, branding the family home’s door with down with the bourgeoisie in red paint.
This café was once the first European-style coffeehouse in the city, which doesn’t explain why the cappuccinos are so bad. On most days now it’s full of rich Saudi investors who treat the staff badly and women in full niqab, which identifies them as foreigners. The café trades on this dissonant nostalgia, featuring a large wall painting of a romanticized Sarajevo street at the turn of the century with women in zars and feredžas covered head to toe.
Back then, the zar was a symbol of class and not religion. Later it meant you belonged the Muslim elite that had been impoverished in the land reforms of the 1920s. They came with ornate black face veils with heavy gold stitching. In the 1930s, my step-grandmother wore one because they were fashionable. It was my grandmother’s favourite garment to try on at her parents’ home in Banja Luka.
There are stories about Partisans in the second world war donning the zar on sabotage missions, much like the Casbah scenes in Battle for Algiers. By the end of the war, though, the garment had become the most palpable signifier of female illiteracy, their relegation to the private sphere, and their uninvolvement in public life. Anathema to socialism, the new government banned the zar after WWII.
Since then, this garment has so fallen out of social memory that to wear it marks on as a foreigner. And now the women walking around town in niqab are again the wealthiest ones here, carrying purses worth six months of the average Bosnian salary. Devout girls from Turkey come here to study because they can’t wear hijab in public universities back home. Funny how history spins on itself.
My mom sends me a passage from Meša Selimović writing on Bosnia, that seen from outside it is rough and rugged, but seen from inside and with love it’s rich in human wealth, though insecure in itself. Yesterday an exhausted C drove me to my hometown to pick up my Bosnian ID from the post office. I kept trying to imagine what it would be like to move through these spaces without having an escape plan in the form of a Canadian passport always at hand. Imagine having no outside eyes, no yearnings that stretch across borders, caught in a place of a long past and a long future, where perhaps limits only felt natural, maybe the sense that one’s fate was tied to the fate of the place – the harvest, the elections. The ineluctable fact that I was banished and have returned with an extra grade of humanity thanks to having burrowed in the heart of Western wealth and whiteness. This knowledge is more than embarrassing. Russian proverb: a man consists of a body, a soul, and a passport.
Selimović (always referred to by first name, a gentle, affectionate Meša) again: It’s rare to find someone more painfully and dramatically determined by history than a Bosnian. What has been accumulated in these people through all these centuries!
Passages like this ought to be broken apart, emptied of what you know is neither sacred nor unique. I suppose it can be true even if it’s nothing exceptional – history’s caught up in here like silt. I find it impossible to think about anything without reading the mud first.
I started this letter thinking about Shibboleths, and wondering whether social scientists have many keys and many passwords, but no languages. F would have something astute to say about this, something that would spit-shine the question nicely for me. I’ll leave it glintless.
AUGUST 29TH 2015
A few days ago we drove to sea and ate fresh oysters, big and meaty with a fragile shell. As always the sea makes you feel like you’ve learned something essential. Took the bus back through Herzegovina: godliness. What’s better than the moment when the bus pulls out of the station? No matter how tired I am this moment is bliss. In Mostar I ate a peach and threw the pit into the Neretva.
Last night J and I drank beer at a little place off Tito street where a band was playing old songs and people were singing. Man swinging his dark cello around as if it was nothing. Topic was bureaucracy and how on earth we’ll work and live here, what kind of weird creature the dual citizen is under the law. What is the basis of my legal personhood asked J. They keep asking for proof here, proof that you were born here, that you own property, that you live here, that you sleep here and eat here, that you aren’t an apparition. I play the game by skirting it. Mom calls in a few favours. The fact that we have someone to call in my hometown should be proof enough that I’m from there in the truest sense. Test of engaged citizenship: how many of the right people you know. I keep giving our old address even though it’s an overgrown field a kilometer north of the city and no one bats a lid at this. My work permit is a small booklet with a blue leather cover embossed with an obsolete coat of arms.
When writing to write I realized I ought to buy a Bosnian thesaurus. I Google translated thesaurus: leksikon sinonima. The lexicon of synonyms. Google translated it into Croatian: pojmovnik. Meaning: the book of concepts. Croatian has this rich obviousness to it (June = the month when thelinden trees bloom) but sometimes it lands right on a thing and latches to it perfectly. Give me my lexicon of concepts.
The erotic language in Bosnian trails quotidian speech like a lush shadow. To cum is the same word as to fulfill a goal, or maybe to fulfill a goal is to cum. Things that are fruitless are ‘bez svrhe’ – literally cumless.
Consider that this place has only been majority literate for 60 years, and the language has already dissolved into pieces, political and cultural shards. In her anthropological study of interwar Bosnia, Vera Stein Erlich flips progress around and reminds us that illiterate peasants in the 1930s had more precise words for describing pain and sensation than city people.
With concepts floating around like butterflies, the only way to learn a new word through someone else. How many more precise words would you have for your own minute world? The Bosnian proverb goes something like – teach a woman to read and you’ll regret it.
The other night at a poetry reading at Balkan Express no one could hear the poet over the din, and the interviewer said this was excellent, that in Mayakovsky’s day poetry was shouted in noisy smoke-filled rooms, not read out to silent audiences. Seemed perfect to me as well, for a stray stanza to catch your ear as you turn to order another round. Mediocre poetry the subconscious of the language of the bar – the beer and smoke and fateful excitement.
Tomorrow I go back to battling bureaucracy like a postsocialist hamster. All of it cumless.
OCTOBER 30TH 2015
“Again I return to that point in my life: to be silent, I’m silent, silence. Bless those who are kin to these things. In traffic and events with other people, man speaks; in himself he’s silent. What a puzzling thing silence is, more puzzling still than sleep.
Many important and lovely things are said with speech, but everything is within limits. We know most precisely and most essentially that which we can never articulate.
Language itself is limited. It blooms and dies equally. What was said and written fifty years ago now seems strange, comic. And what was written 300 years ago is a dead language – a photocopy of a corpse.
Silence, on the other hand, is always the same. That deep silence, to reiterate. Shallow silence, with shut lips and eyes turned towards the contemporary, quotidian plans, worries, ambitions, hatred, revenge, that is not silence – that is a conversation whispered and hidden.
Deep silence is the essence of the soul. Who can be deeply silent can escape all boundaries, reach essences. Who speaks well is powerful on the earth – who is silent well is powerful ecumenically.”
Mom says there are salmon swimming up the river, that the muddy Don is thick with them. Sends me a photo of a felled tree’s rings with bits of wind-whipped first snow. Here it’s mostly been rain and sometimes fog rising up off the mountains like steam. A year ago my dad and I watched the salmon jump upriver. It was just after his diagnosis and we went on a long walk together through the valley, I felt like I had swallowed tar. Now these photos of him smiling in the woods with snow on his shoulders make me think how hard-earned this year was, the care and the luck that went into it, masha’Allah, how strong the threads. The unutterable lessons alongside with it. Salmon swim in the wrong direction, against the current all the way from the ocean back to their natal river, which they know by smell. They lay eggs and die, except for some rare ones who might complete the journey twice.
The market has pomegranates now, always one cut open improbably to display its freshness. And the first roast chestnuts, still too small, but sweet. The men who roast them fill a paper bag for you and tell you to keep it shut for a minute, for the steam to soften them. They leave your hands black when you peel them.
Saturday we drove to the hills above the city, all the way up the mahalas, car sputtering up the steepest street you've ever seen. 15 minutes from our house and it's rural, 20 minutes and you're drinking coffee at the mountain lodge. Kids harvesting morels and mushrooms. Lost the trail markers so we settled for climbing to the next cliff and the next, following strange rivers cut deep into the valleys. At the top you can see herds in the meadows one hilltop over, hear cows and chainsaws, people yelling to each other. Can count six, seven mountains in your line of sight, each bluer and bluer, like in the local fairy tales where the narrative always takes place across seven mountains and seven seas. I thought, these are the sounds of things grinding on, despite the corruption, the stagnation, the shattered economy, the poisonous politics. People seem to live on top of, or underneath it. The gray economy blooming out under everything, industries in pieces, a return to crafts and agriculture.
The mountains seem beautiful though unbound by poetry, full of an ugliness which resists and repels description. Climbing Maglić I couldn't stop reading; the deadly fog, the borders that pass right through its cliffs, a distant battle in a distant war, old army horses who've gone wild and now shit all over the valleys above the tree line, the decayed shepherd's huts from a past era. But despite it you're left mute, the names and the flags on the summit seem uniquely temporary, soon to be unintelligible. Language itself is limited. It blooms and dies equally.
● To describe total chaos, we like to say that we don’t know who’s drinking and who’s paying. Ne zna se ni ko pije ni ko placa. The clearest vision of disorder is a raucous night at the bar where everyone has drunk beyond their means. Just before the beginning of the war, a popular satirical TV show in Sarajevo offered a vision of the imminent dissolution of Yugoslavia a set of deliberations over a joint bill from a night at the bar. The assembly of representatives of the sparring, soon to be seceding provinces takes place in the dullest of Communist Party headquarters - a vision of a bureaucracy unable to keep itself whole. In the satire, broadcast to a tense country teetering into an absurd conflict, the politicians’ voices have been dubbed over and the political conflict has become a set of fierce disagreements over how to settle up a large bill from the kafana. The insinuation is that Yugoslavia had spent half a century drinking itself into a debt without paying up – and no one knew who drank and who paid.
● The other day one of the prime ministers said we buy too much coffee and too many cigarettes, and not enough bread, flour, and oil. As if nicotine and caffeine were luxuries and not the staples of deep poverty. After this everyone began posting photos of themselves enjoying such luxuries as ice cream, coffee, medication, and simple lunches, using a hashtag apologizing to the prime minister for their sin.
● Twice a year during Ramadan, the mainstay somun flatbreads are topped with black caraway seeds, the smell of which we pulled into at the bus station that July. The festivity of the seeds fosters an entirely secular enthusiasm about the month of fasting and longing. The bread give July a frill ordinary months don’t have. Most stories I’ve heard have been about the perils of placing hot Ramadan buns in paper bags – about hot buns dropping clean out of the bottoms of soggy bags. Nenad grew up in the 70s in a mahala on the south side of the river, across from the bakery famous for selling the best Ramadan somuns. When the moved across the city years later his mother refused to eat any other kind of bread and made him bicycle across town to the bakery, where he’d wrap the hot bread in towels and bike it back to the apartment at top speed.