Said Khatibi

The road from Zagreb to Sarajevo is a little over four hundred kilometres. I studied the road map in the morning and reckoned that the journey would take about five hours, taking account of the time spent stopped at the Bosnian border guard post. I took a quick glance at my things and threw them on the back seat of the car, leaving the hotel owner counting banknotes without paying attention to anything going on around him, not even my heavy steps along the corridor linking the reception to the exit. I started the engine and headed south, towards another life, another horizon, a mixture of cultures and ethnicities that did not belong to the clumsy Union on which the marks of premature ageing had already begun to appear.

Sarajevo tickles the memory like a distant floating song, constantly appearing and disappearing. It is a face divided into two halves: a Muslim east and a Christian west – a natural artistic canvas, spattered with the blackness of the years of the two World Wars and then of the Civil War, the most prominent and repeated headline to dominate the news broadcasts in the mid-nineties.
In the spring of 2012, I remember that I had been extremely keen to see the film Djeca/Children of Sarajevo during the Cannes Film Festival contests. Later, though, it seemed to me extremely superficial and I could see in it nothing but an imaginary, truncated Sarajevo. This made me change my mind at the time: I did not attend the press conference that followed the film screening and I abandoned the idea of interviewing the film’s director herself. However, I retained the wish to visit the city itself one day to see its quarters and buildings at first hand. Now I was heading for the Bosnian capital with just snatched scenes from old TV footage and photo albums in my mind. I was thinking of the faces of people who looked just like me. They were like something from the Algerian world I had come from.

I don’t know how my attachment to Sarajevo started, before I had visited it or even thought of visiting it. It was just there in my imagination. I seemed to know it and its people. Perhaps it was because of the wound that was still apparent on its face; the tragedy of the war that had given it a dress that was not its own. During my years of childhood in Algeria, at the age of ten, we would be at school and in the scout troop, and we would sing for the children of Sarajevo. Like them, we lived to the rhythm of death and blood and images of daily murder. This made it a natural thing and us developing an affinity became a historical necessity. Of all the Balkan cities, Sarajevo seemed to me like a piece of the heart. No journey in the region would be complete without it.

I left Zagreb in the morning as I had arrived, in the morning under a nonstop drizzle of rain. I followed the city signs and directions carefully, so as not to lose my way to my destination, Bosnia. I passed through the towns of Kutina and Novska. Along the sides of the road stretched large fields, hemmed in by high mountains. We could only see a few people there, for machines had provided the human hand with some relief. Before reaching and crossing the border between the two countries we had to pass through a region called Slavonski Brod, which contained the nearest crossing point open to travellers. As I got nearer, although the map showed that I was no more than about 50 kilometres from Bosnia, it was noticeable that the Croatian authorities hadn’t bothered to put up any sign with the name ‘Bosnia’ on it. Everything gave the impression that the road simply led from Croatia to Croatia rather than another independent state. Relying simply on the map I had with me, I reached the Croatian crossing point and took no more than five minutes to pass through it before entering the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian border guard took my passport and turned it over this way and that. He tried to read what was written in French and Arabic then asked me: “alžirski?” [Algerian?]. Yes, I replied, without actually speaking. He looked at the number plate of the Slovenian vehicle then called a colleague: “Look, look! He’s an Algerian!” “He’s a Muslim. Look at his name!” his colleague replied. I didn’t interrupt their conversation. I simply continued to look at them and at the people crossing the border on foot or motorcycles, on their way to Croatia to shop and buy essentials from the stores, then go back to their villages to re-sell them. They were crossing to the EU before returning to their homes, which were a long way from the politics of Brussels. The same officer looked again at the number plate while I stared at him the whole time, saying nothing. I remember that someone in Slovenia had warned me against going to Bosnia in a vehicle with a Croatian or Serbian number plate, while it was also necessary to avoid being in Croatia in a vehicle with a Serbian or Bosnian number plate as the three neighbouring countries had not yet patched up their differences.

Finally, he gave me back the passport without a stamp. I said nothing to him, for I was eager to see a country that had nested deep in my heart. Just a few metres past the crossing point, the scenes I had left on the other side began to change rapidly. The roads were potholed and ancient, in urgent need of repair. They were full of bumps and hollows in all the wrong places, reminding me of the state of the roads in Algeria. In Algeria, we can find a bump on a highway or two bumps one after the other on a small side road, and if we ask why we will hear the typical answer: “God knows!” On either side of the road, I could see villages scattered here and there, usually containing houses and other buildings that looked as if they were owned by people of good social standing. People in the northern region of Bosnia in the 1990s knew how to make the area inaccessible and protect it from armed conflict, and the area knew comparative stability by comparison with the towns of the centre and south of the country, as well as the areas bordering the Republika Srpska.

The first station we passed on the way to Sarajevo was the small town of Doboj, which is the most important railway junction in the country. This good fortune allowed it to become the headquarters of the national company for rail transport. Historically, it was the stronghold of what became known as the Yugoslav Partisans, founded by Marshal Tito to confront Italian Fascism and German Nazism. The same army subsequently assumed a different role, namely the formation of military units to combat the plan for Croatian secession. Doboj belongs geographically to what is called the Republika Srpska of Bosnia, which together with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina forms the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It was midday when I reached the middle of Doboj. I thought of grabbing a coffee and sandwich and resting for a bit. I parked the car near a restaurant and café, went in and asked the waiter: “Do you take euros?” “No,” he replied. So what to do? He suggested that I change some currency. Where? There were no exchange offices in the vicinity. He pointed me to a petrol station near a small hotel. He told me there was a young man there who changed euros into Bosnian marks. I headed over and asked for him but didn’t find him. He was travelling on the other side of the river, in Croatia. I couldn’t eat a sandwich or drink a coffee as they refused to take my euros, so I was forced to return to the car disappointed. I was now just hoping to eat and drink as soon as I arrived in Sarajevo, having obviously first found an exchange office.

Entering the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was like entering a city that was both subversive and unique. Everything in it aroused inside me a yearning for previous places I had known and lived in. The first place I had to ask for was Bašcaršija, the noisy centre of the city, where I had reserved a room in a small hotel. I passed through some side roads and a passerby advised me to follow the course of the river Miljacka, which divides the city east to west into two halves. It is both the hydrological identity of Sarajevo and its historical calling card, for on its banks the well-known events of the summer of 1914 took place, involving the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian throne, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg. This was the immediate cause of the outbreak of World War One. The operation was carried out by a Bosnian youth, Gavrilo Princip, who was only twenty years old at the time and a member of a nationalist organisation called Young Bosnia.

History muttered on the riverbank as I crossed over, watching the signals and looking for someone who would give me directions to where I wanted to go. After a few minutes among a gentle crowd, I found myself in the Baščaršija quarter. I was entering it from Baščaršija Square, or Pigeon Square as some people call it, as the pigeons flock there every day to pick up scraps while tourists take photos. Then I walked up towards a hill opposite, looking for a small hotel. I had forgotten to draw a map of how to get there, as I usually do with places I am visiting for the first time. “Don’t look at maps too much in Bosnia: ask people if you want to go somewhere in particular!” my Slovenian friend had told me. I stopped in front of a hotel on the road, went in and asked a slightly plump girl with bright red hair, who spoke fluent English, for a hotel called Talal. She looked me up and down and then said she’d never heard of it before, though the hotel, after I had reached it by asking some passersby, was no more than 300 metres from her own hotel. Perhaps she didn’t respond because she didn’t want to be of service to a rival or was jealous of losing a customer to a small hotel that could hardly be seen. When I went into my room in the Talal hotel, there was nothing to suggest that we were in a three-star hotel: a small bed, ordinary cheap furniture, and a large window overlooking a narrow residential street. No other services were on offer apart from breakfast, which was basically coffee with milk, a glass of juice and two boiled eggs. I wasn’t that bothered, for I’d chosen the hotel to match my budget for the trip and I needed to be as economical as possible to complete the journey.

I put my things on the bed and went down to the reception area to ask the young, slim receptionist for the nearest exchange office. Before she could reply, I also asked her whether I should pay for the room now or at the end of my stay. She told me I should pay later and without giving any further details told me that the exchange offices were in Baščaršija, and that was that! So I had to look and ask again. It wasn’t too difficult. The city centre knew how to welcome foreign tourists and there were exchange booths on every corner. The local currency was losing value against the currency of neighbouring Croatia and I could live well for three days on a hundred euros, which would pay for food, drink and accommodation.

In Baščaršija I smelled the smells of the Algiers kasbah. The history of both areas went back to the Ottoman period and both were built on a hill, which in the first case adjoined a river and in the second the sea. Baščaršija means Trade Street in Turkish and it has remained to this day a street crammed full of shops, restaurants and cafés: the focal point of a city that stays awake night and day and almost never sleeps. The credit for building the city and for its fame belongs to Husrev-bey (1480–1541), who ruled for a full seventeen years during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent – the latter of whom had an enormous influence, both internally and on Europe. Husrev-bey built a great mosque bearing his name, which is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Sarajevo and the whole of the Balkans, and which together with his tomb enjoys visits from pilgrims and tourists, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

I changed some euros and headed for the first restaurant I could find. I sat down and without thinking ordered ćevapčići, a famous local dish prepared with meat in a traditional way and usually wrapped in a local bread, accompanied by spices and small pieces of onions and sometimes by cheese. Ćevapčići is almost a daily fast-food dish in Bosnia, the equivalent of karantika in Algeria or lablabi in Tunisia – a popular snack and the signature dish of the Balkan kitchen in general. Some historical sources say that the same dish first appeared during the period of Ottoman rule and was subsequently developed by the Serbs, then settled on the tables of the inhabitants of Sarajevo, before later being taken, thanks to migration, to Western Europe, where it became especially common in the restaurants of Germany and Austria. There is nothing better than a Turkish coffee after eating, to recover one’s breath and provide relief from a journey of about five hours. To sit on a restaurant pavement, to eat, drink, watch the passersby and listen to words and voices in a foreign language puts the visitor at the heart of the action, helping him prepare to enter the fray and pass through the gateway to all that is obscure and marvellous in the city.

As I got up and paid the bill, the city was adorning itself for me as tiredness flowed through my body. I decided to take a short walk in no particular direction, wherever my feet took me. I went into areas with stone pavements and felt the walls of buildings that bore the aroma of history. I smelled their ancient odours and conjured up something of an imperfect memory of the quarters of Constantine and Annaba, as well as my own small city in the south. In Sarajevo distances disappear and the details of life come together and disperse again. Life there, despite the uncertainty that goes with it, makes those who live there feel self-confident and proud of the past. Life does not appear as raw as it does in Zagreb, or as predatory as in Paris, but rather humble and honest in its love and hatreds (if any), pliant in its continuity and concerned for its sons rather than itself. Sarajevo lives on the memory of the names of those who have passed through it, on the chronology of human folly that it has lived through and still lives until today. It is the comma separating amazement from confusion.

The following morning, I left the hotel around eight o’clock, eager to have a walk around the city. Rain had washed the face of Sarajevo during the night and reminded her that autumn was approaching. The first image that confronted me in front of the Talal hotel, behind a small, crumbling wall, was a row of about ten graves lined up one after the other. Muslim graves with white headstones, bearing the name of the Almighty in green. Graves and the smell of death in the middle of a residential area, in front of a hotel which announced itself as a tourist hotel. But the surprise would gradually disappear when we subsequently realised that graves and mass burials were an established part of the general appearance of the city, a landmark that could not be detached from its other landmarks. In the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, life and death are neighbours, arguing and making up at every moment. Death embraces life while people continue their daily lives, without bothering or at least without mourning or renewing their sorrows. In a public garden in front of the Bosna Bank International building on Marshal Tito Street (or Marshal Tita in Bosnian), near the Iranian Cultural Centre, is a graveyard containing the bodies of adults as well as hundreds of child victims, their names written on a collection of slabs to perpetuate their memory. Not far away is the mosque of Ali Pasha, at the entrance to which we were met by an area of martyrs’ graves. “Most of them fell during the siege of Sarajevo”, I was told by Rajab, a waiter in a popular café.

The siege of Sarajevo is still considered the longest and harshest military siege in modern human history. It lasted about four years without any break (from 4 April 1992 to 29 February 1996), for after the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, the city found itself at the mercy of Serbian troops. According to some official estimates, the number of victims of the siege exceeded ten thousand, in a period when Sarajevo was daily exposed to hundreds of missiles, which targeted government institutions and other civilian buildings and resulted in the destruction of almost all the city’s vital sectors. I was young then and it wasn’t enough to sing for Sarajevo and the children of Sarajevo. We would go around the shops, asking people for contributions to send to human caravans, which were supposed to be directed to the children of the besieged city. We showed solidarity with a world far from us, while we lived in a situation that was no better than theirs: murder, killings, terror, and daily intimidation in an Algeria that was living in the shadow of an unprecedented futility. “People were burying their dead in the nearest place possible. They didn’t dare move further away for fear of the enemy bullets,” Rajab added. The victims’ remains stayed where they were and were not moved elsewhere after the war. So in the space of four years Sarajevo became a mass graveyard open to the world, and remains like that until today. Despite the blackness of the image in its symbolism, the visitor does not feel the sort of terror that runs through the body when visiting other graveyards. The gravestones were spread out in rows that were repeated so often in a single area that it seemed quite normal. The bustle of daily life and the solitude of the dead came together, side by side.

At one evening gathering, at around eight o’clock, an enormous screen was erected in front of a café in the middle of town opposite a mass graveyard to watch a historic World Cup game, which brought Bosnia and Slovakia together in the course of the 2014 World Cup heats. A quarter of an hour before the start of the game, the general atmosphere was marked by a state of joy mingled with some hysteria. The dividing line between the graveyard and the pre-match celebrations was no more than ten metres. In the ninety minutes of the life of the match, the scene turned into a massive arena of nationalist songs and emotions. When the match ended in a Bosnian victory, taking it nearer to qualification for the Brazil Mondial, the dead nearby almost awoke from their sleep to share their joy with the living, in a scene even more hysterical than that experienced by Algeria when it qualified in Omdurman in 2009. Young girls and old women came out and everyone joined in singing and dancing in the street until morning. The presence of a lot of women attracted my attention. It seemed to me that they had become more interested in football than their counterparts in the Arab states, for example. But Nur, a Bosnian woman in her mid-thirties, laughed at this idea, adding: “They don’t understand much about football. They usually come to try to catch a man, taking advantage of the enthusiastic and celebratory atmosphere.” I couldn’t make out whether she was speaking seriously or sarcastically. The important thing was that every woman who was there would have a share of the happiness: be that a man or a dance or a feeling of pride at seeing the country moving closer towards the greatest world sporting event for the first time in its history. Several times I tried to look deep into the eyes of the girls of Sarajevo and to grasp their trains of thought. They were beautiful, usually with milk-white skin, but they didn’t look happy. The general situation didn’t encourage the good life. On the basis of widely circulated statistics, the youth unemployment rate was more than 60 percent. And studying did not necessarily guarantee success, since both international and local official institutions refused to recognise the qualifications awarded by some universities and private institutions scattered throughout the city. To emigrate to a Western European country was a common dream, said Salim, a Palestinian in his fifties who had been working for more than ten years for the Kuwaiti Relief Institute in Sarajevo. “Where have the millions gone that were sent from Arab countries to rebuild Bosnia?” I asked Salim. “Where did the long kilometres go that a group of my colleagues covered in the quest to help the children of Bosnia during their elementary school years?” I asked myself. “It’s true that millions were sent, but the purpose was usually to build mosques rather than spend it on development projects,” he replied. Muslims building shrines and minarets, Christians responding by building all the churches they could, and Saddam in Iraq growing more entrenched year by year. Between the mosque of Gazi Husrev-bey and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart there is a gap of a few metres, no more. And near them is the Museum of the Bosnian Jews, a small museum with specialised holdings of ancient manuscripts and illustrations detailing the chronology of the Jewish presence in the region. Three heavenly religions coming together under the sky of a single city in apparent peace and inner convulsions. In the street, in the residential areas and on the main thoroughfares, ethnic differences are hardly apparent. The hijab is not common among women and the provocative display of Christian symbols is not widespread. The biggest shared feature that brings together young and old, men and women, are the signs of the last war, which are difficult to hide from view. The city is haunted by the enormity of its recent past and sleeps and wakes to the hideous nightmares of the nineties, cleansing itself of fear by prayer in the mosques which surprise us in practically every quarter. On a visit at the time of the noon prayer to the Emperor’s Mosque, dedicated to Sultan Mehmed Fatih, we confronted the deep roots of history. The mosque was built at the time of Isa Bey in the middle of the fifteenth century CE, only to be destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1766. The mosque is composed of a single rectangular prayer hall, a dome and a minaret, which was destroyed during the war in 1992 and rebuilt in 2000. As is the case in Zagreb, prayer brings together men and women, the women praying at the rear without any curtain or barrier to separate them. Everyone enters through a single door and uses a common shelf for their shoes in a state of creative organisation with no room for ambiguity or lack of respect. The state of tolerance and solidarity engendered by the war years has acquired deep roots in present Bosnian society. Everyone has lived a common drama and everyone understands well the pain and suffering of the other. This is something that has strengthened and continues to strengthen social cohesion between the Muslims of the single country.

Beyond the walls of the city centre, the signs of the other face of Sarajevo begin. A simple, poor, difficult life, relying on just a little food to continue its existence. Behind the stylish tourist façade of the centre, the margins are plunged in deep, vital contradictions. The average individual’s income is no more than 300 euros. Opportunities to work and think of carving out a stable, independent life for the young are ambitions hard to come by and there are no possibilities for change. This Sarajevo hides its shame at its poverty in a glossy touristy image, which captivates visitors who come from a distance and those who don’t know much about it.

In the shadows, disordered quarters and unpaved roads spread out, eyes looking for a better tomorrow that has been a long time coming. A young man dreams of a foreign bride who may give him an opportunity to emigrate and resolve his legal status far away from his quarter and his extended family – in Switzerland, France, Britain, America or somewhere else. Women sit and look out for the return of past lovers, cousins who had emigrated once but may perhaps come back to look for a second, ‘legitimate’ wife. An unsettled life ruled by possibilities rather than certainties, dominated by expectations and the futility of hope, in which the lowest social classes become even poorer while those with connections and interests continue to gain the greatest advantages. A desperate situation not much different from the Arab situation, for Bosnia, which is geographically European, often seems like an Arab fragment, with its chaos and the haziness of its ambitions. It fights the blackness of its situation with dreams, summoning disjointed fragments of a very distant past, of a time when it was considered the hidden paradise of the Ottomans, a tolerant and transparent homeland for Jews fleeing from Spain. It tends its current frustration by cultivating wishes and praying hard for the end of the period of austerity and the return of the liberating prophet who will shake from her the dust of injustice and insecurity, freeing her of the inferiority complex and split personality that have kept her awake for a long time. For she still lives with an internal rupture: Bosnia and Herzegovina as we know her is divided into three different regional entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its capital, Sarajevo; the Republika Srpska, with its capital at Banja Luka; and finally, the Brčko District. Divisions which did not satisfy the Muslims of the country (the Bosniaks – the majority), but which emerged from the Dayton accords (1995) in order to end the ethnic war in the country. The Muslims regarded them as unfair because they divided the country almost equally with a second party numerically smaller than they are.

Today I feel that I left a part of my heart in Sarajevo. I found in it something I have not found in other cities: tranquillity and a desire for deep reflection. A city which resembles me as I resemble it, to a point almost of identity: lazy like me, elegant, poor and proud of itself. Its districts, women and cafés have strong smells, which still tickle my nose, for Sarajevo flirts with the visitor from the moment of the first encounter, leaning toward him and drawing him as close as possible to herself so he may stay and never leave her. And if he leaves, he will leave with the intention of returning. Every story merges with every other in her daily life. The Balkans can only preserve their long history and stubborn present with a city that smiles like Sarajevo.

A chapter from Jana’in al-Sharq al-Multahiba – Rihla ila Bilad al-Saqaliba
(The Inflamed Gardens of the East – A Journey in the land of the Slavs).
Winner of the Ibn Battuta Award for Travel Literature 2015

Part of the feature on "Travels", the main focus of Banipal 68 – Travels, Autumn/Winter 2019

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