SARAJEVO - There are no tourists in Sarajevo's old quarter. It's the kind of place tourists love, but are reluctant to visit, in the same way that people are wary of visiting someone recovering from an infectious disease. Nothing will happen to me, the tourist says to himself, but you never know. Those who live in Sarajevo dismiss such comparisons out of hand. The bad times, a resident of Sarajevo will say, are not coming back. He will grab onto your sleeve and ask you to look around. "Tell me," he will say. "Does it look dangerous to you?"
But there are no tourists to look around. Tourists have long, shallow memories. They are not good on details; they don't remember exactly who was fighting whom. But they do remember that thousands of people were killed here, and fly off to nearby Croatia.
America has not invaded Sarajevo yet. There is no McDonald's. There are no tour groups or dollars. There are 400,000 locals, selling each other souvenirs, bitter Turkish-style coffee, and spicy kebabs in pita.
They live in a beautiful city. Small houses with red roofs run down the green hilly slopes to the muddy brown river in charming disarray. At the edge of town are giant housing projects, vestiges of the Communist era: 30-story towers sitting side-by-side, their porches full of holes, their walls peeling. War damage or cheap plaster?
Ten minutes away on the trolley, in the city center, is an old world that has survived far worse than Communism: This is Bascarsija, Sarajevo's old town, dating back to the 15th century, with dozens of small restaurants, cafes, shops and cobblestone lanes. The cafes are full almost all day long, thanks to the city's 40 percent unemployment rate. Shop proprietors also sit around sipping coffee, watching business across the way. Passersby, on their way to having coffee somewhere else, exchange kisses and high fives. Beggar women with babies in tow walk the streets, annoying the peddlers selling mobile phones from dubious sources.
At noon, we head for Zelenin Street, a lane colored white by the smoke of grilling meat. We eat cevapcici - a thin pita, lightly fried and stuffed with a dozen or so highly spiced mini-kebabs. On the side is a mound of raw chopped onion. Spear some onion with your fork, pop a fiery kebab in your mouth and pad it with a little pita. The palate screams out for a splash of cold water, or better still, beer. Cevapcici restaurants sell yogurt, but no alcohol. Religion, as we all know, can be very strict when it comes to food.
This pretty, historic quarter is basically Muslim. Five times a day, the muezzins remind everyone of that. Little shops stock prayer rugs, copper pictures of Gaza Husrev-Bey, the city's most important mosque, and hammered metal plaques with Arabic inscriptions, for the non-existent tourists. Sarajevo has Christians and churches, too, and it sits on a veritable volcano. One day, the tense relations between the Muslim majority and the large minority of Orthodox Christian Serbs and Croatian Catholics are going to burst into flame, and burn the way only combustible mixtures know how to burn.
In a small cafe, we meet Nidzara, who says that everyone is the same. It is hard to disagree with her. She is a 30-year-old Muslim dressed in jeans and a white print top. She doesn't pray five times a day, and won't refuse an occasional glass of wine, but she knows a little Arabic and fasts on Ramadan. Other women are sitting around the cafe smoking. Their religion is unmistakable. Their heads are covered and they wear hijabs of a style I have never seen before. Not black, like in Arab villages, but light-colored, and cut in a way that challenges some serious clothing prohibitions. A feature article in the family magazine Zahara asks: "What message do we convey by our dress?" Illustrating the piece is a blue-eyed beauty whose dress conveys the same message as women's fashions in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood. Before the war, they tell me, there were not as many women who dressed this way in the streets of Sarajevo. The women today parade their Muslim identity, whereas the men hide behind a mantle of religious anonymity.
To someone passing through, the residents all look pretty much the same - Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics. The men all have small, upturned noses and thin, spiky hair. They all speak with a soft, rolling "l," and marry one another. There is no Muslim or Catholic neighborhood in Sarajevo, and new mosques are going up alongside historic churches. In the conflict between religion, which separates peoples, and daily existence, which demands contact, life has been stronger than the prohibitions. Up until the war, there was a lot of intermarriage. Communism also kept religion out of the picture for a while, but not for long.
The Jews are not an important factor in Sarajevo today. There is a small community of a thousand Jews. Its president, Jakob Finci, is also Bosnia's civil service commissioner. Altogether, Amira Arnon, Israel's ambassador to Bosnia (and to Macedonia and Albania, as well), works out of Jerusalem, so that in practice, it is Finci who represents Israeli affairs in Sarajevo. The hazy line between Finci's Jewishness and his nationality does not exactly sit well with the view that there should be no conflict between Israel's interests and those of the local Jewish community. But the Foreign Ministry is not overly concerned. Finci, a respected civil servant, has crossed another line that would be out of bounds in Israel: He is married to a Muslim woman. Nidzara, who mentions this parenthetically, doesn't understand my surprise at the news.
"People were killed right here," says Nidzara, pointing emotionally to a patch of broken pavement on the way to the museum. She doesn't mean it happened on this very spot, but that it happened before her very eyes. During the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted nearly four years, some 10,000 people died. The reasons for that war, which erupted over 15 years ago, have not gone away; they have just been neatly swept under the carpet. Religious fanaticism and nationalism seasoned with high unemployment make for a volatile mix just waiting to explode.
Sarajevo's history museum has an exhibit commemorating the war. Nazir stands at the entrance, mopping his brow with a large handkerchief. Nazir, a chubby fellow, is red-faced from the oppressive heat. His shirt is soaked in sweat. He delivers a short speech to every tourist who comes in, stressing the strict objectivity of the exhibit. Afterward, he comments that his daughter was killed in the war. The exhibit is moving in its very simplicity: a few photographs, a reconstructed family kitchen from those days, bloodstained children's drawings.
Nidzara struggles with the conflict between a desire to put on a hopeful face and her inability to forget the past. How can you forget such things? She asks. The Markale market, not far from the old Sephardi synagogue, proves that you don't have to forget in order to go on living. Leaning against the memorial wall that bears the names of massacre victims is a crate of cucumbers that a fat woman in a checked kerchief is selling for 1 euro per kilo. The market is organized and colorful, but the real action takes place on its fringes: There one can find watermelon halves for sale that need two men to pick them up; even larger pumpkins; deep purple berries; a giant wedge of cheese. Thirteen years ago, dozens of people would congregate here, hoping to trade a shirt for a tomato or a toy for a bit of flour. Then a shell landed here, killing 68. A year and a half later, 37 people died in another shelling nearby.
Dark cloud in the sky
Ten minutes from the market, Sead Numanovic sits in the air-conditioned offices of his newspaper on the 11th floor of a soaring new office tower, enjoying the view. Numanovic is happy with his life. Now in his mid-30s, he is a columnist for the local paper, Dnevni Avaz (Daily News). He can barely wait for the conversation to end to show me all the fancy amenities in the building to which he, as one of the paper's top journalists, has free access. He travels around the world, interviews leaders, and writes, he says, about any topic he chooses. Yet there is one dark cloud in the blue skies of his life: the Wahhabis, whom he sees as a threat to Bosnian tranquility.
In the old quarter, I saw some of them - young men with cropped hair and wild beards, in three-quarter length pants. The Wahhabis are young Muslim fundamentalists from Islamic countries who arrived when the war broke out to help Bosnia's Muslims. A few months ago, the Sarajevo police arrested several of them in the Muslim Sandjak district. According to the police, they had guns and were recruiting young people to their cause.
The Bosnians have mixed feelings about the Wahhabis. The moderates oppose them and want them banned from entering mosques. Others take comfort in the fact that their numbers are small, and they are willing to turn a blind eye to their religious excesses as a reward for the Wahhabis' aid to the war effort. Numanovic thinks they are destroying the delicate fabric of Bosnian society, which is founded on religious tolerance. Numanovic himself is a religious moderate, something like a Jew who travels on the Sabbath but fasts on Yom Kippur. Lively and articulate, Numanovic, born in Sandjak, is a self-professed Bosnian patriot who fought in the last war on the green hills visible from his window.
Dnevni Avaz is Bosnia's most widely read paper. "Is it a tabloid?" I ask. Numanovic shakes his head and laughs. "No, it's not a tabloid," he replies. "It's yellow journalism." The standard format goes something like this: A banner headline reporting on some government bureaucratic issue, under that a large picture of a respected imam with a white beard, and on the back page a photo of scantily clad bathing beauties. The title of Numanovic's column translates roughly as "Political Mess." The paper supports the government, but his column reflects the opposition stance. He pokes fun at the system of government imposed on Bosnia - three presidents in rotation, representing three religions. The bureaucrats are corrupt, he says, and the foreign minister is a nothing. The sense of political despair translates into low participation in elections and a feeling that the peace accords signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, are no longer enough.
Bosnian Muslims believe that the Dayton accords need to be revised. The agreement ended the hostilities and created Republik Srpska, a nebulous enclave of Bosnian Serbs in the heart of Bosnia. Instead of tourists, short Turkish soldiers and tall German soldiers in camouflage uniforms fill the streets. The question is how to change an accord that has ultimately kept the parties from going back to throttling one another.
Nidzara thinks the time has come to cancel the automatic link between religion and nationality. "We're all Bosnians," she says. Numanovic cautiously hints at the possibility of demographic change, a kind of consensual transfer, but without actually using the dirty word. Serbs will live in Serbia, and Bosnians in Bosnia. The Bosnian consul in Israel, Mersanda Zubovic (whose brother was killed in Markale), has a more roundabout, if not naive, solution. "If Serbia gets accepted into the European Union," she says, "they'll leave us alone."
Any change in the delicate balance could plunge the region into another war. Numanovic is not sure the Bosnian Muslims could cope with such a development. He talks about their famous mentality. "You see those people filling the cafes?" he asks. "They are bitter, but they don't want to work. You think they're going the change the system?"
My own view of the local mentality is somewhat more positive. They are darling people until they get behind the wheel. That's when their moderation disappears. You don't need to be in Sarajevo to know that. The calm Bosnian turns into a raging warrior, spoiling for a fight, as soon as he hits the road. Bosnian taxi drivers use their brakes as a last resort. They sit taut on the edge of their seats, hunched over the steering wheel, trying to squeeze between two taxis speeding down the narrow road as if the car were made of elastic. The only time they calm down is when they drive to a wedding, in a slow entourage of beribboned cars. Then they take it easy, but keep one hand on the horn, honking for joy.
It is enough to watch how they drive, scattering terrified pedestrians left and right, to see how tense this city is. Sarajevo is like a giant laboratory packed with highly combustible materials. Decades of Communist rule leached out religious faith, preventing friction and explosion. War disrupted this order. The arrival of fundamentalists has made the situation even more volatile, by pouring religiosity on this stockpile of flammable materials. As religious faith grows, so does nationalism. This combination guarantees an explosion that will set off a chain reaction. It is process that is familiar to us. No need to look as far as Sarajevo.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now