By Dora Ohrenstein
Mostar, like Sarajevo, was hard hit in the wars following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and tensions between Croatians and Moslems living on opposite sides of the river still persists.
My journey from Sarajevo by European style tourist bus — very comfortable and air-conditioned — passes some impressive mountain scenery. In Mostar it is broiling hot, I have no hotel reservation and the bus station is completely deserted. I ask a taxi to take me to a hotel recommended by my guidebook, but it’s all full. I’m on a modern looking street that’s apparently very close to the old town. Two men who speak perfect English tell me I can get a room just down the street, and I do, in a brand new hotel with all the amenities. It costs 65 Euro, rather a splurge but I’m not in the mood to go bargain hunting.
The main attraction in Mostar is the old bridge, a dramatic structure high over the Neretva river dating from the 15th c. Its method of construction is a wonder of physics. The bridge’s destruction during the war, carried out deliberately, was a great blow to the city, and it’s rebuilding an equally important triumph. I set out to see it and find myself walking a narrow lane jammed with tourist shops and camera slinging Germans, Japanese, French and other indistinguishable tourists. One note of cheer are the lovely crochet table tops I see casually lying atop restaurant tables. It feels like 100F degrees outside. The bridge itself is packed tight and I can’t find any way to actually see it. I treat myself to a sit-down lunch of bread, cheese and salami (tastes like Hungarian, delicious!). Then I try to navigate my way by tourist map to some of the sites, several old mosques, bath houses, a synagogue, etc. but the map is impossible to follow and there are no street signs. Trying to get away from the crowds, I walk outside the old town (which is tiny) and find war-torn buildings and barely a soul in sight. I’m in a drenching sweat and decide to return to my hotel to take time off from being a tourist. I’m feeling very crabby and discouraged. I spend a couple of hours cooling down in the air conditioning, showering and checking email, very grateful for these comforts.
Then I suddenly remember Parvis’ friends, and set out to find them. It proves fairly easy as they are on the other end of the main tourist drag next to a large mosque. I’m greeted most warmly by 18 year old Dina and her mom, Rasema. Dina speaks some English, and Rasema is a lively personality who communicates well with signs and a few phrases of German and Italian. She shows me photos of herself singing 30 years ago, when she was very beautiful. Now she’s filled out a bit, with a lovely smiling face, beautiful skin and a gravelly voice, as she’s a smoker. She loves opera, especially the spunky Carmen — she demonstrates that with some steps and swishing of skirt. Dina is a lovely girl who I can’t pursuade to sing for me.
Dina asks if I’d like to visit a nearby town called Blagaj, and I say sure. We’ll go that very evening. She calls her friend Edita to come along, and I offer to pay for the taxi there, apparently the only way to go as no one owns a car.
Blagaj turns out to be an exceptional place, revered as the home of a famous Sufi Dervish. A substantial stream bordered by open air restaurants ends with a mysterious pool of water and an enormous rock wall extending up into high mountains. Small bats are flying around. Next to the rock wall, the small Sufi house is preserved as a museum, and we enter to see the rugs and carved ceilings. The curtains are bordered with filet crochet, obviously post sufi, but pretty. Dina prays briefly. She tells me some archeological expeditions here have found remnants of 10th century Bogomil culture. We have a traditional tea with a piece of Turkish delight that is heavenly.
Downstairs in the Sufi house is a small tourist shop with scented oils and hand crafted jewelry, manned by three handsome young men. Dina and Edita engage in flirting with them for about half an hour, then I take the two girls to dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, where I eat a scrumptious fresh trout in corn batter. We drink wine and the girls eat only french fries. I’ve offered to pay but am short of cash, and they insist on my dining fully. (Credit cards are not taken anywhere.) Dina receives a steady stream of text messages from one of the boys, poems to her beauty and his yearning. The girls tell me they intend to be virgin brides in traditional, life-long marriages. The evening feels magical in this sparsely peopled, atmospherically lit place. All too soon it’s time for Edita’s 11 pm curfew and we taxi back to Mostar.
Next day I have a much better attitude. Dina and I walk to an enormous church but it’s closed, and past the synagogue which turns out to be no more than a sign. We visit the museum inside the tower of the Old Bridge, and from it’s high windows I’m able to take picture post card photographs. There are some interesting old artifacts and a terrific half-hour long movie about the rebuilding of the bridge. The footage of the Old Bridge exploding from a bomb is really shocking. Engineers and laborers from all over Europe participated to recapture the old bridge, stone by stone, marvelling at the ingenuity of its original builders, and working through icy winters and blistering summers. It’s an achievement well worth celebrating.
I’m especially excited when I find several shops with crochet, and try to find out about local traditions. Apparently it was done all over, since girls were expected to make a pile of things in preparation for marriage. That tradition is rarely kept nowadays. I speak at length to one woman, both of us using broken German, and learn that she does Bosnian (slip stitch) crochet. She brings me a pair of adorable slippers to buy. I also see doilies, lots of filet, and a few items of clothing. Dina’s mom shows me a needlework book with beautiful work and instructions, lots of embroidery but no crochet. The large rugs for sale on the street are so pretty, I love the bold colors.
My hotel is owned and run by a father and daughter. He has lost an arm and looks depressed. She is in her twenties, very pretty and clearly unhappy; when I ask how she is, she says overworked. The war is still very much with these people. Everywhere I hear that people are having trouble making ends meet, and what I see of the city outside of the tourist area looks grim and damaged. Yet on one street I find a fancy boutique full of shoppers. Perhaps they are all tourists.
Just before departing on a late afternoon bus to Dubrovnik, I find a tiny shop that’s a real treasure chest of crochet and purchase a couple of gorgeous small pieces. The young woman who works there tells me her boss is very knowledgeable about local traditions, and assures me she will write to me if I leave my email address, which I do. I also meet Dina’s 17-year old cousin, also named Edita, who promises to help me keep in touch with the family by email.
Mostar is a troubling place, all in all. The tourists pour in and snap photos of the famous bridge, but there seems a terrible disconnect between this scene and the real life of people living there. Yet amidst all this, my two young friends are like their counterparts everywhere, obsessed with boys, their hair, clothes and checking themselves in the mirror. That seems hopeful somehow.