By Dora Ohrenstein
My first stop on this trip is in the beautiful and historic city of Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina. Surrounded by mountains and divided by a river, this ancient city ruled first by the Turks and then the Austro-Hungarians, was heavily pounded during the struggles of the 1990s. Over 10,000 Sarajevans died, many more were wounded, and fine old buildings damaged. Fifteen years after the end of hostilities, the city is thriving again. The people are very cosmopolitan and many, especially the young, speak English.
I arrive in Munich at 8 am, with a three-hour wait for my Sarajevo connection. The single cash machine will not cooperate with me, and I’m dying for a coffee. Eventually I find an cash exchange window where the fellow takes pity on me and dispenses with the commission, changing five dollars into just enough for a coffee and croissant. I have a pleasant time in the Munich airport, acclimating to the fact of being in Europe after some years. The servers are cheerful and friendly, unlike the Germans I remember from travels past. It’s time to revise my outdated ideas about gruff Germans who are rude to tourists and each other. Twenty years before, when I did most of my travelling, the population had lived through the horrors and humiliations of the second world war. The new generation has been reared in a prosperous Germany and are fresh and open.
The tiny Sarajevo airport is crowded and daunting, but I’m at least succesful with the cash machine. Thus empowered, I take a taxi to the Hotel Emona, unfancy but comfortable, with a/c in the room (it’s hot!), a good bed, and many windows that open. The smiling beauty at the desk speaks excellent English. I didn’t sleep on the plane at all, but I know sleeping now would counter adapting to Euro time. Instead, I set out to have my first day. The old Ottoman part of town is a mere block away, and it consists of narrow lanes packed with craft shops, mostly finely worked metal objects and jewelry. In one, a young woman is making unusual, artsy clothing, and just inside the shop is a piano. We talk — her English is excellent — and I learn she is a getting a masters in piano in Sarajevo conservatory and grabs practice time here when she can. Her mom is sitting outside the shop doing embroidery. Along the same street I find another shop full of needlework, including beautiful crochet pieces that the proprietress tells me are quite old. There’s one I want to buy, but I can’t quite get myself to plunk down it’s price of $100. I chat for about an hour with the mother and daughter, who lived for several years in Canada. The daughter says they enjoy the quiet slow pace of Sarajevo, but miss the amenities of North American life. There is absolutely no pressure to purchase.
Wandering some more I eventually come to the Austro-Hungarian part of time, made obvious by a distinct and sudden change in architecture from small buildings with rounded or angled roof, mosques and minarets dotting the landscape, to 19th century curlicues on building facades. Sarajevans are out in droves, drinking coffee and beer, young woman dressed to the nines and young men ogling them with pleasure. Somehow I manage to stay awake and stumble into the tourist office at 5 pm, just in time for the guided tour. Three American girls, three British girls and two guys from Denmark, all in their twenties, plus me, are led by an amiable young may with excellent English. We walk to the Catholic church which is closed, the synagogue which is closed, and the spot where the Archduke and his wife were assasinated in 1914. In other words, we don’t see much but he talks well about history and people. He tells us he’s a non-practicing Moslem and that he believes all Bosnians should be one people. From him I learn that Bosnians cannot travel easily, as visas are needed to go anywhere and cost a fortune to buy. Corruption in the government is a serious problem.
I ask directions to a highly recommended spot for the local specialty, cevapcici. These are very succulent and tasty little sausage-shaped pieces of grilled ground and spiced beef served in freshly baked pocket of pita- type bread. Mmm-mm. Doing as the locals do, I wash it down with drinkable yogurt poured from a spout.
After dinner I stop in a classy shop selling rugs and talk a while to the owner, a man from Persia named Parvis. A bit later I wander into a much smaller shop selling scarves and bags, most made in India, manned by a young, long-haired fellow named Rafid. It’s so easy to sit and talk with the people here, so I do, and when he asks what I do I tell him I sing. He says he does too. Parvis then pops in — it seems this is his shop too, and Rafid his employee. I ask Rafid to sing something for me. Next thing I know, he summons back Parvis, the two of them bring in some Persian instruments and they perform a private concert for me in the tiny shop! Beautiful, songs, some fast, some slow, very passionate. Rafid has a really beautiful voice and plays a mean tambourine. Parvis plays a long wooden flute, percussion, and sings too. In return I sing Schubert’s Heidenroslein and they seem impressed. Tourists outside the shop peer in but only for a moment. I am thrilled and honored and can’t imagine a more marvelous ending to my first day in Europe. I slept soundly that night in Hotel Emona with the a/c on.
Next day I begin by walking up to a higher section of town just across the river to try my video camera for the first time, and check out a cemetery that promises to be interesting. I couldn’t locate the very old stones, but was sad to see how short most of the lives were, though none dated from the recent war. After that I wandered back to the shop of the pianist/clothing designer and she was at the moment practicing. She permits me to video tape her playing Chopin, which she does very passionately, then curses her piano a little, for which I don’t blame her. (Hope to post that video soon.)
Soon after I hear the sound of the muezzin calling people to prayer and enter the mosque area. It’s a very ancient one, beautifully designed, one of the largest in Eastern Europe. In the outdoor area there a few small trees and a large fountain enclosed in a gazebo with a wooden ceiling. Perhaps a sixty people are here, though it’s not crowded, washing hands and feet at the fountain, then kneeling to pray on carpets laid out on a large porch extending from the mosque. The atmosphere is very special, both quiet and intent; what’s unfamiliar is how prayer and devotion are completely integrated into every day life, with no clear dividing line. Each person goes about their private ritual, while others around them enter, talk quietly, and tourists take photos. Men and women pray separately.
Next I venture onto public transportation, a bus, to the museum — actually three are combined in one area, archeology, natural science and one more which however has nothing in it. The contents of the museum were reassembled after the war, and it’s sad to see entire sections and display cases empty. The bits and pieces of ruins in the archeology museum, with no information in English, don’t impress me, but the natural history section is wonderful, with dioramas of wildlife including fierce owls, bears, wolves and immense wild boars. A large room devoted to insects display numerous varieties, laid out in size order. I’m amazed to see truly gigantic specimens of butterflies, moths and bony-looking insects (more like grasshoppers), as large as a human hand. Upstairs are rooms displaying 19th century Sarajevo life. All the contents — clothing, intricately carved ceilings, rugs, furniture and so forth, have been moved from old family homes into the museum. Each room has the harmony that characterize a good Ottoman home, and craft and design are its essence. Unfortunately, no photos were permitted in the museum.
Despite the heat, I walk back to the old part of town, stopping for coffee at an upscale cafes, where I find myself surrounded by very fashionably, if over-dressed girls, wearing club outfits – mini skirts, very high heels, and showing much cleavage — in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
I visit the old synagogue, which has no artifacts at all, but a display of photos and placards about the history of Sarajevo Jews, who came to the city during the Spanish inquisition (15th c). There was a significant Jewish community and the Jews were well integrated into Sarajevo life. In fact, the Ladino song literature which the Jews brought from Spain were adopted by Bosnians as their own melodies. There are many photos of local Jews who were persecuted during WW II, most from before the before their troubles began, young men and women enjoying life, but also some police-style head shots from the war era. Today there is a tiny community of Jews living in Sarajevo and they have built a new synagogue but I didn’t visit. I was told they have no rabbi, but rather appoint someone from the congregation to lead the service.
Parvis’ shop is really a large gallery, with many rooms and a courtyard where I thought I might get some nice photos. To see it in fully glory, go to: http://www.artsaray.com/
I return and sit with him for some time. I learn he emigrated from his home in a small Iranian town to Sarajevo to study medicine, and continued with studies in philosophy and archeology. How he ended up with a gallery I’m not sure, but he has had it for nine years and is very successful. He’s a serious collector of Oriental textiles, and there are some marvelous and rare pieces in the shop. Unable to get visas to travel to western Europe or the US, Parvis has never seen western Europe. He writes a blog on philosophy of life and has many readers. I can see he is a very special and spiritual individual and sitting with him in the shop surrounded by beautiful rugs fills me with calm. How touching that the night before he sang and played for me just because I asked!
Before leaving I tell Parvis I’m headed to the town of Mostar, and he calls some local people there who he says I’ll enjoy meeting, a mother and daughter who both sing. They work in another branch of his shop in the town. This proved to be a very fortunate connection.