Culture

Sarajevo

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If it’s true what Winston Churchill once said, that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume, this is true especially for Sarajevo, a relatively small city that History has repeatedly chose as its stage-set.
I don’t know exactly why, but Sarajevo is the city I always wanted to visit. Perhaps because Sarajevo is the “Jerusalem of Europe”, the only major European city to have a mosque, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church and a synagogue within the same neighbourhood. So, in my mind, Sarajevo means meeting of different cultures, even if I know that the name of the city is a slavicized word based on “saray” (the Turkish word for palace) and the ‘evo’ portion may come from the term “sarayovası”, meaning “the plains around the palace” or simply “palace plains”.

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But Sarajevo is many other things. Sarajevo is the city of the “short century”: here the twentieth century began, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked World War I; here the twentieth century ended, when, from April 1992 to February 1996, the city suffered the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, during the Bosnian War and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

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Today, Sarajevo seems to me a new-old city rising out from the ashes, like the phoenix. It’s no coincidence that the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was listed as one of the top ten cities to visit in 2010 by the travel guide Lonely Planet and in 2011 was nominated to be the European Capital of Culture in 2014.

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If you love history or you are simply planning your next trip, this article will disappoint you. Anyway, you can find a lot of information about Sarajevo in libraries or on the web. The truth is that when you go to Sarajevo what you experience is life, and life is impossible to tell, because words cannot really explain the things: colours, smells, the signs of shootings on houses facades, the wrinkles in the elderly’s faces, the innocence in children’s eyes. That is why I chose to describe Sarajevo only through some of the photos I took there. Because pictures, silently, say more than a thousand words.

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Furthermore, because I love poetry and for a long time I wanted to write an article about poetry (an advice not called for: you will never be alone with a poet in your pocket), I decided to give you some poems about Sarajevo. As Aristotle said, poetry is finer and more philosophical than history: poetry expresses the universal, history only the particular. I chose the 1930 born IzetSarajlić, who is the Bosnia-Hercegovina’s post-WWII most popular and  most translated poet. Sarajlić’s manuscript “Sarajevo War Journal”, written during the first weeks of the siege of Sarajevo, was published in 1993. Of it, Sarajlić said: “This is the only collection of which I can say that I would love never to have written it.” Sarajlić is reported to have believed that he belonged to the 20th century. When the 21st century arrived, he would date letters to friends as “1999+1”, “1999+2” etc. He died in Sarajevo in 2002, at the age of 72.

Theory of maintaining distance

The theory of maintaining distance
was discovered by writers of post-scripts,
those who don’t want to risk anything.

I myself belong among those
who believe
that on Monday you have to talk about Monday,
because by Tuesday it might be too late.

It’s hard, of course,
to write poems in the cellar,
when mortars are exploding above your head.

It’s only harder not to write poems.

***

The war reached us so very unprepared

Today is the tenth day of war
and we still can’t really hate.

To BoroSpasojevic,
the architect, friend, human being

Before the war broke out
I promised you
that I would write a poem about Sarajevo.
On the day
when I saw
how you mourned the destroyed city
before the TV cameras,
you wrote my poem for me.

All that remains for me to do
is to put my name after the lines.

***

Good-luck, Sarajevo Style

In the Sarajevo
Spring of 1992 everything is possible:
you get into a line
to buy bread
and end up in an emergency ward
among torn-off legs.

And still you can say
that you were lucky.

Igor Giammanco

 

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