Tag Archives: Sarajevo

Christmas in Sarajevo

 Christmas in Sarajevo as a Catholic holiday.

I have been living in Bosnia and Herzegovina for  the last six months. Since I first arrived here in June, I have travelled a lot, both in the country and in the neighbouring countries. This was a very intense period, and as the holiday season approached I found myself with no energy left to travel away for Christmas, and decided to spend this period in Sarajevo instead. That proved to be a very fortunate decision, not so much because of the airport chaos in Europe, but because it gave me the chance to be part of a very special environment in a city which, despite being now overwhelming populated by Muslims, is nevertheless determined to preserve its multicultural character and traditions. It also allowed me to better understand how religion as a cultural phenomenon works in Bosnia as a marker of difference among the Bosnians.

When I first told one of my closest friends in Sarajevo that instead of joining my family I would would spend Christmas alone in Sarajevo, he immediately offered to accompany me to the Midnight mass in one of Sarajevo’s Catholic churches. What I first thought was an act of hospitality based on friendship turned out to be a very old practice among the Muslims of Sarajevo. “We always go, every year. In Sarajevo everyone goes to the ‘ponocka’, not only the Catholics.” And his mother added that it has always been like that, even during communist rule.

When I asked around, this was confirmed by everyone. People even seemed to be surprised when I replied that I had never heard of such a thing, believers of a different religion celebrating in this way a holiday that they acknowledge not to belong to their own religious practice. For the Muslims with whom I spoke this is an established tradition that has become part of their own identity, while not at all diminishing their attachment and respect to their own religious tradition.

I chose to go to the Midnight mass at the Cathedral, in the centre of Sarajevo. When I got there, around 22h 30, the doors were still closed, but there was already a small crowd outside waiting. Much more people were walking along the main streets, between Bascarcija and the Marshall Tito street, killing time before the mass. The crowd gathered in front of the doors was composed by Catholics, who were keen on getting a good seat and rather anxious for the doors to open, although the night was not particularly cold, while the apparently more relaxed attitude of the Muslims reflected in fact their concern not to deprive the Catholics of the best available places, as that would not be a respectful thing to do.

When the doors finally opened I was very lucky to find myself a seat. In a matter of a few minutes the church was totally full, with people standing even on the main way, something I had never seen before, and many people remained outside, and followed the mass thanks to the loudspeakers installed at the square. On the front, in the seats reserved for representatives of other religions, the presence of Orthodox priests indicated that this tradition of attending the ‘Ponocka’ was not exclusive to the Muslims.  The Cardinal Vinko Pujic, who celebrated the mass, on his homily acknowledged and made a note of appreciation for the presence of non-Catholics at the Mass, before addressing the Catholics, in a speech that extorted them to recognise Bosnia as their homeland, concluding that ‘Ova je nasa zemlja’. That this is also the land of the Catholics (that is of the Bosnian Croats) is also stated by the non-Catholics, nowadays mostly Muslims, that attend the midnight mass.

This is not to suggest that the coexistence between Bosniaks and Croats is devoid of tension in Sarajevo. Tensions do exist, and are revealed, on the one hand,  by the Croats’ anxiety about becoming a residual minority in the city, and on the other by some Bosniaks’ resentment against the system of quotas in access to public jobs which grants the Croats a larger share than their demographic proportion. I will deal with these tensions in another post, but for now it is important to highlight that in any healthy society the coexistence among different groups (whatever may be the criteria of differentiation) is marked by occasional conflicts and very often by persistent latent tensions. The level of cohesion of a society is most accurately measured not by the presence of absence of tension, but by the consensual mechanisms that help manage difference on people’s every day lives. One of such mechanisms has just been described in this post.

The ‘Ponocka’ is lived by the inhabitants of Sarajevo as an event that is part of their identity as Sarajevans, an identity that transcends the barrier of religion, while at the same time framing Christmas as a specifically Catholic commemoration (I heard a foreign of protestant faith complaining about feeling discriminated by the fact that before 24th December people greet only the believers of Catholic faith).

The Christmas holiday season is marked marked in Sarajevo by a surprisingly successful juxtaposition of different traditions that goes beyond the Catholic dimension. However, the coexistence of different traditions is not always devoid of controversy. The main focus of this controversy has been, in recent years, the figure of Djeda Mraza, a controversy which I will elaborate upon on my next post, the second of a series of three posts dedicated to the holiday season in Sarajevo.

(A photographic coverage of this event can be seen here)

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Filed under Bosnia, Uncategorized

‘Future post-History’ in Sarajevo

The exhibition by Bosnian artist Braco Dimitrijević, ‘Future post-History’, which was displayed at the Biennale of Venice last year, is now on display in Sarajevo, in the Vijećnica, the building of the National Library.

The history of this building offers a good image of the history of the city of Sarajevo. Built in neo-moorish style during Austrian rule, it immediately became on of the most important symbols of the city. The building was severely damaged in August 1992, when the Serb forces shelled it with incendiary bombs, as part of their tactical goal of destroying the cultural heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 2 million books and documents were lost forever but the building now is being restored, slowly, just like, slowly, the visible signs of the war are quietly disappearing from the face of Sarajevo.

The loss itself is irreversible, but as the visible signs of destruction slowly either disappear or become invisible to the eyes of those who live here, the city displays its resilience through a systematic effort to make life pleasant and exciting, while assuming its depleted heritage. Thus the title of the exhibition is particularly appropriate to contemporary Sarajevo: Future post-History.

The exhibition is composed of different elements: on the building’s façade, a portrait of a casual passer-by, on the main hall an installation composed of three boats which instead of sails have giant portraits of iconic figures, and on the rooms around video-works are continually displayed. All of these elements are recurrent in the artist’s career, repeated with some variations in exhibitions and interventions on the cityscape worldwide, as episodes of a single narrative that unfolds through time and space.

What makes this exhibition particularly special is that, instead of the clean white walls of a prestigious art gallery, we have the dust and the typical mess of a building in reconstruction, which reinforces the feeling of being upon a process, not something finished, closed to the future, but rather a journey that we don’t know where it may lead but still embark on.

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Filed under Art, Bosnia

Especially for Anais

Only today I have managed to take 15 minutes to watch Allan Little’s report for Newsnight “Karadzic broken Bosnia endures”.

Meanwhile I have been in Bosnia myself, and, although it was a brief visit, it was long enough for me to recognize the kind of environment that the report brilliantly captures.

I usually travel alone, but on this trip I had the company of my lovely niece Anais. In fact, she was the reason I decided to travel to Bosnia. My intention was to go to Kosova instead, but I wanted to show her Sarajevo, because knowing her and knowing the city, I had the feeling that the two would match.

We had a great time there. The weather was very pleasant, which allowed us to take nice photos, and we were very lucky to find a place to sleep in a private home, where the owner treated us like princesses and made us the most delicious coffee we had ever drunk. I introduced her to burek (I love burek) and we also had the best pizza I have eaten in years.

Here’s Anais, looking at a group of Japanese tourists…

I am very glad we went there. She loved Sarajevo and its people, but, thanks to the persons we met, whose conversation with me she attentivelly followed, she got the chance to have a glimpse on the current political and social problems Bosnia is facing (or refusing to face). I absolutely wanted to avoid passing her an essentialized image of Sarajevo and Bosnia.

Anais was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the city and the warmth of its people,  but, in the same measure, shocked with the extent of destruction caused by the siege. When you arrive in Sarajevo by bus from Belgrade, you get the chance to have a good notion on the size of the city, and the fact that the bus stop is in the suburbs means that the postcard-like image of the centre of Sarajevo will not be the only one you will take with you after you leave. Everywhere she looked, the bullet holes could be seen. She had never seen anything like that. At a certain moment we passed through a souvenir shop and she saw a mug with the mascot of the 1984 Olimpic Games. It was then that she realized what the siege had meant. She looked at me and she said, “really, this is as if Lyon (her home city) had been besieged”. I though that was a good comparison.

Then, lots of questions, starting by the classical one, why didn’t the serbs manage to destroy Sarajevo…

Reality is sometimes so absurd that it hard to explain…

I tried to answer her questions and I briefly explained her in what my research consists of, but I tried to refrain myself because I think it’s best for her to have her own perspective than to simply absorb mine.

After we returned to Belgrade, I tried to give her some materials for her to have some information, but I didn’t want to overburden her.

So, when I watched this report, I immediately realized that it had what I was looking for. The environment portrayed in the report is clearly recognizable to anyone who has already crossed ‘Republika Srpska’.

I am sure she will watch it and I hope some other readers will too.

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, Genocide, War

Etre authentique ou ne pas l’etre

This is a guest post by Anais Pirlot.

Anais is my oldest niece. She joined me in Split some days ago, and since then we have been travelling throughout the countries of Former Yugoslavia. Anais is half portuguese half french. She was raised in France, and, as she was growing up, she used to spent almost all her holidays in Portugal with me and the rest of the family. She currently spends most of her time in the United States, so this has been a precious occasion to enjoy her company that I love so much. She has proved to be the perfect travelling companion. Not only she is sweet and funny, but, above all, she is an acute observer, acquainted as she is to live with people of different cultural origins. The questions she makes me about the region, its peoples and its problems are helping me find the best way to make my perspective accessible to people with no previous knowledge on the region.

She wrote it in french and we decided to keep it in french. I apologise to the non-french readers.

“Voilà enfin des gens AUTHENTIQUES” me dit ironiquement Sarah dans le bus qui nous mène au centre de Sarajevo. Je rigole car elle fait référence à une anecdote que je lui ai raconté à propos de certains clichés.

En partant pour l’Europe de l’Est, j’appelle mon père une dernière fois depuis l’aéroport. Il me félicite de voyager tant et me fait cette remarque qui m’est restée en travers de la gorge comme une arrête de poisson: “Ah, bah là au moins tu vas rencontrer des gens authentiques” (c’est à peu près ce qu’il m’a dit). Sachant que ces 6 derniers mois j’ai passé le plus clair de mon temps à voyager à travers les États-Unis, il faisait allusion à ces américains tellement globalisés, consommants, consommés et industrialisés qu’on se demande s’ils sont encore humains.

Mais quel stéréotype ignorant! De tout ce que j’aime des États-Unis, ce que je préfère ce sont justement les gens; leur enthousiasme, leur convivialité, leur liberté qui leur permet cette informalité si chaleureuse. Sans parler de leur respect du travail.

Que c’est drôle alors de constater la difficulté d’obtenir rien qu’un sourire ou un bonjour d’un serbe ou d’un croate, ces gens si authentiques*… Mais voilà qu’a Sarajevo, oú les gens ont tant souffert, tout le monde sourit et est heureux de voir que l’on apprécie leur ville. Les gens sont enthousiastes et aiment vivre ici. C’est sans doute ce qui fait que leur ville est si belle aujourd’hui. Quant à savoir si cela fait d’eux des gens authentiques, j’en laisse le soin à d’autres, moi ça ne m’intéresse pas.

Photos: Above, an ‘authentic’ kid playing hiding with Anais on the bus from Belgrade to the suburb of Sarajevo called ‘East Sarajevo’. Bellow, an ‘authentic’ old man riding his bike in the centre of Sarajevo.

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Filed under Bosnia, Joie de vivre