Samir Biščević “Mostar”
In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.
This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.
This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.
(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)
The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.
You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.
Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.
My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.
Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.
We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.
We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.
In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.
I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.
I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.
When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.
When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.
A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.
Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.
We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.
When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.
Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.
Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.
You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?
And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.
Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.
Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić
Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.