Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Score

You rockin' loud but you ain't sayin' nothin.

So I am running a hip hop diplomacy program for the State Dept, called Next Level. My job is to take MCs, DJs, Breakdancers and Beatmakers to India, Bangladesh, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Serbia and Bosnia. We had our orientation this week

We have some amazing talents, and real pioneers in hip hop. I am taking Diamond D to Serbia. If you remember, Diamond D produced The Fugees album "The Score." He won a Grammy for it.

At some point, he was talking in a small roundtable, and he said: "Yeah, I rap a little."

And I rolled off from The Score:

I creep like a thief, no doubt the man's swift 
I'm more magnificent than Lee Van Cliff

His lines.

He just laughed and smiled and said: "I see where your comin' from, my man"

I just smiled as I walked out the door.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Nurse Ratchet

When I told Nurse Ellen both that her State of Maryland RN license had come, and i was using it for a coaster, she replied:
 "I'll kill you; and now I know how."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


FP military commentator Tom Ricks on the dangers of the Sparta ethos in America's military, and how it undermines the relationship in society between civilian and military.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What the World Costs- Bosnia; What the World Costs- Serbia

Free: 90 minute walking tour around the city
1 konvertable mark (km) (71cents) : potato borek pastry; bottle of water
1.5 kmarks ($1.06): espresso at Cafe Giovanni; bottle of sparkling water
2 km ($1.41): a can of Uludag gazoz Turkish soda; 5ml glass of slivovic (plum brandy)
2.5km ($1.77): a 200ml bottle of coke
3 km ($2.12): a shot of vilijamovka (pear brandy); a small chicken doner kebab; large carrot-orange juice
4km ($2.82): portion of meat borek; a shot of travarica rakija; bowl of begoga corba (Bosnian chicken soup)
4.5 km ($3.18): a plate of Ćevapčić (small Balkan beef sausages) in lepenja (Bosnian pita) w/ onions & ajvar
5 km ($3.53): a bowl of gulash; ticket to National History Museum
6km ($4.24): a plate of Ćevapi (larger Balkan beef sausages) w/ accouterments; 10 minute cab ride in Sarejevo
10km ($7.06): entrance into the Galareji 11/07/1995
20km ($14.12): a dish of Bosnian comfort foods including dolma, meatballs, stewed lamb & mashed potatoes, mixed salad and a glass of wine
30km ($21.18): taxi from airport to the city; one night private room at Hostal Tito
163 km ($115.09): one night at Hotel Europe, including breakfast

40 Serbian Dinars (48 cents): bus card
50 dinars (60 cents): Yugoslavia button; pack of gum; portion of mixed salted nuts
60 dinars (72 cents): bottle of still water
70 dinars (84 cents): bottle of sparkling water; bus ride
73 dinars (87 cents): trolley bus ride
100 dinars ($1.20): small order of french fries
110 dinars ($1.32): espresso
120 dinars ($143): bottle of Sommersby hard cider at fastfood joint
130 dinars ($1.55): 100 grams of lil fried fish
150 dinars ($1.79): 40 minute bus ride to Tesla Airport
190 dinars ($2.27): shot of slivovic
200 dinars ($2.39): entry to Tito Mausoleum & Museum of Yugoslavia; pljeskavica (Balkan burger)
230 dinars ($2.75): dunja cocktail at Ok, no bar
270 dinars ($3.23): grilled chicken breast
290 dinars ($3.47): glass of dunja- quince brandy
360 dinars ($4.30): mojito
400 dinars ($4.78): laundry to wash a purple sweatshirt
450 dinars ($5.38): journal at Tito Mausoleum gift shop; take-out box of stir-fried veggies at Asian restaurant
990 dinars ($11.84): chicken and pepper casserole at ? Kafana
1170 dinars ($14): 1 night at 360 Hostel
1950 dinars ($23.31): 3 course dinner in Skadarlije including drinks
11,616 dinars ($138): one night at hotel, breakfast included 

The Last of the Yugoslavs

And all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put Humpty back together again.

I spent my days in the Balkans talking and listening of what was lost: Yugoslavia. And I heard a general grumbled consensus: nostalgia. What we had was better. And I heard it from Bosnians, from Serbs and from Croats.

We had everything: the mountains; the long coast; the industry; the openness in comparison; the standard of living. We were strong as whole, and better equipped to stand against Germany, Russia and the United States; we are small countries now, with small borders and small interests. We had a great country, and we lost it over petty divisions and differences.

Šteta (pity).

Yugoslavia was greater as a whole than the division of it parts.

Speaking to Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, I still found a sense of shock all these years later at what befell Yugoslavia. As if no one really could believe it could happen, and are still numb that it did.

It was Freud who warned against the narcissism of minor differences, and never in the Balkans was that more true. This was not an ethnic conflict, they were the same Slavic ethnicity, speaking practically the same language.

I may be the last of the Yugoslavs. Fitting, as I am the last of the partisans of the Ottomans and of the Hapsburgs. I am a Levantine, I love the the multi-ethnic states and empires as I have come to abhor petty, narrow nationalism.

I have learned a lot on this short trip, and I will have more to learn as I spend longer in the region.

I have a profound sadness for the ways things fell apart.

I have a profound respect for the strength of those who endured the miseries that befell what was Yugoslavia.

And on a final note, I have a greater respect for one President Abraham Lincoln, because there was no Lincoln in the Balkans.

No one would fight for the unity of a country because they knew that a house divided cannot stand; no one who would make such sacrifices beyond their own narrow interests.

Lincoln's resolve and determination to keep the United States of America whole, no matter the cost in blood and treasure means even more to me when I visit lands that could not see so far forward.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tito and Tesla

On Saturday, Mark departed back to the US, and I switched over from hotel (business) to hostel (personal). It was still grey and rainy, and I was semi-miserable. I hadn't seen the sun in days, and I was starting to wilt.

I checked into the hostel and dropped my stuff, then decided to venture out into the city to visit the Mausoleum of Tito, which was not too far by bus from the center of town.  I wandered over towards the bus stop, and began to see cracks of blue in the grey skies.  I prayed it would burn through.

I got to the bus stop and found the right bus.  I had figured I would buy the ticket on the bus, but they don't sell bus tickets on the bus-- you have to have a card.  But I was already on, so I rolled with it.  My Serbian friends had mentioned that the ticket checkers were not out over the Easter weekend, but I still felt a little skittish.  Especially because I swore I heard a walky-talkie on the bus.

But it was fine, and I got off at the stop between Old and New Belgrade.  I got my tickets for the Tito Mausoleum and Museum of Yugoslav History.  As I was wandering through the gardens, the sun was starting to peek out.

At the Museum of Yugoslav History, there were all sorts of objects from the different regions that comprised Yugoslavia.  Costumes and dresses from Montenegro, Croatia.  Bosnian swords and Slovenian ornamental flasks. It was interesting, but it was a little strange because there were also a number of gifts to Yugoslavia from different countries so it was a little discordant.  

As I exited the museum the sun was finally out, and I caught its rays.  I can't begin to express my joy when the warming light hit my face after days in the grey.  I sat outside Tito's final resting place, soaking in the light. 

I visited Tito's Mausoleum, which had pictures of Tito connecting with other world leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement.  It also had an interesting collection of intricate ornamental batons from across Yugoslavia.  On Tito's birthday, youth would run relays and pass these ornamental batons on from their villages to reach the dear leader.

I saw Tito's marble coffin slab--thankfully he was not pickled like Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho.

I left the grounds and found a kiosk where I could purchase a bus pass to get back.  I got a loaded pass just as the bus pulled up and I jumped on it.

I headed back into the city, stopping for lunch at a Serbian fast food joint for pljeskivica, a giant Balkan hamburger, which came with tomatoes, onions and cucumbers and slathered with curry ketchup and fries covered with tartar sauce (different than the American version).  Since it was Passover, I had to eat it without bread.  But the fastfood place had no forks or knives.  So they cut the burger up into little pieces and I ate the meal with a toothpick.

After lunch, I wandered over to the Nikola Tesla Museum, which had demonstrations of the genius' inventions.  I wandered through some of his letters to famous friends and his book collections.  I also saw the urn holding the ashes of Mr. Tesla.  

After, I headed over to the Historical Museum of Serbia. which had some interesting exhibits on the Serb war heroes killed in the Communist take-over of the country, and the work of the OZNA (Yugoslav KGB). It gave a very interesting history of the forced collectivizatios, which the Yugoslav peasants and farmers fought bitterly.  There was also something that made me shudder.  It was something detailing the torture used by the Communists, including detailing a form of torture now known as waterboarding.  This technique apparently dates back to the Spanish Inquisition.  Nice work Bushies, you used the same techniques as Torquemada's goons.

I returned later to meet my Belgrade b-boy friends in their breakdance practice spot in the Belgrade Metro.  After their practice session, with its requisite flips and dips, we hung out in the park pre-gaming and then went dancing until the wee hours of the morn in a smoky club.

I woke up late on Easter Sunday to a beautiful sunny day.  I wandered through the city down to the immense Saint Sava Basilica to see some of the Easter services.  From there, I meandered back to St. Mark's Cathedral and back into the city center.

In the sun, the city had changed completely.  People were out strolling through the pedestrian boulevard, and sipping coffee in street cafes.

I made my way to the sun-drenched fort where families were out meandering about.  

Later in the evening, I met my friend Andejlko at his family house for an Easter feast that his mother had prepared.  I drank homemade apple rakije (brandy) and ate delicious Russian salad (potatoes, peas, eggs and chicken salami) and a wonderful mushroom stew.  There was a delicious dish of ground beef rolled up with hard-boiled eggs in the middle.  It was all delicious.  And mothers of the world are all the same.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Geography Double Dribble

I was hanging with my Belgrade b-boy friends in the park, drinking vinjak (wine brandy) as we pre-gamed for a night out at the clubs.

Rollin' with the b-boys of Belgrade. Belgrade has one of the best club scenes in Europe. Who knew? I do now.

We were chatting for a while, and they said to me: you are the first American we have met who actually knows history and geography.  Most Americans usually are something like the examples when they are asked to place European countries on the map.

I just laughed, and said I get that a lot.

Then I threw it back at them, and asked how well they know American geography.  Could you find Iowa or Ohio on a map?  They laughed, and said no.  Just Texas and California, and maybe New York.

Then they said something very interesting: but we know the cities very well.  We know Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Orlando.  We know all this from the NBA.  Yep, American geography through basketball.  God bless Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Shaq for teaching the rest of the world American civic geography.

The Sarajevo Seder; So long Sarajevo; Belgrade Blues

Working backwards.  Going to rewind to Momday and recount from there.

Monday night began the start of Passover.  I had reached out to a friend David- a French Jew who had spent time in the Balkans to connect me with any Jewish friends he might have to find a seder for Passover.  Thanks to Facebook and 6 degrees of Jewish geography, he was able to connect me with some Jews in Sarajevo and they told me where to go to find a Passover seder.  It was just two blocks away at the Ashkenazi Synagogue on the river bank near my hotel. I was also connected secondarily by the Embassy to a Sarajevan Jew named Raheli who worked at the Embassy and also offered me a space at the ceremony.

I made my way to the synagogue at the required time, and was kinda shocked to see people smoking in the lobby of the synagogue.  People smoke everywhere in Bosnia, why should the lobby of the shul be any different.  Lost in smoke and foreign languages, I met an American Jew from Philly named David who was teaching in Budapest, and a Croatian-Bosnian Jew named Dino who was an interesting fellow.  We followed the crowds upstairs to the actual sanctuary, where thankfully no one was smoking.  The sanctuary was gorgeous in a Moorish style.  There were approximately 60 people in the synagogue for the Passover service.  And it seemed equally as many cameramen.  There were a number of video and still cameras that were taping the service.  And they were paparazzis for it.  I was a little annoyed at the constant shutterbuging.   But it was fine.

After the service, we reconvened downstairs in the hall to have the seder itself.  There was a little confusion over who had actually invited me, since I hadn't found the person who actually invited me.  All the other younger congregants were sitting in the middle of the room but the table was full, meanwhile the rest of the tables in the room had families occupying all the spaces.  A woman said that we really should have contacted the synagogue, and I replied that I had been invited by two people.  I mentioned the first name, and she didn't know who it was.  So I gave the second name, and it was her.  She got much friendlier from there.

David, Dino and I were sat together at a small table and the seder began.  It was a fascinating mix of Bosnian and Hebrew.  Suddenly, I heard something that sounded like Spanish.  LADINO!  This was the ancient Judeo-Spanish of the Jews of Andalucia who fled the Inquisition.  It was like a Spanish-Yiddish.  The cool thing was I could understand bits and pieces of it.

Over the seder meal that was familiar, and with some foreign dishes like a fried matza fritter in honey syrup (yum!), I chatted with Dino about what it was like growing up Jewish in Croatia and Bosnia.

Later Rahela joined us, and gave us a fascinating perspective on the siege of Sarajevo.  She said that her father was a Holocaust survivor, and immediately before things really got bad he knew what was coming. He sensed it, and got out.   They didn't believe him, this was Europe.  But sure enough, the troubles came.

Rahela braved through it, but ultimately left for Israel to live with her family for a few years.  That was both good but difficult as it is never easy to change your life at a later age.  She was working on microprocessors, and the level of Hebrew she needed to continue her work was just not attainable.  Also, life in Israel tougher than life in Sarajevo.  In Sarajevo, she owned 2 apartments; in Israel, she scraped to get by.  Eventually, when things in Sarajevo returned to normalcy post-Dayton, she and her family returned to Bosnia.

We were invited by the younger set of Sarajevo's Jews, who had a clubhouse next door, and Rahela exhorted us on.  We went to the top of the next door building, where about 10 Sarajaven Jews were hanging out, drinking wine and chatting. They were all approximately my age.  I finally got to meet the fellow who had invited me; he had been looking unsuccesfully for the Che Hemingway in my Facebook profile picture.  I met an interesting girl named Lea, who was from Sarajevo, but had been living in Spain.  She was trying to get citizenship in Spain, where she had lived during the troubles.

On Tuesday morning it snowed.  Yes, middle of April and it was snowing.  Despite being woefully unprepared for such weather, I took it in stride because the city looked beautiful dusted in white.  I visted the Bosnian History Museum, which was utterly gripping.  There was an exhibition on the destruction and rebuilding of Sarajevo.  A photographer had snapped pics of the city destroyed, then came back 20 years later to get pictures of the exact same spot rebuilt.  The pictures were exhibited side-by-side, it was quite riveting.

There was also a very good exhibition on the siege of Sarajevo through pictures, press clippings and things of life from the times like the make-shift stoves people used, or the homemade weapons that were fashioned.  All I could do was sigh.

I found a picture of Waiting for Godot by candle light and I got chills.  There was also an incredible poster of the famous cellist of Sarajevo ositting in ruins with his hand over his eyes.   

There was also a very good exhibition on the War Crimes Tribunal and its work prosecuting those who devastated the region.

On Tuesday afternoon, my boss Mark was supposed to arrive but his flight got delayed getting to London and he missed his connectors to Vienna and Sarajevo, and would not get in until later tonight.  I rolled with it, and just took on the meetings with Lejla the CAS of Embassy.

We met with two leaders of hip hop dance crews in Sarajevo, who were acting in the hip hop musical The Change.  Unfortunately, the show was opening just after I left.  But Lejla and I had a good meeting with the two dance leaders to set up future programs.

After, Lejla and I met with the director of the Juventa Youth Festival, a theater and performing arts festival for youth from across the former Yugoslav countries.  It was going to be held in Sarajevo during our program, and we made arrangements to do some overlapping work shops and programs.  I had one more meeting at a ballet school, and we made plans to do both a hip hop dance for the ballet students, and also plans to try to include a couple of ballet students in our overall program and performance as a means to have some fun letting ballet and breakdance interact.

For dinner, I grabbed some traditional Bosnian food, which was delicious.  Peppers stuffed with meat and stewed lamb.  Bosnian food is like Balkan comfort food.

Mark finally arrived from his delay, and I took him out around the city and over to a funky bar I had found called Zlatana Ribica.  The place is filled with interesting kitsch and old hanging lamps.  I introduced him to pear brandy, and we ate nuts out of a shell dish.

On Tuesday, we returned to the theater hosting the show The Change.  We met with the producers, and also the director of the theater.  The theater, we learned, was called "The Sarajevo War Theater."  It opened just days after the siege of Sarajevo started, and remained open during the siege.  The director Nihad spoke of the necessity of theater and culture as a way to remain alive during times of war.  He spoke of art and culture as keepers of memory, and a way to reconstruct emotional space.

He also spoke of a project that the Sarajevo War Theater did with a Sarajevo resident who survived both the Holocaust and also the Siege.  The survivor remarked:

You can't learn how to forget, but you can learn how to forgive.

Nihad spoke of building a space to give a way to also learn how to remember through arts and culture as a way to understand what befell the community.

I spoke of a Hebrew term Ba'al Zichronot, someone who is both keeper and master of memories.

And we watched the theater troupe perform a few scenes from The Change, a hip hop musical focused on broaching conflict resolution through such arts.  It was fantastic.

From there, I had to depart to Belgrade.  Since Mark had come later than I did to Sarajevo, he wanted more time in the city and was flying the next morning in the wee hours.  So the Embassy car dropped he and Lejla off, then drove me to the small Sarajevo airport.

It took me exactly 10 minutes to check-in and get through security for my Air Serbia flight to Belgrade.  I killed time and leftover Bosnian Marks at the bar, drinking lozo (grape brandy).  The flight was delayed, but eventually we got on the tiny little plane and took off from the rainy city.

No sooner were we up that we were back down in Belgrade.  I landed in the airport named for Nikola Tesla in rainy Belgrade.  I was met at the airport by Marija, the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Assistant.  Marija and her family had left Serbia at the time of the war.  She was about 12 when she left Serbia, and spent the next decade or so growing up in California.  She returned some years later to Serbia, and started working with the Embassy in the cultural department.  We had a great chat about the Next Level program, and the Embassy's other work in Serbia as we drove through the afternoon traffic on the washed out day.

I wrote already of my dinner adventures in Skadarlijia.  The next morning Mark arrived around 7:30am from Sarajevo.  We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel, which included wonderful Serbian sheeps cheeses that went very well with matzah.

We met in the morning with Drew the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Officer.  He was probably around my age, originally hailing from Atlanta.  Nice fellow, and we were on the same page.  He spoke about the Embassy's more dynamic cultural outreach, especially to alternative communities within Serbia like the extreme sport community and skate community.  The Embassy has been doing some really innovative outreach in support extreme sports through public/private partnerships, and also working to build skate parks to give Belgrade's youth a space to be involved in more positive activities.

After we met with Serbian breakdancers Andjelko and Igor.  Andeljko had just organized a breakdance competition and showcase in Belgrade called Balkan Fury for breakdancers from across the Balkans.  We spoke about the role that breakdance had played in giving youth in the Balkans a positive outlet and ability to connect with their peers across the region.

Later, we met with a Serbian Prima Ballerina named Ashen Ataljanc, who runs a school for ballet and also contemporary dance styles including hip hop.  We also met her hip hop teacher named Milica, who had lived in Los Angeles.  We spoke about doing masterclass workshops to help her teachers teach hip hop dance better.

We had one last meeting with the editor of a dance magazine, and also a well-known dancer in the Belgrade community.  From this, our program took more of its shape.  Less the traditional tours that I am used to conducting, and more an academy for mcs, djs and dancers.  Once I changed my perceptions of how it would exist, I came to like the way it was shaping up.

Finally, we visited some of the spaces where we would work.  Some fun areas at a youth center near the center of the city.

We bade farewell to Marija with excitement for how the program was shaping up in Serbia.

Later, Mark and I went out for dinner at a kafana- an old style Serbian restaurant.  We sat on low stools and  to warm up from the incessent rain, we sipped quince brandy.  It was strong but smoothed out into warm.   For dinner we tried stuffed peppers and fried cheese.  I had a wonderful chicken and roasted pepper caserole.  For dessert, we tried the tufahije- the baked apple filled with crushed walnuts and topped with chantilly cream.  This one also had raspberry sauce drizzled on top.

Mark's pic
We met back up with Andeljko and headed down through town to a club called Peron to see a band called Barka Dilo, which did a type of music best described as French Gypsy Jazz Funk.  The band was quite cool, and the singer took on all the proper extravagent French airs.  Meanwhile, the club Peron, which means something like "platform" or "trainstation" is literally built next to train tracks.  So while Barka Dilo jammed on the accordion and trumpet, cargo trains passed on by the club.  And we drank honey brandy, which is impeccable.

Friday was Good Friday, and so we didn't have any meetings.  It was still rainy and grey, and I was struggling with the weather.  Mark and I worked in the morning, then wandered down the rainy main drag, and stopped outside a little shop selling tiny fried fish.  I stopped to get 100 grams worth of the tiny fried fishies, which were crispy and delicious.

We continued on to a giant main basilica with huge domes.  The massive church was finished on the outside but still under construction on the inside.  We watched worshippers come and go, crossing themselves in opposite fashion than the Catholics.

We continued our wanderings, and ended up in a beautiful stone church named St. Mathew's.  This one was completed, and it was gorgeous inside.  The smell of incense filled the air during the Good Friday prayers.  Parishioners stood in rows as chanting took place.  We just sat in the back, watching devotees come to kiss the icons and listening to the chanting and the chorus, whose voices swelled through the high ceilings of the church.

We continued down by the parliament and over to the old Ottoman fortress.  The day was greyed over and still soggy, but we wandered through the old compound.  Lost in the fog, the vista had an ominious quality to it.

We caught up again with Andelijko, and went to Rakija Bar to warm up over the brandy.  I had lozo, the grape brandy while Mark and Andelijko had the honey brandy.  We picked at a plate of Serbian feta cheeses and pickled vegetables that went perfectly with the rakija.  We had a quince rakija over a plate of figs, raisins, dried plums and apricots and walnuts drizzled in honey.

After, we caught the bus to a Belgrade metro station, where Andelijiko's friends practiced breakdancing. Down in the subterranean world of the Belgrade metro, I spent the evening watching b-boys and b-girls spin, break, pop and lock. Oh, and there were circus performers as well. They were from a sister circus of Cirque d'Soleil, and they were amazing.
Mark's pic

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


On a cold, rainy night in the cobble-stoned Skadarlija, I ducked into an old, candle-lit restaurant and found a troupe of Serbian mariachis plucking and crooning old tunes. Bienvenido a Belgrade. Viva Serbia!

I warmed up on vinjak (wine brandy) and čorba od pečuraka (Cream of Mushroom soup). I dined on delicious whole grilled trout; its skin crispy- its meat, white and flaky, along with a side of garlic spinach and potatoes. A glass of wine from Montenegro.

For dessert, I ate tufahije- a baked apple filled with crushed pistachios and chantilly cream. I sipped kajsijevača (apricot brandy), while I read Mr. Dickens' Oliver Twist under candle light.

The band played a gyspy version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and I slipped some dinar into the folds of the accordion. Like Frankie said, "Ја то урадио на свој начин"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I am so glad that I was born in Europe and not in America

I was sitting the other day in a small restaurant for dinner, when two girls sat next me.  They were Hungarian college students on Spring Break, and we got to chatting.

A pretty girl with long black hair and periwinkle blue eyes said something to me that really made me shake my head:
I am so glad that I was born in Europe and not in America
I would think that this is the first generation to ever express such sentiments.

All I could wonder in my head was:

What happened to us?

And sadly, it is an answer I think I know.

Bosnian chicken soup for the soul

To chase away a cold grey, snowy day, all that is required is a bowl of Begova čorba- delicious Bosnian cream of chicken soup with chunks of carrots and okra swimming in the thick broth. Along with a glass of šljivovica (plum brandy) to warm a cold body and spirit.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Show Must Go On

My time working in Sarajevo began in earnest today, and I met this morning with the U.S. Embassy's CAO Eric and Cultural Affairs Specialist Lejla (FSN, ie local hire).  In the afternoon, we went over to the National Theater to scope out the location.

As we entered the theater, Lejla was greeted with kisses and greetings from a number of people we passed.  Once inside, she explained that she used to be an actress and a producer of theater.  Then she told me a story I will never forget.

Lejla mentioned that during the siege of Sarajevo, she took the stage for two plays.  

The power had been cut in the city, so they were forced to act by candle light (This little light of mine...). 

Under illumination of incandescent candles, she took the stage to perform Waiting for Godot.

I stared at the gilded, ornate theater and tried to imagine the lights burning in the darkness and heard the echo:

If Godot comes, we will all be saved.

I shivered as the chills ran down the back of my neck.

The Hapsburg Vacuum

While Vladimir Vladmirovich declared that the collapse of the Soviet Untion was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, I think otherwise.  I would argue that it was the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that gets such honors.

I was walking through the Mezuj Sarajeva 1878-1918, chronicling the period of Austrian rule over Bosnia when such thoughts came to me- right when I was staring at the gun of Princip, and the pants he wore.

My rationale is this: the power vacuum that existed in Central Europe without a counterweight to Germany or the Soviet Union created the ability for both powers to come conquering through the region rather unchecked.  The absence of a counterbalancing central power in Central Europe paved the way for a century of strife.  Meanwhile, the absence of the benign gatekeeper to keep the squabling tribes of the region from fighting would come back to haunt the Balkans among other places.

Operation Vowel Storm

Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia

(originally appeared in The Onion, Number One In News)

Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients

Before an emergency joint session of Congress yesterday, President Clinton announced US plans to deploy over 75,000 vowels to the war-torn region of Bosnia. The deployment, the largest of its kind in American history, will provide the region with the critically needed letters A,E,I,O and U, and is hoped to render countless Bosnian names more pronounceable.

"For six years, we have stood by while names like Ygrjvslhv and Tzlynhr and Glrm have been horribly butchered by millions around the world," Clinton said. "Today, the United States must finally stand up and say 'Enough.' It is time the people of Bosnia finally had some vowels in their incomprehensible words. The US is proud to lead the crusade in this noble endeavour."

The deployment, dubbed Operation Vowel Storm by the State Department, is set for early next week, with the Adriatic port cities of Sjlbvdnzv and Grzny slated to be the first recipients. Two C-130 transport planes, each carrying over 500 24-count boxes of "E's," will fly from Andrews Air Force Base across the Atlantic and airdrop the letters over the cities.

Citizens of Grzny and Sjlbvdnzv eagerly await the arrival of the vowels. "My God, I do not think we can last another day," Trszg Grzdnjkln, 44, said. "I have six children and none of them has a name that is understandable to me or to anyone else. Mr. Clinton, please send my poor, wretched family just one 'E.' Please."

Said Sjlbvdnzv resident Grg Hmphrs, 67: "With just a few key letters, I could be George Humphries. This is my dream."

The airdrop represents the largest deployment of any letter to a foreign country since 1984. During the summer of that year, the US shipped 92,000 consonants to Ethiopia, providing cities like Ouaouoaua, Eaoiiuae, and Aao with vital, life-giving supplies of L's, S's and T's.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Auschwitz and Palestine

A recent trip by Palestinian students to Auschwitz caused a bit of an uproar in Palestine.  I know the professor that took them, Professor Mohammad Dajani. I met him at Seeds of Peace years ago, and interviewed him for an interview I was never able to publish in the Jerusalem Post because of politics.  I have a lot I could say about all this but I won't.  I would rather sip my warm wine in Sarajevo, and be glad I don't deal with the Sandbox anymore.

Sarajevo pics up


There is a certain beauty in imperfection.  Like the authentic smiles of many of the Bosnian girls.  Not perfectly alligned by braces, the real shape of teeth in a smiling mouth has both a charm and exoticism that is hardly found in America.  And of course, such things become a fad in Japan and girls are paying for what comes naturally.

You are my witness

I woke up early, and wandered through the still slumbering city.  I sipped espresso and ate a potato borek in a quiet cafe, then meandered through back alleys and along the river as the city slowly awoke.  I sat out in the old town, sipping espresso as the warm sun gently kissed my face while I read the travails of Oliver Twist.  

On my way back through the city, I spied a sign for Galerija 11/07/95, an exhibition on the massacres of Srebrenica.  I had wanted to visit Srebrenica this trip, but timing proved difficult, so I will have to visit on my return.  For now, all I could do was visit the memorial gallery.

As the civil war in Yugoslavia raged, in April 1993 the U.N. declared Srebrenica in the Drina Valley in Bosnia to be the world's first "safe area" for the thousands of fleeing Muslim Bosniak refugees. Shortly there after a contingent of 400 blue-helmeted Dutch troops were sent as UN peacekeepers to Srebrenica to guard the refugees.

However, by 1995 things had deteriorated, and by June 1995 the Bosnian Serb Army ("The Chetniks") under General Ratko Mladic, began to roll into Srebrenica.  With the Bosnian Serb Army coming, the Bosniaks began to flee, or try to seek shelter at the Dutch base at Potocari.  Many of the Bosniak men and boys headed over the mountains to try to seek refuge in Tuzla in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The men, women, children and elderly who stayed behind tried to enter the Dutch base, but the Dutch peacekeepers would not allow more than 5,000 people in the compound.

On July 11, 1995, the Bosnian Serb army took the deserted city of Srebrenica.  On the movie, I watched an exuberant Mladic speak of avenging the Serb nation against the crimes of the Turks.

As the Bosnian Serb Army captured Srebrenica, it began to shell the mountains to kill those fleeing.

At the Dutch base in Potocari, the Dutch expelled the 5,000 refugees including the remaining 239 men and boys of military age on the base who would surely be killed.  The Dutch forces did scant little to protect the refugees under their charge, and nothing to stop the massacres going on around Srebrenica.  It is a stain that Holland still bares today, although like Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda they had little assistance or help from an indifferent world so it is hard to fully judge their actions.

Meanwhile, the Chetniks began to round up all the men and boys from ages 12 to 77 years old.   The Bosnian Serb Army started executing all captured men and boys, taking them into fields to be shot in the back or slitting their throats.

Over 8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in the days that followed, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

I watched on the movie women speak of their lost sons and husbands, their fears as their loved ones were taken away from them- never to be seen again.

The mass graves continue to be uncovered and excavated to help find all those who went missing.  I watched a somber Bill Clinton innaugurate in 2003 a memorial site in Srebrenica, and all I could think of was that someday it will be President Obama doing the same in Syria.

After the movie, I walked quietly through the gallery of photos.  Pictures of the mass graves, or of the remnants of possessions left behind of those massacred. A doll with its throat symbolically cut.

When I walked out of the gallery my eyes welled up at the words of Edmund Burke on the wall:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
I just shook my head, and thought of all the other places I have seen around the world that are just like Srebrenica. Bloomfontein. Auschwitz. LidiceThe Killing Fields in Cambodia. El Mozote in El Salvador.  Never again? It never fucking ends.

And I saw a picture that really made me tear up: a Bosnian Muslim woman in hijab and long robes staring at a picture of Anne Frank.

I got into the mirrored elevator and just over my head the words were printed:

You are my witness.

As I walked out of the gallery, I heard church bells echoing through the square.

There was a procession of worshippers carrying palms.

It was Palm Sunday.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vive La France

On the Precipice of Austria and Ottomania

I left DC and arrived to Dulles with the requisite 2 hours. I meandered through to the airline counter, then through an ungodly long line to get through security. One of the worst I have ever seen this side of fleeing Hurricane Rita. It was just for the pre-security check, but it snaked in rows like bilious intestines through the airport. Some fugheddaboutits in front of me said we should just cut the line. At a break of confusion I did just that. As I passed them on the other side of the queue, I remarked, “Don't talk about cutting the line; do it.” They just laughed. Fugheddabout.

I startled to nervously eye the clock, but thought I would be fine. I packed up everything in my pockets in my backpack just in case to streamline the process. I finally got through and hurried to the train to my departure gate. I got to the C gate, and bounded to it next to a tall Italian fellow also on my flight. Of course, the C1 gate was at the very very end of the terminal, and we just muttered and cursed as we hoofed our way to the gate. We got there in time, and the flight proceeded to be delayed 45 minutes once I got on board.

The flight itself was fine if lackluster. United cheaped out, and wanted to charge for drinks on an international flight. I took umbrage and called them out. The stewardess tried to give some excuse about post 9/11, and I rolled my eyes. WTF does 9/11 have to do with complimentary drinks on a flight that cost $2k. I fly a lot of international flights, and it is only the cheap American carriers that try to charge for drinks.

Since I had left at 6pm, and it was an 8 hour flight to Munich, I realized I was better served trying to stay awake the whole time and roll with the morning I would arrive to in Munich. I arrived to Munich some 8 hours later at 8 am on Friday in Germany. I left the inside of the terminal to take a shower in the gate. I had to change currency to bathe, and it cost me 15 euros, but it was well worth it if I was going to push on. I showered and returned to the gate to catch my last leg to Sarajevo.

I napped a bit on the flight, and chatted with the Indian-Anglo girl sitting next to me. She was an interesting one. A head-scarved Indian lass who had grown up in Malawi. One of the communities in the world that interests me most are the Indians of East Africa. She mentioned something medical, and I asked if she was in medical school. No, she was a doctor at 24. In the UK system, you can go straight through from undergrad.

I arrived to the compact Sarajevo airport and collected my things and some Bosnian marks. I caught a cab into the downtown and sped out through the city in a silver Mercedes. I turned up the driver's radio, and Bosnian folk music and techno alternately blared from the radio as I took in my return to Central Europe. We passed some pockmarked building that bore the scars of the Balkan wars that cleaved Yugoslavia, but much more of the city showed a newness of the reconstruction that had followed. The cabdriver and I had little common language but bonded over pointing out hot girls we passed as we whistled to ourselves. Some things are universal.

I found my way to the Hostel Tito and checked in. I thanked the hostel clerk in Bosnian and she laughed.

“Are you learning Bosnian?” she asked.

“I'm trying,” I smiled.

“Don't bother, it is too hard,” she replied.

I splurged a little and got myself a private room. I figured that would serve me better for the inevitable jetlag crash than being in a shared dorm. The room cost me 30 Bosnian marks (km) or 15 euros, the same price as my shower in Munich.

I dropped my stuff, freshened up and went out wandering in Sarajevo. Immediately I fell in love. I wandered my way into the old town, the old Turkish section with round dome mosques and markets. The place is everything you would expect from a city on the precipice of the Ottoman and Hapsburg lands. It feels both Central European and Turkish at the same time; I alternate between Bratislava and Istanbul with every passing glance. Beautiful dark-haired Slavic girls with bangs; blond Slavonic long hair tied back in singular braids; gorgeous Bosniak Muslim girls with loose, elegant headscarves of different hues and patterns delicately covering the contours of pale faces with blue and green eyes peering out.

The Bosniaks in beauty remind me of the Kurds, and I mean that in a supreme compliment to both.

I stopped for lunch at a cafe for some borek. Borek is a dish of seasoned ground beef and onions wrapped in filo dough with the top and bottom baked crispy while the sides still soft.

I wandered through the markets and down to the immaculate City Hall that the Austro-Hungarians built in Moorish style. This was Franz Ferdinand's last stop before he and his wife headed down their ill-fated route. I followed that route down the river past the old stone bridges that connected the banks.

I crossed the Latin Bridge and stopped at the point where Princip found his mark. I just stared at the spot and sadly shook my head at what could have been.

I wandered back through the markets, trying to find a scarf. Unfortunately, all I can find are Sarejevo football clubs that I fear would get me stabbed in Belgrade. Interestingly, all over there are Brazilian flags and Brazil-Bosnia scarves. Bosnia is in the World Cup, and Brazil's green and yellow banner is quite common. Of course, this has me wondering what kind of public diplomacy Brazil is doing to countries in the World Cup. This is such an incredible departure point for public diplomacy, and Brazil could have a field day doing cultural diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy in countries that will play in the World Cup. I'm sure Bosnia would absolutely love Brazilian rodizio- the skewers of grilled meats, and enjoy dancing to the samba beat. I feel an op-ed coming on...

I sat out in the market drinking turkish coffee to stave off the jetlag, and hopped on a free 1.5 hour tour at 4:30pm. Our guide Adnan toured us through the old Ottoman quarter as he explained how the Ottomans had built the first real incarnation of the city. We passed through mosques, markets and covered bazaars. I sipped from a fountain whose waters held legend that anyone who drinks from them will surely return; I shall.
On the tour, we learned of how Sarajevo was called the “Jerusalem of Europe” for all its different faiths and skyline of minarets, cupolas and church spires. We stopped at the old Sephardic Synagogue, and learned about Sarajevo's role as haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to find refuge in Ottoman lands.

We walked down the main drag, and stopped at the meeting point of the city. One one side stood the Ottoman district; on the other it was Austrian. We crossed into Central European pastels and rococo flair as we visited a Croat Catholic church holding mass in Croatian and Latin. And then on to the Serbian Orthodox church with its iconography.

We spoke of the siege of the city. I asked Adnan what he remembered from the time. He was only 6 then, but he remembered the trials of finding water and the disappearance of his uncle. Parts of the city still bear the pockmarks of those days.

Today Bosnia is quiet and holding together in complexity. There are literally 3 presidents, one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak. There are 14 governments in charge from federal to different cantons. It is quite complex and quiet here, but not always as there was protests recently against the corruption taking place.

The tour ended at the eternal flame marker for those who perished in the fight to liberate Yugoslavia during WWII.

The thing that I can't help wondering about is what Yugoslavia would be like today if it hadn't crumbled. Slightly more open and prosperous during the Cold War, it was in better economic shape at the fall of the Berlin Wall than its neighbors. A Yugoslavia whole would likely be in the European Union today, on par with Poland or the Czech Republic or the Baltic states. Yet the petty wars arrested the development of all parties and set it back for years.
Did Yugoslavia need to break? Perhaps not, if better leadership inside, and outside the country, had worked to keep it whole. There are many parties who bear responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia, and the bloodshed that followed. If Slovenia and Croatia hadn't been allowed to so quickly secede and their departures recognized by Germany among others, perhaps a whole Yugoslavia could have been saved. 

But those inside the country hunkered down on petty divisions, and those outside such as the U.S. bought into the speciousness of the “ancient hatred thesis” i.e. that these tribes had always been fighting and it wasn't worth getting involved.  So the situation was left to fester (But I can't blame the Clinton administration too much while Syria continues to burn). My counterfactual conjecture matters not. The best I can hope for is that these lands will all once again be united in the European Union, but even that is years away.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sarejevo, Sarejevo

Drinking mulled wine- warm red wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves and orange in a smoky old Sarajevo pub. Reading Dickens' "Oliver Twist" with jazz blaring through the joint and a smattering of languages bouncing off the wall. I don't get much happier than this.
I moved on to a smoky old restaurant where I sat on the top floor with old Bosnian folk music blaring. I ate ćevapčići (small lil spiced sausages) in a lepinja, a giant Bosnian pita bread with a side of sliced onions and ajvar- red pepper and eggplant spread, while I chatted with Amer and Hassan.
"Is Brooklyn dangerous?" asked Amer as he bought me a large bottle of Sarajevsko beer.
"Is Sarajevo dangerous?" I replied.
50 Cent came on, and we bobbed our heads. It's your birthday. Not mine, but I will accept it.
It did not take me long to love Sarajevo- sitting precariously on old Ottomania and Austro-Hungaria.


Arrived safely to Sarajevo and nicely ensconced in Hostel Tito (!). The price of my single room (15 euros) is the same price as the shower I took at the Munich airport.

The Last of the Yugoslavs

A poignant NPR piece on the Last of the Yugoslavs, worth a listen.

Of Interest

Chasing Balkan Ghosts

Off to Sarajevo, to warn the Duke before the Black Hand Strikes!

And to chase down some Balkan ghosts.

The ghosts of Apis, the man who helped tear Serbia apart with his Game of Thrones scheming and pushed Serb irredentism through The Black Hand that would sleepwalk Europe in the July Crisis and Great War.

The ghosts of Tito, who held Yugoslavia together.

The ghosts of Milosevic and Franjo Tudman, who would tear the country apart.

The ghosts of Miladic and Kardzic, the Butchers of Bosnia who turned Srebrenica into a killing field and gave Europe its worst genocide in generations.  I plan to go pay my respects to Bosnia's dead.

The ghosts of Richard Holbrooke, who with his able and insufferable ways helped end the Balkan wars.

In short, I am excited.  I have ten days of both adventure and work (pre-planning for hip hop diplomacy with the US Embassies in Bosnia and Serbia) to explore some Balkan terrain both unknown to me and seared in my memory as a teen starting to pay attention to the ways of the world.

As always, journey on!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Green Heel

Thanks conservative judges on Supreme Court, the exact thing the America democratic process needs is more private money to shape elections.