Saturday, April 12, 2014

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.

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