Thursday, April 17, 2008

Salt City

Some places in Bosnia and Herzegovina get a bad rap. And, to be honest, i am sometimes guilty of supporting those unfair judgements. I just spent the last two days in Tuzla. As a leftie green, the obnoxious coal plants and heavy industry that pollute a large portion of northeast Bosnia pain my soul. The relics of Tito's industrial revolution are much uglier than his inspirational anti fascist revolution.

It's true, the air quality in Tuzla isn't one to be desired. But peeling back some of ugly layers one finds quite a few fascinating things about this city of salt.

Tuzla was once a lagoon in the massive Pannonian Sea. When tectonics shifts in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania caused a massive fault, the water retreated...creating massive underground salt lakes. For this reason alone Tuzla has been a constant settlement since Neolithic times. Extracting salt has been a traditional for literally thousands of years.

That almost caused a doom day for Tuzla. Tuzla was famous in the former Yugoslavia for its salt. Everybody used Tuzlanski Sol. They flushed, pumped and extracted enough of it, though, to see the city literally start to sink into these underground lake systems. Tuzla has, by default, become the Pisa of Bosnia.

Leaning buildings and all, the old town of Tuzla has an interesting charm. I won't go on about Mesa Selimovic and the handful of magnificent artists that have come from Tuzla. What struck me most about the place was the people. Tuzlaci are pretty fucking cool. It's the one city in my beloved adopted home that still resonates of brotherhood and unity. It is, perhaps, the last remaining truly multi-culti city in Bosnia.

That last statement may ruffle a few feathers in Sarajevo...but although i love sarajevo and it certainly has a remarkable soul, it is not the melting pot it once was. And, sadly, many outsiders have resettled here and seem to have an obsessive need to mark their newfound territory like wild cats spraying a warning to others to keep a safe instance....or else!

It's true, though, that amongst my raja are an even number of orthodox, muslims, catholics. But most of them would consider themselves an endangered species. By that, I mean first and foremost they are Bosnians, which, to my utter disbelief, is not permitted in this country. What a farce. In a country named Bosnia and Herzegovina it is a legal impossibility to call yourself a Bosnian or a Herzegovinian. That is absurd. That is Bosnia.

But let's get back to Tuzla. I had a drink with Jasmin Imamovic, Tuzla's mayor. Regardless of one's political orientations, i always find it refreshing to hear a Bosnian politician talk about ALL his or her constituents with the same affection.

I went two days without hearing a nationalist comment. I went two days without thinking about who was who or what was what. It simply didn't come up. Not that it's a regular topic amongst my friends in Sarajevo, quite the opposite really. But i feel that at times it is hard to escape it here. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Tuzla has maintained quite a mixed population. "Others" number 19%. Others meaning, i assume, the forbidden title of being simply Bosnian. Mixed marriages or otherwise. 28% are Orthodox, around 18% Catholic and the remaining 35 Muslims.

Nobody brought it up though. One's nationality seems highly irrelevant in Tuzla. I read it in a strategy document that i picked up at the municipality.

In many ways i felt at home because of that. Minus the coal plants and DITA factory, Tuzla would be a pretty groovy place to be. I promised myself i would visit more often. And i invite you to do the same.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Protest...Or Not?

I have been asked several times now why I haven't been to the ritual Saturday protests. It's a fair enough question so I'll try to give you a fair answer. The thing is, I'm really not entirely sure why.

I have been a 'protester' since I was 18. My first one was a sit-in at the capital building in Tallahassee, Florida when i was a first year student as Florida State University. The state planned on raising tuition for in-state students, which were already painfully high. So we took to the streets and after some provocative rhetoric from the then governor Lawton Chiles, hundreds of us walked into the state capital building, sat down, and occupied the building for a few days. It was exciting. It has a sense of purpose. And better yet, they didn't raise the tuition for in-state students.

Since then, I have participated in protests around the world. I have marched at the World Social Forum in Brasil where 150,000 of us protested the World Economic Forum - where the world's wealthiest gather to discuss how to alleviate the poverty in the global south - and the negative effects of economic globalisation.

In Edinburgh there were 300,000 of us marching against the G8 meetings. It was so good we took two laps around the city. The next day we held an alternative forum to talk about OUR solutions and ideas.

In Athens and London we protested the invasion and occupation of Iraq at the European Social Forum in the tens of thousands.

Against the war in Yugoslavia i marched in 1992. It was the spark that led me here.

I have been consistently disappointed by the lack of resistance and protest here. Now that it has finally been born - I have this sense of displacement. Of energy I think. I don't think one should protest just for the sake of it. At least for me, I have to FEEL it. Be moved by it. Driven to action.

Perhaps as I get older I tend to be a bit more analytical. I have asked myself time and time again why are we really protesting - and will we get the desired effects if our 'wishes' are granted. The answer in my head comes up, well, blank.

I wonder if Samir Silajdzic and Semiha Borovac are the real problem, or just a small part of it. I wonder why we don't protest for our grandparents, who built this country, and the lousy 150 KM a month they get. I wonder why Brankovic or Silajdzic Senior doesn't bother us more than what i consider to be tiny fish a big pond. Is it an excuse? Maybe. And perhaps not a very good one.

I think a part of me doesn't believe that we are willing or ready to go 'all the way.' Are we ready to boycott, sacrifice our self interest, and stand in solidarity with each other? Something tells me we are not.

I am not of the school that protests or marches have to be well organized and or even have a head and a tail. I believe in spontaneous and organic peaceful resistance and civil disobedience.

If i peel back a few emotional layers I think i get a few more answers too. I remember when the Americans invaded Iraq. I was angry. And then our apathy made me even angrier. Who knows the horrors of war better than us in Sarajevo. No one took to the streets. No one seemed to care. I was upset.

I was at the European Social Forum in Athens with the first ever Bosnian delegation to attend an ESF. Although the Balkan left tend to be a bit more militant for my liking, it was a nice gathering of people. The ESF usually ends with a massive, but peaceful, protest. Amongst us 'lefties' are always a small band of anarchists - many of whom represent the militant left. They traditional smash McDonalds windows or a multi-national bank or two. Their numbers are usually quite minute - but they always make the 7 o'clock news. The Greek police chased them down this day, and began to teargas them. The brave militant anarchists, as always, decided to hide amongst the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. The police continued to teargas us. Women, children, grandparents. It was aweful. We pleaded with them to stop. Italian peace knicks started screaming 'Fascisti!' at the anarchists. Boris Siber and I watched all this expire. Then an anarchist, the one opposed to police oppression and state sponsored violence, took the rock intended for the riot police and launched it at the head of an old Italian man. He was two metres away. He fell to the ground. His brain oozed onto the pavement. The left had attacked the left.

I left disgusted and really pissed off. What the fuck was that all about!?!?! It made me rethink a lot of things. And still, much of it is not sorted out in my heart and head.

I have been very active in environmental issues, and have been quite vocal too about certain problems and the people creating those problems. I felt as if a movement was starting and we would start fighting fire with fire. I was excited...and proud. When the fire got hot - i found myself in court and being threatened... and my fellow activists were no where to be found. No one called. I had no support during the months of my trial where i was being sued for slander after daring to speak the truth. Not even pat on the back for support. The line went silent. The movement went dry. I felt bitter and betrayed. Not because i was in court or being sued or threatened. But because i believed that we were in this because of the deep principles we believe in and that sacrifice is often needed to achieve our goals. I was prepared - and still am - to pay that price. I found it utterly discouraging to learn that my mates did not.

Maybe somewhere in my sub conscience i now balk. But the people on the streets are my friends. Ones that i have a deep respect for and, in principle, totally agree with.

I do feel that we, the 'left' have not yet offered a viable alternative to anything. We need to be just as tenacious, organized and have vision like the ones we oppose do. We need to get on the ball and quick. Part of this, of course, is taking to the streets. But is that enough? And are we doing the other things required to bring about true change? There are no Obama's on the horizon here...I am anxious to see who will be the one. Is it Bojan Bajic? Danis Tanovic? Reuf Bajrovic? Adi Arapovic?

So why am i not on the streets Saturday afternoons? Ne znam. But believe me, I think about it a lot. Maybe I'm just waiting for that feeling. I'm not making excuses - i really don't have one to make.

peace my friends

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cities of the Imagination

I, like many of us, have a considerable amount on my plate these days. It's turning out to be a busy year. But I'm starting to feel a bit of crunchtime. Let me tell why. I have been known to be one of the greatest procrastinators on earth. This unfortunate flaw has, however, trained me to be an impressive 'last-minuter.' Well over a year ago the editor of Signal Publishing from Oxford contacted me. We met in London several months later. The proposal he put on the table was one of the most interesting and challenging ones of my short writing career (if i can call it as such).

Signal Publishing is a brother of Hurst Publishing based out of the UK. They have produced an incredible series of fascinating cultural and historical episodes of people and places worldwide. Signal's idea was a marvelous one. The series is called "Cities of the Imagination - A Cultural and Literary Companion to" this case - SARAJEVO! They have done Milano, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Rio, Hong Kong, Sydney and dozens of worlds greatest cities.

I was tickled pink that they wanted to do Sarajevo. I was honoured that they asked me to do it for my newfound hometown. Then reality set in.

This is a very real book. And one that HAS to be done right. It's not a tourist guide book. It's not a tiny and vague depiction for an improv publisher. This is the big league. One of their main target market is Ivy League schools in the US - Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown. Students and professors alike, through this series, are supposed to get a detailed, accurate and intimate experience of the city they are studying.

Perhaps this has intimidated me a tad. I think about the book constantly. Its contents. Different angles. Untold stories. The heart and soul of this town. I have written volumes in my head and a mere few chapters have evolved onto my screen via the same keyboard i am writing to you all from.

So now my deadline is approaching. This year is the year. I have to bring all these random thoughts together in a more cohesive manner.

The task at hand is not to write yet another historical depiction of Sarajevo. I do not want to talk about Ottoman occupation but rather the wonderful cultural influences and customs of the Ottomans. The Austrian annexation of BiH is often only seen through a historical or political perspective. We so rarely look at it as the Europeanization of Sarajevo. Tito's regime is all to often weighed by strong arguments from both sides whether he was a true dictator or magician in holding Yugoslavia together. But so few speak of the socialist cultural revolution that took place and the great artists and movements that this grassroots revolution created.

I certainly don't want to talk about Markala, the Vance-Owen plan, or Mitterand's visit to Sarajevo. I want to show the world how Oslobodenje printed the news every day of the modern worlds longest siege. How the Sarajevo Film Festival was born in 1994, the war theatre, the Miss Sarajevo contest....and how all these things shaped the post war cultural rennaissance. I need to show how these events, directly related to human experiences and not political ones, created the films of Danis Tanovic and Jasmila Zbanic and why the Sarajevo Film Festival has become as popular as it has. Where does Aleskander Hemon find his true inspiration...what makes Faruk Sehic and why did Namik Kabil come back from driving a taxi in LA to create the impeccable films and documentaries that he has.

So my message to you my dear, as citizens of this great city, despite all the stupid shit that goes on here, we have a serious task at hand. I kindly ask you to consider your comments carefully. I would love your help. Tell me your ideas. It's your city too. What we're lookin' for is nothing ordinary....quite the opposite actually. I want to tell stories of the water fountains, of the zanatlija, of tucano kahva, how we hid the Haggadah from the Nazi's, of the Ilegalci, of our forgotten poets, of Mak Dizdar writing Kameni Spavac in Male Daire, of Teta serving food to the poor on Bistrik....about what makes the heart of this city beat.

For those of you who would care to share....i welcome your ideas and thoughts. I won't necessarily comment on many of your suggestions as I will try simply to process them and see where, if at all, these things can fit into my semi coherent concept.

This could be fun. And let's keep in that way. Remember the title of the series, Cities of the Imagination. No politics. Cultural and Literature. And also beware that there is a limited space, so let's focus our ideas on the true best of the best. I know there is enough to write about to keep me in the 1,000 page range - but thank goodness, I don't have to produce that much!!

I patiently await your calls. peace my friends....and....vozdra!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Malo Morgen

Yesterday the entire political structure of the European Union agreed to a binding 'third industrial revolution' to reduce dangerous greenhouse emissions. The aim is to cut them by 20% by the year 2020.

Today in Bosnia and Herzegovina, our government - the same ones that claim to be dedicated to European Union integration - will begin plans to construct many coal burning plants and dozens of hydro electric dams. Henceforth, drastically increasing CO2 emissions.

European integration? Values? Principles? Vision? Alternative energy sources? Science? Reason? Malo morgen.

The leaders of Europe are convinced and concerned enough that climate change will bring about food and energy shortages, security issues - that they are voluntarily taking the lead in addressing the problem.

The political elite here should just hand our shovels to us. After all, we are just digging our own graves. Bravo Heco, Silajdzic, Brankovic, Dodik, Bicakcic, Orucevic, and company. Thanks for paving the way for disaster. We were getting bored anyway without the bombs and bullets flying.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

There's no place like home

I have some friends from the UK visiting Bosnia this week. They came 3 years ago as tourists and have been coming back every year since. This time they are here to look for land. They are ready to sell their homes in England and move to Bosnia. Let me tell you why.

We all sometimes give this place a hard time. And sometimes, well, it deserves it. However, i realized (again) today just how much magic this place really holds. Listen. These folks from Norfolk, a city just to the northeast of London near the English coast, want to pack up their lives and come to here. Sounds crazy, I know. But there is something to it.

We chatted today about many things. Amongst the unavoidable topics of discussion with us ferners is the mysterious pull Bosnia and Herzegovina, and particularly Sarajevo, has on many of us. Lots a reasons always come up. But the bottom line is that Sarajevo, and indeed most of BiH, is a place that can quickly and easy feel like home. Not home because things are just like the way it is wherever we have come from, but home because their is an ease, a comfort, a strange but powerful feeling that one is safe here.

Now I know after the death of Denis (and not to mention the brutal war where we slaughtered each other) that may sound strange. But take a look from our perspective.

I lived in Nahorevo for almost five years. For you Sarajevans who don't know where that is (and there are many...shame on you :) ) Nahorevo is a tiny village about 6 kilometres to the north of pionirska dolina tucked in a tight valley just below Bukovik Mountain. It's a fabulous place. And one that I am grateful to have called home for so long. I often rode the bus to town. So did 6 year old first graders.

Their parents had no concerns allowing 6 year olds to take public transport to town and to walk to school, unattended, on their own. They were never in danger, really.

On one of my trips back to the United States I was in Toys-r-Us looking for a present for a friends kid. It was just after the war in Bosnia and most of my thoughts and actions were as if i was there. There was a little girl looking at a toy out of her reach. I, as any good Bosnian would do, naturally stepped over and handed her the out-of-reach toy she was eyeing. I also began to speak to her...that too, seemed perfectly normal - to address a person standing next to you.

Several seconds later her terrified mother lunged towards her. She grabbed her little girl and whisked her away from me. Security guards followed me the entire time i was in the shop. I left the shop feeling like a child molester. I was shocked. Then sad. And later angry. This is what has happened to us in the west. We can't even talk to or help our community's children.

My friends have two small children. Both of them attract attention here like bees onto honey. People smile, grab, hug, laugh, squeeze, play, tickle and pamper these kids to death. My friends can't believe it. We have such a strong love and compassion for children here...and a generous openness towards children that is a rare gift in the western world.

And for foreigners, a place where you feel your children are safe is a place that feels like home.
We also chatted about how the word kidnapping doesn't even exist in the Bosnian language. We chuckled at the mahala mentality of many....because it reminded us that despite its occasional annoyance, our mahala's actually serve as a checks and balance system. Although social pressures can sometimes hinder individualism, it is these same social pressures that somehow creates a value system that is geared towards community rather than authority. These social 'norms' forces us take responsibility not just for ourselves but for our children, family, and honour.

This may sound like hogwash to some...but despite the many liberties found in the western world, we have lost one precious thing because of it - close knit communities that both protect us but at the same time gave us obligations towards that same social network. The western world is on its choice. And that may spell the death of a nation.

When we lose those bonds we also lose some of the intangible boundaries that define the rules of the game naturally laid out by ones group. I hope we don't lose that here.

Sarajevo is a home away from home. And for many of us is becoming a safe haven from some of the evils that are tormenting us from the so-called west.

Does that sounds really fucking weird?


Thursday, March 6, 2008

CNN breaking (and slanted) news

This isn't a blog about this side or the other. It's not about occident and orient. Not about Jew and Muslim. It's simply about right and wrong. And quite honestly, i just don't get it sometimes.

The last month has seen over 120 Palestinians die. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is as bad as its been since 1967. This should move us. But it doesn't.

A few hours ago a Palestinian gunman penetrated a Jewish seminary in the West Bank and killed at least 7 people. Both horrible. Both wrong.

I am truly amazed on how 'we' in the west can be so one-sided. The death of a Palestinian child is almost the 'norm' and it may get mentioned in the news, perhaps a little more than the football match between Arsenal and Man United.

I watch CNN quite often. Not because I like it but because it offers me perspective. Just as AlJazeera or Euronews does. The flashing yellow BREAKING NEWS signs have been lighting up our living rooms for hours. They will continue to do so for many days. Condi Rice will call it a barbaric act of terrorism. Yet the murder of Palestinian innocence is met with 'both sides must show restraint' and 'we regret the death of non combatants.' It's fucking disgraceful. It should make us really fucking angry. Not because it's about a Jew or a Muslim - but because it's wrong, just plain wrong.

This attack will be met with bloody revenge by the IDF. There will be more carnage. More mothers will grieve the lost of their child. And the western media will continue its slanted reporting. Especially the American media. It's just not fair.

I don't have an anti-semitic bone in my body. Nor an anti-Islamic one. I don't view things within those narrow confines. Nor do i group people by the God they worship. The sad thing is, we have lost so much perspective on the Palestinian issue. We can't understand the readiness for violence expressed by many Palestinians. Even though its all they've known since 1947. Not a single generation since then has been raised in a normal environment. Not many haven't been raised in a refugee camp. None of them have tasted freedom.

The Israeli's deserve no less. On the contraire. But we continue to justify the extreme violence used by the collectively traumatized Jewish population, which, by the way, was our making. Perhaps it is guilt support, sort of like Dutch funding for the Srebrenica area.

All i know is that the Palestinian conflict should weigh heavily on our conscious. But sadly, it does not. I don't think any of us can claim that we don't have blood on our hands. And for that I am truly sorry. I am sorry and ashamed that we pretend to walk the high moral ground whilst turning a blind eye to their suffering. Or in America's case - helping one side against the other, instead of wielding its power and influence fairly and justly to create a viable peace.

No Jew or Muslim in Jerusalem (the place so many deem holy) will sleep well tonight. I don't think they have in a long time. Shame on CNN. Shame on us all. Sleep well my friends. The Palestinians won't.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bijeli Karton

Hmmm, I'm not sure what to write about today. I have a few things in mind. Why, for example, haven't i been to the protests. The joy of registering, or trying to register, oneself as a foreigner at the local police station. The fun I had translating, or rather interpreting, Laka's eurovision song. The snow storm that has nipped us in the butt. So hard to choose. I usually have a 'need' to write about something...but today is different for some reason.

Let's try my day(s) at the police station. Here it goes.

As a foreigner here in BiH, we are obliged to 'register' ourselves at the police station. Of course,at no point or time does anyone ever inform you of this. You have to figure this out all on your own. So when you cross the border or fly into Sarajevo, there is no mention of this 'legal' obligation to register yourself and get this coveted white card.

After figuring out which police station i had to visit I made my first of many attempts to 'register' myself. When I entered the station across from Tito's Barracks in Sarajevo there was a big sign on the reception door that insisted 'you must check in here before going further.' I, logically, did so. The cop looked at me like i had six heads...shrugged his soldiers and curtly asked me 'so why are you asking me, that's in room 4!.' Well, i thought, at least i got the information i needed. Room 4!

Off to room 4. I pass several no smoking signs screwed into the wall, barely noticeable from - you guessed it - the smoke filling the hallway from every single policeman that i encountered. So much for law and order huh. But the real treat was soon to come. Room 4. Just opening the door sent smoke bellowing out into the hall. A lone woman, chain smoking, handed me an uplatnica and a sort of guarantee letter that my 'host' had to fill out for me. So basically i had to get a notarized guarantee letter that I would be staying with my fiance and pay 5 KM into their account. What efficiency. So off I went.

So because the flat is registered to my punac and not my draga, i had to ask him to get the guarantee letter signed and ovjeri-ed in the municipality. Fairly painless. Got it done by the next day. Returned to the smoky station. This time, however, i went directly to room 4 like i was told last time. Out comes the same guy from reception, yelling at me for not checking in with him. Confused, i apologized, try to explain and figured it would be better to shut up and just get to room 4 as soon as possible.

This time the boss was there. The woman, still chain smoking, sat in the other chair....not doing much of anything. I handed in my paperwork, just like a school kid who had finished an assignment on time. He looked at me bewildered. "What is this?' he asked. "the papers you require for me to register myself' I replied. He shakes his head. Pulls out a list. Hands me a carton and a checklist of papers i need. "when you have all this, then come back.' I looked at the woman. No reaction. I told the gentleman that i was there yesterday and this was what the woman gave me. No further instructions. No checklist. No bijeli karton.

She flat out lied and told him she told me everything I needed the day before and went back to making love to her cigarette. I was given the bijeli karton, a form that was proof that my host was actually the owner of the property where i was staying - which, of course, had to be ovjeri-ed at the opstina. I needed a copy of my passport and a copy of the page with the stamp signifying which date i last entered BiH (if one did at all receive a stamp upon entering).

Hmmm. More than I thought. The Croats have a simple and effective system. Why are we so complicated. Then i chuckled at myself. We love to make things difficult for ourselves. We employ half the country with our difficultness.

So off i went back to my punac. To the copy kiosk. I went back for a third time a few days later. Two ovjera's, two photo copies of my passport and my stamp, one bijeli karton. All done. I was told to come back in a few days to get my stamped bijeli karton. We love stamps here. Nothing is real without them.

I thought I would be able to run in, grab my stamped bijeli karton, and get on with my day. The line was out the door and down the smoky hall. Several people cut in line and just went in ahead of all the people queuing. I knew that all i had to do was go in, take it and leave. I struggled to bring myself to just go ahead of everyone and do it. I started and stopped. Started and stopped. I couldn't do it. Damn America. They programmed me so i can't even skip the queue for christ sake.

So i waited. And waited. Observed the smoking policemen upholding the laws of the land. When i got close to the door i noticed two things. First, there was a complaint box - one that not only had never been opened but that had complaint box (for foreigners) written in Bosnian and cyrillic. That helps, huh. The second thing i noticed is that this department for the registration of foreigners had ALL the instructions, ALL the documents, EVERYTHING written only in Bosnian. What the hell, i thought?! What about all the Turks, Chinese, Germans, Americans, French? How the hell could they figure out anything? The simple answer is, they couldn't. You're screwed.

But if we get pulled over whilst driving by a lollypop holding drot, we have to produce a bijeli karton. And most foreigners ask 'But what bijeli karton?' And then the policeman snidely remarks ' you know you have to have a bijeli karton to be here!" So even though we don't need a visa to be here...we sort of do. And to be quite truthful, its almost more difficult to figure out how to get a bijeli karton than to process a visa.

So I listened to foreigners from close and afar complain about this 'system' and how it didn't make any sense. But dzabah...we all had to stand there nonetheless. My turn came. I entered to see the chain smoking woman - guess what - chain smoking. She wasn't doing anything, again or perhaps still. The friendly man handed me my bijeli karton with a smile.

I left the police station, smiling and smelling like a ash tray. It was as if i sat in a podrumski kafana for six hours. But i had my bijeli karton. Next stop - biro za zaplosavanje. I can hardly wait. Wish me luck.