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.



Ali da Hodza said...

Tuzla FTW !! Special people...

Steve H said...

Nice story - and your guidebook is great! I'd like to correspond about our mutual efforts to connect people with Bosnia today - please email via

Best regards

juancho said...

Hilary Clinton told me it was dangerous.

Two Dishes said...

Hi Tim! I live in Brooklyn and am taking years to make it through Death and the Dervish and I discovered your blog while looking via Google for Selimovic info.
Then your name sounded really familiar and I realized you wrote the travel guide.
Thanks much for that.
I was in Sarajevo around New Years for a week or so in 2006 using your guide -- liked it much.
I went down around Mostar and some villages on the high plain near Mostar too, as well as the Tekke on the book cover.
I'm on your Green Visions mailing list and hope to come again sometime for a village excursion or rafting. Hey, here is a link to an image from the war, commemorating the defense of Tuzla. I scanned it from a book I bought in Sarajevo that you probably have seen. Link to pic:

Two Dishes said...